Product Designer at Duolingo
Kyle
Ruane

Multidisciplinary designer from the Steel City who has done a little of everything, currently focused on language proficiency assessment at Duolingo.

he/him • Pittsburgh, United States • December 21, 2022

What led you into design?

Growing up, I was always the “art kid” in my class, since drawing came pretty easy to me. I was extremely lucky in that my school had a great art program which allowed me to explore different disciplines and mediums. However, like many kids, I found most traditional art boring. I was interested in cartoons, sports, and video games—things with dynamic colors, motion, and attitude. I was much more influenced by Nike commercials than the stuff in the museum. Instead of painting landscapes or throwing pottery, I wanted to make things like the mascot and uniforms for a new professional sports team or the stage setup and merch for a hair metal band.

Somewhere along the line, I realized that those types of things were design and, as far as I could tell, design seemed a legitimate career, so I started moving in that direction pretty early on. The internet reinforced that. My parents got the family a computer when I was 14, my hometown got extremely spotty internet access a few months later, and I’ve been online ever since. I learned HTML in a high school class and started building personal websites (like a stat tracker for my Wiffle ball league). I eventually became adept enough to build sites for a few clients, and then realized web design was an actual job you could have.

What does a typical day look like?

Mornings are an eternal battle between the part of me that loves to be up and moving before the rest of the world and the part that wants to stay in bed. I aspire to be a morning person, but my body doesn’t always cooperate. This is usually addressed with coffee. I also try to wake my brain up with a crossword puzzle and a Duolingo lesson.

I help see the kids out the door and then walk or catch a bus to the office. I’m most productive before lunch so I try to get in as early as I can to maximize that window. I start by creating a punch list of tasks for the day—typical work-related things like IC work that needs to be done, meetings, organization, etc., but also habit-building things like “take 30 mins to read” otherwise I would never do them.

I work on a fairly new and autonomous team within the company and I am wearing a few different hats while we grow. Time is split between production work, strategy, scheduling/planning, and role managing. My day reflects that. I typically have a couple of team or cross-functional meetings, a 1:1 or 2, a few hours blocked off to bang out actual design work, and some documentation squeezed wherever possible. Switching between vastly different contexts is always a delicate balancing act, and some days I handle it better than others.

When I wrap up for the day, I briefly reflect on the progress made and write down any helpful notes to my future self. I’ve found that this gives some closure to the day and helps me better separate work and home life.

What's your workstation setup?

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Where do you go to get inspired?

For me, inspiration is about finding the right mind space and not about being pointed in the right conceptual direction. I don’t draw much inspiration from looking through other product designers’ work. It actually feels like that often stunts creativity. However, noticing other creative solutions is a catalyst. Looking at things like clever song lyrics, a science fiction story's twist ending, how a city building fits perfectly within its odd-shaped lot, or an unexpected take on a sandwich and imagining what decisions led to this outcome moves me into the right frame of mind.

Managing stress and anxiety also helps immensely. It’s easier said than done, but when I feel lost in looking for a creative spark, I almost always need to address that first.

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

Future Fonts

I love typeface design. It’s one of those crafts that feels so approachable since we all have so much exposure to type and fonts, but so intricate and mysterious in terms of how it’s done. What Future Fonts does by being a marketplace for independent type designers to sell and showcase works in progress is brilliant. Incentivizing designers to release early versions of a typeface and iterate in public has pulled back the curtain a bit in regard to the process. And, while it’s fascinating to see how different designers approach a project, it is also great to be able to fund further development of something that looks promising. The concept has resulted in a collection of unique fonts and given some smaller names a place to shine—a great design execution that is facilitating more great design.

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A few of my favorites: Criolla Sans, Henrietta, Name Sans, Kyrios

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What pieces of work are you most proud of?

In 2013, a couple of friends and I launched a simple website building platform aimed at small businesses with the intention of removing as much UI as possible. We thought that most of the people that relied on a website to communicate critical things about their business lacked the time and technical acumen to update it regularly. After years of explaining to clients how to log into an admin panel and submit forms to change their site content, we thought “What if you could simply click on your site and edit it in place?”

We wanted cafe owners to be able to update their menu in seconds, for bands to add new gigs from their phones, and for bloggers to write in the exact context in which their posts would appear to the public.

This came with some huge challenges. From a conceptual standpoint, how do you design something that isn’t there? If the main value proposition is that there is no UI, how do people use it? From a business perspective, we were entering an established market with massive competitors.

We launched an MVP that gained some attention and press coverage, then iterated on user pain points for a second version that was much more of a polished offering. Unfortunately, we never gained traction and shut it down. This was incredibly disappointing since it felt like we had a solid product and branding (”Barley,” our UI was “barely” there, constrained to a “bar” that appeared above your site once logged in), and a real shot at a decent slice of the market.

I am super proud of what we were able to accomplish with the limited resources at our disposal. I still think the UI was slick, sort of similar to what you see in document editors now with various tools appearing in certain contexts.

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What design challenges do you face at your company?

The design function as a whole has been dealing with various growing pains as the size of the company continues to increase. We’ve reached the point where productive meetings with the entire roster of designers are essentially unmanageable. They also simply make less sense since groups of designers on specific teams are large enough that they can run their own focused crits or brainstorms. I’m currently part of a team that has much fewer design resources than others (I was the lone designer for a long time) which means I tend to miss out on a lot of that experience and need to be proactive about feeling connected to the rest of the company.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

A trend I’ve noticed in hiring the past few years is that many young designers are extremely skilled when it comes to UX and research but are lacking in terms of visual design. Knowing users’ motivations and what metrics might drive success is important, but it almost feels like table stakes at this point. Developing your craft and producing designs that work but also look great will help you gain the respect of your peers and truly set you apart.

Something I wish I could tell a younger version of myself is how critical networking is, especially if you live outside of a major tech hub. Work on building relationships and put in the effort to maintain them. You will need someone to celebrate with, provide a referral, or simply listen more often than you think.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

Duolingo is hiring! Come work with me on making education universally available.

I also sometimes put mediocre drawings on t-shirts on Cotton Bureau. Check them out if that’s your thing.

interview