Creative Lives — ustwo senior product designer Joyce Li: “It’s okay to not know everything”
It was only three years ago that Joyce Li arrived in London from Hong Kong with her life’s possessions in tow, no job, and next to no connections. A tip from a friend of a friend led her to apply for a job at digital agency ustwo, where she has worked happily ever since. As senior product designer, much of her day is spent researching and prototyping, finding smart solutions to foreseen problems. With a training in graphic design and a strong knowledge of coding, Joyce takes us through the essential know-how for her role and how she made it work for her.
Senior Product Designer at ustwo, full-time (2014–present)
Senior Designer, DesignerCity (now part of Mirum), Hong Kong (2010–2013)
Digital Graphics Communication, Hong Kong Baptist University (2006–2009)
How would you describe your job?
A lot of my job is identifying problems, then building the best experience to solve them. This means doing a lot of research and user testing, creating prototypes to validate our ideas and iterate on them. We try to fail and learn as fast as possible to make sure we are on the right track. Sometimes it also means I won’t be designing the most beautiful, but the most impactful and delightful, solution to a problem.
What does a typical working day look like?
In the studio we work flexible hours. I usually start my day at 10am to avoid the crowds, whereas some peeps might start as early as 7.30am. I live quite close by, it takes me 30 minutes door-to-door on the overground to get to work. Typically we start the day with 15-minute stand-up, where everyone talks about what happened yesterday, and what they will be doing today. We tend to work on one project at a time, so I spend most of the time with my project team and the client. I also split some of my time with mentoring and workshops in the studio for fellow designers. It’s great to be in touch with all the designers outside of your project team and exchange ideas.
How did you land your current job?
I moved to London from Hong Kong with nearly zero connections. I found out about ustwo through a friend of a friend, a UX designer. She thought it would be a cool studio for me to look up. I Googled it and immediately fell in love with the open, diverse culture – I sent my CV and portfolio, and here I am.
“ I Googled [ustwo] and immediately fell in love with the open, diverse culture – I sent my CV and portfolio, and here I am.”
Joyce at work
Where does the majority of your work take place?
I’m usually in the studio. Each project has its designated area where we put our work on the wall and discuss around the table. I would say I spend half of my time at my desk with my headphones, and the other half with other designers or developers. We work in a very collaborative way to make design decisions together as a team. It can be overwhelming with all those conversations in one day, but they help to align everyone’s thinking, and also encourage an open culture for feedback. Sometimes when I want some air and a break, I will grab my laptop and go to our cafe in the studio.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The best part is always the sketching session with the whole team, kick-starting a new feature. This is when everyone unleashes their creativity and contributes their ideas. It’s always amazing to see all the concepts people have in mind – it’s also surprising to see how similar ideas can be. Great minds think alike!
“We are in a super-fast-paced industry where we have new technology every day.”
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Working on Moodnotes as the product lead was one of the most eye-opening experiences. Moodnotes is a CBT-based [Cognitive Behavioural Therapy] journal tool that ustwo launched as a joint venture together with Thriveport’s two clinical psychologists in LA. It was like running a mini startup and the team was tiny. As a designer I spent loads of time refining the user experience and crafting pixels. As a product lead, you have a very different perspective when approaching the same problem – it was about priority and making the most impactful decision. Often there was a conflict of interest when I switched between the designer and product lead hats. Being able to zoom out and look at the product as a whole business has definitely helped me to become a better designer. As much as I enjoyed working on the project, I felt massive pressure to drive the product forward – I was completely out of my comfort zone! It took me a long while to learn that it’s OK to not know everything.
This project is probably the most emotional one I’ve worked on; we received so many emails from users about how they were using Moodnotes and how it changed their lives. Knowing the product is helping someone in the world somewhere every day is a very strong motivation to continue working on it, even it was crazy stressful!
What skills are essential to your job?
I guess among all skills, I would say the ability to learn and adapt to changes quickly is one of the most crucial skills. We are in a super-fast-paced industry where we have new technology every day. Always be curious about what’s out there – things are changing rapidly so sometimes just referring to past experience can be inadequate.
Another skill would be storytelling and communication; being able to explain the rationale behind decisions and convince the team and a client to buy into your design!
The Moodnotes app
Joyce at work
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a primary school teacher like my mum. Then I realised it was a tremendous responsibility, so I started considering other career paths like human resource management, purely because I wanted to work in areas that focus on people (I wasn’t aware of the amount of paperwork needed at the time). Nothing very related to design.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Purely from a skill perspective, I acquired them mostly through working with different people and projects, in a way my university education didn’t train me to be a perfect designer. However, what it offered was an opportunity to experience different aspects of design. I discovered I was more interested in editorial design than in 3D animation or video production. It was fun to try out different things, but I could focus on areas I was passionate about.
What were your first jobs?
I started as a junior designer at a small design production house in Hong Kong. I was responsible for designing and developing the front-end html on my own. At the time, I had zero knowledge of html and CSS, so I taught myself how to code – I would bug our developer every day (we became good friends since). It gave me a solid knowledge of CSS so I could communicate with developers efficiently and make changes when necessary.
“Find what you really want to do. This is what you will be spending most of your life doing! Don’t waste it on things you don’t care about.”
Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
Early on in my career I met a creative director (Marco) who gave me complete freedom in design. I was too ambitious; I remember staying in the office until midnight trying to come up with new wild ideas. Now when I look back, 99% of those ideas were pretty bad, but Marco would still let me explore them and give guidance when I was off-track. When there were pitches for new client work, he would ask me to submit a design. As a junior designer, getting involved in a pitch was a rare opportunity and Marco created a safety net for me. I learnt so much by failing, working my way through different projects. He was also the one who encouraged me to get out my comfort zone and move to London!
What’s been your biggest challenge?
I once had a client saying they hate the visual design of the whole product, two weeks before the launch. At the time the whole team was shocked and didn’t know how to react.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I’d say the tasks I need to do as a designer are more or less what I expected.
In the studio
The view from the studio
What would you like to do next?
If I am honest, I am not entirely sure! Three years ago I moved my entire life from Hong Kong to London and it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. I’d like to work remotely and live in Tokyo for a year, expose myself to different cultures and meet creatives around the world.
Could you do this job forever?
This industry is changing every day. I can’t even tell if this job is going to exist forever. But I can say that whatever I do, it will always be creative.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Being a lead designer or product lead, depending on your interest in design or product management.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a product designer?
Build your portfolio with the work you want people to pay you to do. I still remember the magical moment when I was working alone at 3am as if I had unlimited energy, thinking “This is so great, I could do this forever, plus people are giving me money too! This is a dream!” Find your passion and be honest to yourself about what you really want to do. This is what you will be spending most of your life doing! Don’t waste it on things you don’t care about.
This article is part of our In the Studio With feature on ustwo.