Ep 05: Tregg Frank on creating authentic design work with AI and impactful research

Ep 05: Tregg Frank on creating authentic design work with AI and impactful research

Episode Description

The Designers With Impact podcast is back for a new season, with the first episode since this project's name change. And I couldn't have wished for a better guest to kick things off!

Tregg Frank is a designer focused on net-good projects, currently designing accessibility workflow tools at Stark.

He's also founder of Divinate, a tool he is building to help research teams quickly go from interview to insight while cutting out all the busy work that can often stifle their impact.

I really enjoyed how expansive this chat was, with Tregg covering a wide range of impact-related topics. He generously shares his thoughts on...

  • Using AI tools to create authentic design work
  • Positioning design as a revenue generator, not a cost centre
  • Is Product Design the right career choice for you?
  • Why quality research matters, and how to express it's value
  • Using empathy to build the case for accessibility work

Connect with Tregg and his projects....

🐦 twitter.com/treggify
🌐 tre.gg
🌐 degreeless.design (Free design resources and Tregg's Substack)
🌐 divinate.co (Discover user research insights without the tedious busywork)

Episode Transcript

Tom: Welcome to Designers with Impact. I'm your host, Tom Prior, and for this episode I was joined by Tregg Frank. Tregg is a product designer based in Denver, Colorado, currently working on tools for better accessibility workflow at Stark. In this episode, we cover the impact of AI on creating authentic design work, why product design might not actually be the best career path for many, and how comparing yourself with other designers can be helpful if you have really clear job aspirations.

We also discussed Tregg's approach to getting buy in for accessibility work and how empathy with stakeholders can be critical to making it happen. Tregg also gives us a scoop on Divinate, the tool he is building to help research teams quickly go from interview to insight while cutting out all the busy work that can often stifle their impact.

Hope you enjoy this chat with Tregg as much as I did.  

Tom: Welcome, Tregg. How you doing, man? It's great to have you here.

Tregg: Yeah, I'm doing good.  

Tom: You were kind enough to have a call with me recently where We touched on a few interesting design things. But you also brought my, uh, metal band knowledge way, way up to speed because we realized how out of date my taste in music is.

Tom: But this podcast is not about Mel, sadly. Um, what are we going to cover today? Few of the areas that we're going to try and touch on are the impact of career choices  

Tom: It would be remiss of us not to acknowledge the rough market that's out there at the moment. There's an awful lot of layoffs happening, a lot of uncertainty. We're recording this beginning of Feb 2024, and it feels like it's been a few months of bad news.

Tom: A lot of people might be reflecting on what's next for them, what the future of design really looks for them as a career. What is the situation you're seeing in the states and what's your thoughts maybe on what's what's driving that right now?

Tom: Yeah

Tregg: in tech in the past, in the past year. I think it, it, it's almost up to like two years now that we've had a rolling, uh, layoff thing happening. Really, the market's been so weird since 2020. I worked at a direct to consumer healthcare startup.

Tregg: We did clear liners. And so when the pandemic hit, it was like, immediately no one wants. To do anything with their teeth. No one has extra money Like there's just like so many reasons why that business overnight lost like 98 percent of their business And so like there were layoffs in that and the people were like laying off because they're afraid but then VCs had all this money and there's all this hiring and so we had this like weird like push and pull where like suddenly Companies have enough money to hire people and, uh, you know, the, the YouTubes of the world are doing great because everyone's at home watching videos and so they hire a bunch of people and then there's like a pullback or something.

Tregg: 22 had in the U. S. extremely high interest rates. I'm not an economist I don't know, but basically like it becomes like actually our dollars are, they don't go as far anymore And so it's like, you know, I'm sure you've seen people joke about like the zero interest rate phenomenon, ZERP where like, uh Dude who's 18 years old and moves to San Francisco could raise 30 million dollars for his NFT startup.

Tregg: Like, that, that phenomenon's not here anymore. Which means that all those jobs that were created by that, no longer exist because that money either dried up, or, uh, investors expect it to dry up, and, um, or, you know, shareholders for, like, bigger tech companies, they expect it to dry up and they want To be in a position where they know that they're secure for longer.

Tregg: And the way you do that is by cutting costs. And the first things that you cut are things that look like cost centers, not profit centers. So, like research and strategy teams, marketing, HR, um, often designers. If that's like, I would say designers are like, after most of those other groups. Kind of depends on the organization you're looking at.

Tregg: Um, Different like product areas that seem like they're just like burning money. Those will get cut even if the company's not yet in a position to be, um, but concerned. It's just like when you're a publicly traded company, you have like fiduciary responsibility, like legal responsibility to your shareholders.

Tregg: I mean literally today I saw, uh, I it was someone in the U S government. Talking about how great the economy is and like, look, we created like X million jobs and then all the tech people are like, well, it doesn't feel great because we're in this like interesting place where we're like, People are expecting it to get worse than it is.

Tregg: Um, and so they're treating it like it's worse than it is. And so then people are getting laid off and then like, there's this huge well of really good talent trying to break in or trying to get back in. Um, and then like, There's just like not enough room. Um, also hiring is hard. So it's like, you have, you know, thousands of seemingly good applications come into a single role.

Tregg: Um, yeah, it's just a very weird market right now. It's very odd.

Tom: It feels very strange, there are layoffs happening here. It's, it feels a bit of a gloomy environment, this is probably the biggest downturn that I've seen as far as jobs and positivity for a long time in 20 years in design.

Tregg: But what's interesting is like, to me, I think this is one of the most exciting times for tech. I feel like this is, we're at the base of something really, really cool that we're about to, we're about to see some big shifts in the type of work people are doing and the type of like products people are making, uh, and the, the things that AI is enabling so exciting and so wild that like, Yeah, it feels like a bad time, but I think we're about to hit a way cooler period than even, like, 2009 with the App Store.

Tregg: I think it's, I think it's a cooler era we're coming into.

Tom: Maybe expand on, on what you see around the horizon. Cause a lot of people in this, in our industry actually see that as a double whammy. Like there's shit loads of layoffs, but also AI is coming for our jobs. You don't, you don't see it as the big threat.

Tom: You see it as the opportunity.

Tregg: Yeah, definitely not a threat. I remember, probably ten years ago, I have a stepbrother. He's, , Six years younger than me, something like that. He's an engineer, a network engineer.

Tregg: And so he's very like linear thinking and he was really into the ideas of like, AI and automation in robotics when it was like not even a conversation most people were having 10 years ago, you know, and he showed me this video that was about quantum computers and automation. And the video posited that the first things to go would be creative jobs.

Tregg: Which is interesting because it was the opposite of what most people were saying. Uh, and then it was like, um, we'll be able to, with a quantum computer, generate every melody for like music ever. Um, In 10 seconds. And so like, what's the point of making music anymore? It's kind of what they're positing.

Tregg: And I remember having a visceral negative reaction to that. Like, first of all, it didn't feel possible, but also like, I didn't have words to describe it, but you know, 10 years later now, I know that there already are tools. To generate melodies, and there have been for a long time, and just generating something doesn't mean that anyone wants to listen to it.

Tregg: Like, I can hit randomize, and then save and print, and like, you know, export a, a, a song, and like, It doesn't mean that it's good.

Tregg: People look for authenticity. In music, I would say majority of people there are other things people like in music Obviously people like technical aspects of it. People are attracted to different types of you know Sound textures and things like that Like if you you know go to Pandora it can tell you sort of like the things you like, which is kind of cool It's like you like minor you like harmonic minor and you like, you know, these sort of textures which is kind of cool people have those things they look for, but what people really, really like is the artist or like the author's hand behind the song.

Tregg: They like the intention. And so I can hit randomize and print something, but who's going to listen to it unless it's, I had something I wanted to say. And so I shifted through, I went through all of the generated melodies and I found the one. And I reworked it, and I cut and spliced it with this thing, and I made it mean what I wanted it to mean.

Tregg: Um, there, that to me is what makes, like, art and music worth listening to, is that someone had an intention and then did something with it. Like, in the music world, there's been a long standing debate about presets. And so if you, like, download a synth, you can Choose a preset and go people like, ah, how could you write based off a preset?

Tregg: I mean, you've probably seen this video and if not, there's a, you know, the gorilla song, um, Clint Eastwood

Tom: Hmm. Yes.

Tregg: the do do do do that like intro part that literally is a preset on a certain Synthesizer you just they pushed a preset button and that is the song they added

Tom: didn't know that. I love that chain. Like it's a total banger, but yeah, I had no idea.

Tregg: see that video.

Tregg: It's wild. Cause it's literally like, um, it's a, it's a, I think it's called a Omnicord. The, the synthesizers that it came from. Um, and it's literally just a preset. Uh, but they use the preset and made it into something that had their intention behind it. They were telling a story with the tools they had.

Tregg: And if you think about it, uh, Guitar is a preset. You find a guitar that has a certain type of wood, that has a certain type of pickups, certain type of strings, you know, 6 string, 7 string, 8 string, uh, maybe it's, you know, baritone scale length, maybe it's short scale length, but all those things are a preset that you put your hand on and make it into something else.

Tregg: So all of that to say, AI doesn't scare me at all because these things are enablers and they create presets. If one of your stated goals is to replace jobs, that's nefarious and not cool. But if you're creating something that like, hey, I want to make tools that artists can use to get somewhere faster.

Tregg: It's no different to me than Uh, than stock images. Like, it's, it's roughly the same thing. If you just take a stock image and put it on your blog, okay, cool, like, do something more with that, that stock footage, or that stock, that stock image. Um, that's what, like, generative AI, especially in the image world, is roughly just creating presets.

Tregg: Like, I've used AI generated imagery for degree lists for Div and Eight, both my side projects, and I think at a glance you wouldn't be able to know, um, and at the very least you wouldn't know that it wasn't just that I, like, generated something, but I used it as, like, textures, I used it, I did editing to it, like, I, it's like a stock photo, I did more with it.

Tregg: I think, like, often if I'm, if I'm working on, uh, writing something, um, you know, using generative AI for writing, um, is like, it feels like molding, uh, Clay. I think, like, uh, Patrick Rothfuss, the guy who wrote Name of the Wind, um, he talked about how when he wrote the first book, that he, it took him, like, 15 years?

Tregg: He was just like It was a project that he was working on. He didn't ever expect to publish it, but he was writing this thing and then like he would go back over and it was like he was molding it and shaping it, um, at a holistic level, which is kind of cool to think of writing as like less page by page and more like this whole thing.

Tregg: And when I'm using generative AI, if I write an outline, I have it generate something and then I take it back and I edit it and then I give it back and I say, okay, now is there anything in here that doesn't make sense I need to fix? Like to me, it feels like that sort of process where I'm working with the AI.

Tregg: A lot of people think that they can just generate content and paste it into their blog or have it even automatically get pasted into their blog and that means something. And that's the same thing to me as just hitting generate on a melody. It's like, it's cool to start with a generated melody, but if your intention's not there, if there's not a human in the loop, then there's not really a reason for me to care about it.

Tregg: People will feel that out, and that will be filtered out pretty quick. But I don't think there's anything wrong with using the tool.

Tregg: It's really good at getting rid of the blank page problem. Like, that's kind of the main thing. It's like, hey, like, I want to write a blog post, can you help me write an outline? And it, like, that's one of the most powerful ways to get started. I've written more in the past year than Probably since college or if, if not even like more than I have written in my life in the past year.

Tregg: Uh, and I think part of that is like having access to generative AI tools that helps the, the ideas get going. Like I literally, for degree lists, um, I have a list of 50 something topics. And most of those were like, I asked it, Hey, like let's make a list. Here's like the things I've written about already.

Tregg: Let's list out more topics that are like this. I have very strong opinions about things. So I want to like write candidly and honestly, and I want like content that's like deep cuts that you can't find everywhere. And it listed out a bunch of stuff.

Tregg: Now I can like pull from this big huge list and be like, Oh yeah, I have like a ton of things to say about that. I pull it out and then I start writing and it's like this, it is a very collaborative back and forth thing.

Tom: Talking of, um, your writing, actually, um, I've been checking out your sub stack and there was a, an article in there that really caught my eye, which is, is product design the right career for you? What do you see as the reasons many people are going into product design that perhaps mean it's not going to be a great fit for them? And what are maybe some better ways for them to sort of test the product design waters and understand if there are alternative routes that might be more, more appropriate for them?  

Tregg: I wrote that after I kicked off, uh, an ADP list, uh, account.

Tregg: I was doing at least four a week for a couple of months. Um, I did a bunch of sessions with people, uh, and Something I saw reoccurring was, like, there were people who were really good and they just needed some direction.

Tregg: Or people with, like, a ton of potential, and I could see the potential, who were very junior. And it's like, okay, cool, here's the things to work on, um, check these boxes and, and then you'll be, you'll be good to go. Uh, and then there was a, uh, probably the majority that were people who were pulled in through the promise of an easy job that pays really high.

Tregg: Through courses and sincerely, I, I'm a big Google fan. I would love to, to work for Google one day. Okay. But the Google UX course is like the number one culprit. Like is every single person that it felt like, Hey, you actually had a good job. And then you were pulled in to UX land by Google. And it's like, they have the same portfolios.

Tregg: Where it's, they did the same three projects for Google's UX course. They're presented the same way. They do a persona, and their persona is on their portfolio. By the way, delete your personas. Don't put those in your portfolio. Um, I would not interview someone who has a persona on their portfolio. But I, I also would say that to the, to the people I was, uh, you know, mentoring and be like, take that off. Maybe don't put that there. Um, but anyway, it was like the same format they do. Uh, it's a persona and like a, a high level, like user journey map. And then it's like, here's a wireframe and here's some screens.

Tregg: And my student projects probably looked similar to that. Um, but it's so, you know, Commoditized, that it's like impossible to stand out amongst a crowd of thousands of people who are doing the free Google UX course and trying to break in that like And there's no wonder that a junior design role, if it even exists, cause those are so rare now, um, if someone posts one, they get thousands of applications and they all look the same.

Tregg: And so my question is like, if you don't want to put in the extra work to look different, which is fine. If putting in the extra work, it feels like a chore, then it's probably not the right role for you. You know, if you're having a really hard time breaking it, if you took this course and you're like, Hey, this sounds like a good, like role that's kind of easy.

Tregg: I can work from home and I'll make a bunch of money. Um, but then you can't break in, um, or you're not passionate about it. And like, here's a list of other things that you could probably do that are similar. Maybe the thing that you liked wasn't design. Cause I don't think most people should be designers.

Tregg: But maybe the thing you liked is actually. product thinking, which is totally valid and a skill that's highly rewarded in the industry with product management. Maybe you should do that. Like if you like making stuff that looks good, then product design is probably not for you because it's part of it, but you could just be a graphic designer.

Tregg: And that's cool. Matter of fact, I think a lot of product designers kind of wish they were graphic designers.

Tom: Oh, yeah.

Tregg: I think like, if you liked the process of doing research and strategizing, but you didn't actually like the part of making the screens, UX research and strategy, that's an option.

Tregg: If you like the idea of working on tech, but you can't break in because you're not a good designer, if you like, genuinely look at your work and you compare it to the people who have the jobs that you want, And there's a huge delta, maybe you could try engineering. You know enough about UX that maybe you'd be a good front end engineer.

Tregg: And maybe you have enough of an eye to tell what's good, but you don't have the ability to make something that's good on your own? Front end engineering might be for you. Um, and obviously there are front end engineers who are better designers than most designers. Like, that

Tom: Oh my God, man. When you find them, they're just like, hold them close. Although they're very annoying. They're so good at everything. I wanted to touch on the point you made about graphic design, it's not art, but it feels more like art. It feels, but really design is business. I feel, and it, there is this, this conflicT.  

Tregg: Starting out in design, I didn't really know that like UX was a thing. What's funny is like I had designed websites, um, and like that, that's the way I got into design was through like the web making neopass profiles. Yeah, that was really cool in 5th grade. Just making websites for like school projects and stuff.

Tregg: Um, and then, when I was in my band, I was in a metal band, Um, I started making our t shirts and our album art, and I found that I loved that. So when I went to school for design, I was thinking graphic design. That was my intention. Um, and what I actually ended up finding was that like, Yeah, I, I love graphic design.

Tregg: I love really good design. I love architecture. I love like the actual like physical product design. All that stuff is super fascinating to me, but it's so opinion based regardless of what they would let you think. It's all about your taste and your opinion. And when you're communicating something to a client, cause it's almost always a client service thing.

Tregg: It's very rare that. You're making something for yourself. It's a sales focused role way more than people realize it is. And you're selling something based on an opinion. So it's like, there is a level of like objectivity a little bit. Like you can prove that like this ad campaign worked, but you can't really prove that it worked because of the exact visual treatment versus like, The copywriting that went into it, or like if we had done it like 5 percent different, would it be XYZ?

Tregg: Like, if my leading was wider, would that have made it perform better or worse? Like, you can't really measure graphic design. So for me, it was like, I don't know, I did that, I love making visual design for myself. I hate. I hate selling it to people. I hate working for a stakeholder. Um, because like they'll have thoughts and opinions.

Tregg: I'm sure that graphic designers think the same about product design where they're like, You're going to leave it up to the user's ability to understand the thing.

Tregg: Um, you're going to like run tests on it.  

I wanted to kind of tie in on, on two threads that you were talking about because you also talked about portfolios before and how everyone's looks the same.

Tom: And for me, one of the most important lessons I learned. Around the importance of business concepts of the designer was differentiation. Like once I understood that differentiation strategy, playing to your strengths, understanding what to invest in, what not to investing intentionally is so powerful.  

Tom: I'd love to understand where that penny first started dropping for you

Tregg: For one, as a product designer, your portfolio and side projects as well, which we'll get into. Um, that's like the place to play around and do the, do the stuff that feels a little bit more like art, but you're still accomplishing the goals of design. I had really good professors in school, I got lucky.

Tregg: Um, I had professors who had jobs at Amazon, I had professors who were like, part of the first wave of UX designers when like, most. Good UX designers worked at agencies. That was a thing for a minute. Uh, at least it was here in the U. S. I don't know. Um, but anyway, um, They, uh, They told us that design is competitive.

Tregg: And even if you, like, You went as an industry, you went together, Like, I still knew that when I was going to graduate, I would be applying for some of the same jobs that my classmates were applying for. Um, so I knew off the bat that I needed to stand out amongst my own peers. Um, that doesn't often make friends, if you say those things out loud.

Tregg: But, but it's true that like, you know, I look around at people's work and like, I need to be the best in this classroom, first of all. Okay. And then once I got to that point where I felt like I was like one of the best in the classroom. And that's the other thing is like, as I was doing that, I saw that, oh, like I have a friend, Will.

Tregg: Who is an amazing graphic designer and type designer and he could not care less about UX. He gets it. He knows how it works because he took classes and he was, uh, he tried hard at everything he did, but he like just didn't care about it at all. Now, and my, I have another friend, you know, uh, Chris von Bursk, same kind of thing.

Tregg: His graphic design is just like so good. It's so hard to explain how, um, His type is just like expressive and weird. I got to see people who would fall into the thing that they were good at. Um, you know, I had several friends who were like really good at graphic design and they had their own sort of lane that they were aiming for.

Tregg: Like, um, like my friend Will, he's like, like I said, good at type, but his stuff feels like expensive restaurants. It's like five star restaurants. Uh, and it's like craft breweries. Like he's like, he kind of spans that gamut. Um, and she fell into that niche like perfectly. And I have another friend who she, uh, right out of school got a job at SendGrid.

Tregg: I actually technically referred her to that because they had offered me the job and I turned it down. But I was like, please talk to her. And she ended up there. Um, but it worked out great because she is like so analytical. She's very much like A, B, C, like could almost be an engineer. Um, but she's like just such a good system thinking UX designer.

Tregg: And it's like, as I was going through school, I got to see people fall into the thing that they were good at. Um, and so like identifying the thing I was good at, which I don't even know if I could put into words now at the time, what I had focused on was multimodal connected experiences. So I would design.

Tregg: for multiple devices at once. Um, I was good at thinking about the difference between like a smartwatch versus an Alexa skill versus you know, a mobile app, etc. and how they all connect and orchestrate together. And that is what got me my first job out of school. Um, so I like found a thing that was interesting to me at least at the time.

Tregg: And that became my sole focus. Um, and like, I, on my portfolio, I, I said explicitly, like, DREG does multi modal connected experiences. And I had like a little thing, when you would hover over that, it would tell you what it meant, if you didn't know. Um, and so I was like very focused on that. And the projects I showed you were those.

Tregg: I showed you, here's a project that has a phone and a desktop app. And, uh, it was like smart camera, like a Camera, camera, um, like that student project that was that, and then it was like my thesis project was about that. I focused on those things, uh, and any work that wasn't that I took off because I didn't want to be the guy that like got a job that I didn't want because I had it on my portfolio, which is totally a thing.

Tregg: Like I can do motion design. I've done motion design at almost every job I've worked at. But if I have to do motion design full time, I will die. I cannot do it. Like, it just, it's fun for like a set amount of time, and then it's one of those roles where you are in After Effects for 50 hours a week, and that's it.

Tregg: Whew, it's rough. And it's like you spend hours on like 3 seconds, and then someone's like, Can you change this thing? And it's like, Cool, I'll take another 50 hours. Anyway. Yeah, so I think my portfolio is like that now, um, too. I, I very much like the stuff I work on. is, um, net good for people. I've done financial health, um, I've done building confidence with straighter teeth.

Tregg: I've done, uh, mental health application and accessibility. So, like, everything is kind of in that, like, same space of, like, it's generally just good for people. Um, that's, like, my thing now. That's what I focus on. And also, like, I know business. And I want to do good design that meets business needs. So when you look at your portfolio, I would say, like, Strip back anything that you don't want.

Tregg: So if you have motion design and you don't want to do motion, take it off. Uh, if you have a bunch of graphic design projects, and you don't want to do graphic design, you shouldn't have those on there. And the opposite is true too. If you want to do logo design, but you have a bunch of like, uh, packaging projects and you hate doing packaging, you're gonna get packaging work.

Tregg: That's just like, people give you the work that they see. Um, and also, something I felt, As I was, uh, graduating was like, you know, um, I have my lane and now that I know my classmates are like the best in the class for the thing that they've kind of like found, I need to look beyond my class and also I'm, I'm from Denver, um, there's a, uh, I have a lot of thoughts generally about like pedigree, but right now we still in the U S especially, I'm sure you feel it.

Tregg: Uh, in it globally, because it's probably, uh, there's probably tiers to this, but coming from Denver felt like I was coming from a down position. Like if I had gone to school in San Francisco or New York, it would have been much easier to break into a fang company or like to be a part of the industry.

Tregg: Whereas coming from Denver, I had to fight to become a part of the industry because like I didn't know people who were into tech here. I knew people in metal bands and I knew graphic designers. And like, the biggest companies here in Denver still generally are like Telecom companies like we have Comcast we have these companies like and the reason for that is like we in Denver really laid Fiber and wire we have a Internet relay in I think it's in Boulder.

Tregg: It's in Colorado anyway So like a lot of those telecom companies were here and so there's a lot of design jobs, but it's like The most boring possible job. Sorry if anyone here were listening works at Comcast But like

Tregg: I saw that there was this ceiling so I had to break out of that And so I would what I would do is I would go to dribble I would go to the companies that I wanted to work for so like I would go to Google I would go to You know Twitter or whatever companies had dribble accounts I would go to the company's account and I would look at all the designers on their team And open up every single one of their profiles and look at their portfolio.

Tregg: And then I would open up my portfolio and their portfolio, and I would A, B. And like, do I look like I belong in this company? If the answer is no, then like, it's time to fix the delta and make myself look more like that. Like, I know a lot of people talk about not comparing yourself, and that's true. But also, realistically, to a certain point, you have to compare yourself to get in.

Tregg: Once you're in and you're confident, stop comparing yourself. Don't look at what, like this guy, you know, got a job at a startup that sold for a billion and now he's a millionaire and he can do whatever he wants. Like that's cool. And you should be happy for him. Don't compare your work to him. Or like there are the rare individuals who are just so good that their work is.

Tregg: out of the gate. And like, that's awesome. But, uh, to get in, you have to compare for a minute. Compare with people who are above your pay grade. That's what I always

Tom: it. Right. Look to where you want to want to go when you're doing the comparison and be inspired by I feel the same like, you know, you can't help but comparing occasionally. I'll be like that person. I should be kind of on a similar track to them and it tends to give me motivation. I can see why it makes people feel down.

Tregg: I work at a startup that I, it was a dream job when I was offered it and I'm like super happy here and I'm working on my own things, but I still feel even though I like my first job out of school broke me out of Denver, I went to New York and I met people and I'm like, I feel like I'm in the industry, right?

Tregg: But I still feel that being from Denver and not having a thing company on my, uh, my resume puts me in a down position in conversation. Um, but, but. I come from like punk and heavy music. So a part of me is like, that makes me want to win even harder. Uh, but I'm sure I actually am curious to hear from your perspective.

Tregg: Like, you know, that's just me being in Denver. And like I, even like, you know, last year I went to San Francisco for the first time. And I was like, I get it. You walk down the street and it's nine o'clock at night and you look into a bar and there's people on their laptop. With Jira open. I'm like, first of all, I'm sorry that you're in Jira, but like what is going on?

Tom: There's a few conferences I, uh, used to go to. Really, really good quality conferences, but they would often have design leaders come over from San Francisco to talk to us in London and they were inspiring, but it just felt like, man, you are in a, you're on a different planet to me, like, and I've worked at some, some big organizations, not, not big, well known tech organizations where the maturity is like down here and you're like, man, how do I get there?

Tom: How do I do it? So yeah, definitely have had that complex. Definitely don't have the fang tech, uh, one on my. On my resume, may or may not want to change that at some point. My own feelings about where a career fits for me have changed a lot over the years. Um, but I, I'm making my first visit to San Francisco this, this June.

Tom: I've got to experience it at some point. I've got to see what it's all about. And, um, yeah, we, we'll see whether I come away with some of the same impressions that you had.

Tregg: I was out for, uh, config last year. Um, first time there. Uh, it is, it's wild. Like, even just like the way people, uh, talk about getting their first job at like, you know, EA or like whatever the company is that they, they jumped into right out of school. Which, like, was not an option for me.

Tregg: Like, I took a job at JPMorgan Chase and moved I was relocated to New York. Which is, like, for your first job to be relocated is wild. And also, like, to go to New York is, like, that was, like, it was wild. Um, but, like, now that I'm in the industry, people look at, like, JPMorgan Chase on my resume and they're kinda like, I'm sorry.

Tregg: Speaking of, uh, harsh jobs in, in, uh, London, um, I had someone who, uh, met with me on ADP list and, uh, he had been a designer for a long time and he just had been unemployed for like near a year. And he was just trying so hard to get something and he had an offer from the Daily Mail and the poor guy, he is like, I do not wanna work for this company, but, but it's the only offer he had.

Tregg: And he was like, I guess, I guess I'll do it. Um,

Tom: man. I have

Tregg: I pulled up the Daily Mail site.

Tom: Yeah, I don't know if the email number one, like the user experience is horrendous as everyone knows, but also it's just the most vitriolic, hateful publication in the

Tregg: Yeah,

Tom: uh, I, I would definitely draw the line there. I feel sorry for him if that was the only option, to,

Tregg: Yeah, it really was. So, I, I, uh. I had pulled up the website just cause I, you know, I'm from the U S I, I, I know the only thing in my mind I know about the daily mail is that they wrote about my chemical romance in 2007. Uh, they were like this really mean thing. That's like literally the only thing I had in my mind.

Tregg: So I knew that they were like a. Tabloid ish sort of thing. Um, but I pulled it up, and I was like sharing my screen, and like, the literal top like five posts were like horrible things that I would never even say out loud. Um, and he was like, yeah, this is all rubbish.

Tom: Man, it's, it's, it's wild. The stuff they put out there is so rough. But, um, yeah, definitely on my would, would never work. For list and I hope you didn't have to be there too long, but in the differences between like the UK and the US, one of the things that kind of showed up this week, don't really want to add fuel to, to, to the fire that there's been a lot of LinkedIn talk this week, a lot of spicy takes on research and, um, the role of research within the industry and maybe the impact that's had on layoffs.

Tom: Not going to go into the details of that, but research does feel like one of those things that. Has always sadly had to fight its corner in design, particularly when you want to do deeper, generative, qualitative research. Good quality research can be so impactful on product.

Tom: I'd love to hear from you why you think that is, um, and how can we ensure the value in good research isn't lost as we start losing all these good people from the industry.

Tregg: For one, we talked about Chase. Chase has a ton of researchers and they're hiring researchers. And I know someone who manages a research team there and he's awesome. Literally, they have some of the best researchers in the industry. Um, and it makes sense, because when you're doing things for financial technology, it just makes sense to talk to people.

Tregg: So anyway, note to people who might be looking, look at Chase. It legitimately is a good place to work. Um, it's just, was for me not a cultural fit. So I know you don't want to get into the specifics, but, um, the, The book that a lot of people were like mad about, uh, the continuous discovery book that was called.

Tregg: Yeah. Continuous discovery habits. I have it here.

Tom: Nice.

Tregg: But anyway, uh, I am a fan of it. Um, and I think the thing is I have seen firsthand when layoffs happen. Um, the first teams to get canned are often marketing and research, um, because they feel like cost centers. But to me, if you were going into the unknown, if you were charting new territory with your company, why would you get rid of the people whose specialty is helping you find the way?

Tregg: Um, it seems like a mistake. And I get why on a numbers level, why research and strategy are the first ones to get cut, because they don't produce something that's measurable. Um, and so I think a big problem with research as a whole, as an industry, is, um, the communication of the value isn't often there for leadership.

Tregg: The team working with a researcher, a good researcher specifically, The team knows the value. They feel it, they see it, they have observed the difference between a product manager who's never done research conducting it for the first time versus a researcher who's seasoned conducting research. Um, yeah, like people have seen that, the difference, and they know the value.

Tregg: It's just really hard to communicate that to a leader. Um, so I think there's a few things at play and a few ways out of that. For one, making the output feel much more measurable and much more tangible of research is like number one. He's actually in our Slack group that we met in. They're the head of research at Twilio.

Tregg: He was a really cool guy. I talked to him about my side project, Divinate, which is about research. And what they do, they have Uh, a newsroom concept. So they are constantly doing research, continuous discovery, and they put out like a sort of newspaper every week or two weeks, I think.

Tregg: And, um, that goes out to all the stakeholders. And so you don't need to read this long report. You don't need to even understand their methods. None of that's important. What really matters is the headline, and then like a few bullet points of where they're going, what they're going to do with it. So they go, here's what we learned.

Tregg: Um, here are the five things that like dive in a little bit deeper. Here's the action items. And they do that on a continual basis. And so it made research no longer be a thing where like these people talk to customers in a room and then they write these long reports that I don't want to read. And they live in Google docs and Google sheets.

Tregg: And like I've never seen the output of that. And like, what are we doing with this information? Cut them. It goes from that to like, Oh, I need to know. This information because I'm making decisions day to day with this Document that gets sent to me every couple weeks by this team The last team I want to get rid of is the one that's helping me decide things and so That's kind of what our Our side projects called divinate again divinate co we're launching February 6 but that's the idea is that, uh, I think it's okay to have product managers do research. I actually think it's good. And that's part of the conversation around like the changing of roles.

Tregg: Like more product managers are doing research. I think that's actually good. a good thing. Um, I think more designers should do research. I think that, hey, maybe an engineer doesn't want to conduct research, but taking an engineer and stakeholders to actually witness research is transformative. I've seen that happen.

Tregg: Um, that's a little bit harder to do with like zoom stuff. Cause sometimes like inviting a random, like inviting the CEO to a call can be intimidating for a person. But if you're doing like. research in person behind one way glass, having your stakeholder be in the room is transformative because you can have the most hardheaded stakeholder go from being like, no, like we, we're not going to invest time in this.

Tregg: We have to make it do this and that. Uh, we need to like extract as much value, whatever the thing is to watching someone in a room talk about your product. They go, Oh, I get it. I want to make something for that person. It's transformative. So, um, I, yeah, I think getting as many people involved in research as possible is good.

Tregg: I think that there's a reason why researchers do what they do. A really good researcher will take insights and make them mean something in a very unique way. Um, that process takes so much time. And so our tool, we take in your research sessions and we automatically summarize and tag those. So like, if you've ever used a tool like Dovetail, where you have to manually Yeah, you have to make your own taxonomy and like your own tagging system.

Tregg: Uh, our tool strips all that out. You don't need to worry about tagging at all. All you need to worry about is making a folder for a research study. So like, it could be by like a sprint, by like a, I'm working on this feature. I want to test it or however you want to structure it. But you put your sessions in a folder.

Tregg: We give you tags and summaries for each of those. Uh, you can go through and add highlights and those highlights get put into. A document for the folder. And so we help you generate insights for. The entire research session, um, and what that does is it reduces that time where you have to like categorize and start coding and tagging, which is like still valuable and good and I think people should do that for like more academic stuff.

Tregg: But if you're in a fast paced product team trying to make decisions, what you really care about is showing the value of the research sessions that you've done and making what you've learned into actionable items. Um, so that's what our tool is based around. Conversations and making them mean something and doing something with them as fast as possible, um, to show that value to your stakeholders to actually make something people want by talking to them and then be like, cool.

Tregg: And I use that for something and not just talking to people to check off a box, which happens a lot, uh, and not just talking to people because people said to talk to customers, but I don't know what to do with this, which is very common for people who aren't specialized in like synthesis of research. Um, yeah, I, I'd a, I know it's a hard time in the industry.

Tregg: I, uh, I think if a, if a researcher's having a hard time finding a job, if they feel like they're like on the outs because the, the role has changed, honestly, maybe product management's the thing to consider. I know that your passion is research, but be a, be a PM that knows the customer better than any other PM or maybe if like.

Tregg: You can't find your way in research because there's no roles. Um, maybe find another thing to focus on. Maybe become like a really good engineer. Maybe learn Python and become a data scientist. And so then you become a quantitative researcher. And that's powerful and expensive.

Tom: If we can start getting our good researchers, right, find these other Trojan horse ways of, of showing your enormous value, then, then great.

Tom: But it sounds like your tool is going to help them Um, with that, that gap that we have at the moment. , I have had those challenges with. Like air table before dovetail and things like that where you're like,  

Tom: it's not front of mind to people and it's not actionable. So yeah, can't wait to

Tregg: And not shareable.

Tom: with that. Yes, shareable. Yeah.

Tregg: It'll be like in a Google Sheet, like, or like a Google, um, Google Slides. Like, the first time you share it, it's great. But find, which is so weird because Google is the search company. Finding that, that Google Slide is impossible. Where did it go? I don't know, somewhere.

Tom: oh man, it doesn't make any sense how bad like drive is to get its way around. Anyway, that's, that's another rant for another time. One thing that I did

Tregg: ha.

Tom: caught my eye about, um, you and your career and where you are at the moment is something that I think designers can have such a positive impact on particularly in digital that is again, such sometimes such a hard corner to fight, which is accessibility it's so frustrating when it gets left behind  

Tregg: So like I said, I think right now is like one of the most exciting times in tech. Uh, and I think accessibility is no exception. , a lot of people in the disability and accessibility communities were afraid of what the implications would be with AI at first, because the tendency for a lot of organizations is to sweep accessibility under the rug or try to slap something on top of it that solves it with one snippet of code.

Tregg: Not talking about anyone specific. Um. There's um, there's many companies that claim that, and it's not a thing. And people who are actually disabled hate things that claim to do that because it's never actually usable. And often, um, it, it still has accessibility problems, if not more accessibility problems by slapping something on top that says it fixes everything.

Tregg: So people were afraid that AI would do that. Oh, I used this AI tool and then everything solved, but it really wasn't. And it just is like pretending to be solved. Um, but what I've seen is almost the opposite that the tools for the assistive technology. So like screen readers, um, the, uh, Automated, um, I can't remember the actual term for it, but like where they transcribe, uh, live feeds,  

Tregg: that stuff is getting so much better. Um, Disney, uh, just in last year, um, trialed a new AI system that is faster than the human written captions for, uh, live, uh, football games, uh, or American football. Um, And that's, you know, because Disney owns ESPN. So they did this, like, trial run and it's way faster, so your information, uh, that you're getting in the text and, like, the spoken word is much closer to the actual game that you're watching and the actual, like, announcing.

Tregg: Um, so there's, like, really cool things happening with AI, um, and I think that, like, uh, Yeah, it's just, it's a really exciting time, but there's still so much work to be done. It is often swept under the rug to this day. Um, I think 98 percent of the internet is not accessible. Uh, the most common accessibility issue is contrast, which is designers fault.

Tregg: Um, It's literally one of the easiest things to check for. And the caveat here, the asterisk, is that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or the WCAG, is hard to read. It just is. I actually just worked on a project at Stark to make that easier. We summarized the entire WCAG and that probably will be launched by the time this comes out.

Tregg: If not, then it will be coming out soon. We used some, like, AI plus a ton of editing and, uh We just made the whole WCAG human readable. Because like, the thing is, that stuff is written the way it is on purpose. It's kind of written like a legal document, even though none of the people that write it are lawyers and they're all volunteers.

Tregg: Um, it's written that way on purpose. And so like, I get it, but it needs to be easier. Out of the gate, understanding accessibility can be confusing. But, anyway, contrast is like, the first thing to understand. Cause the majority of issues start with contrast. Um, but, there's so much more beyond that. And a lot of designers think just in contrast.

Tregg: But, we also, we hold the reins to Um, the way that people experience our products using assistive technology. And if we don't design an experience for people using a screen reader, for people navigating with just a keyboard, then we're actually not designing a major portion of the experience. We're leaving it to chance at best, and we're leaving it to like an engineer who might not even know what to do at worst.

Tregg: And we're like, we're, uh, Abdicating our responsibilities and like just shrugging and going, I don't know how to do it. And that's not cool. Um, so like just, I encourage people turn on voiceover. If you have a Mac, it's command F5. Try it out. See what it's like to use it. Use it on your products. If you have web based products, um, it's on, you know, iOS as well.

Tregg: Turn on voiceover. Use it on, if you're designing a mobile app, use it on that. See what it feels like. And then. Change it. You're going to have to document the appropriate screen reader experience. Um, yeah, it's just one of those things that gets left out so often. Um, but, and I think a lot of it is education.

Tregg: It's because it is so hard to understand at first. Um, but it's really not that hard when you get into it. The, the tricky stuff is like, very specific ways to implement. features in code. But that's not really a designer's concern. What should be your concern is telling your engineer what you intend and what the user will want out of something.

Tom: , I know what you mean about accessibility guidelines. They do ironically feel quite impenetrable, not terribly accessible.

Tom: The task of trying to make something accessible, um, should be something we try and do from, from the get go, but very often it's framed as something quite hard, quite technically difficult to do.

Tom: So that whole framing can be, can be quite difficult. A lot of people say the way to get accessibility stuff prioritized is to talk about the business case. I don't know. I think if you've got to that stage in the conversation, you might have already lost.

Tregg: We do a thing called, um, the Master Class at Stark. So we like, for our enterprise customers, we teach them accessibility from like, ground up. Uh, and in that presentation, I talk about Um, exactly this, but the, the models of disability.

Tregg: Um, the, at the, the most common model people have is the medical model, where they think that disability is something to be fixed. Um, the social model is like the current model of disability that the disabled community and accessibility community, uh, points towards, which is that society is a thing to be fixed and not disability necessarily.

Tregg: Um, there's like caveats there, like, yeah, if you can have medical intervention and not be blind anymore, that's great. Do that. Um, uh, hearing aids aren't bad, like stuff like that is great. Assistive technology, not bad, but if there's a problem, like a subway station. that isn't accessible. It's not let's make people's wheelchairs better.

Tregg: It's let's build an elevator. Um, so I say that because one of the models we talk about is the financial model and that is that it's a, it's good business to design for disabled people. And I don't think it's bad. I think it's not the whole picture. Um, but there is a reality that, um, sometimes that is the conversation you have to have.

Tregg: Um, especially if you're at like, You know, a tiny startup or like a hyper growth startup and it's investing any amount of money into something needs to show some ROI. I get it. It stinks, but like sometimes you have to have that conversation. Um, and so there's a lot of ways to have that conversation. One, you could say, uh, well, first of all, legally we have to be compliant because we don't want to get, we don't want to get sued.

Tregg: There's also brand risk, so if I have something that, like, when I worked at, you know, at Chase, they can't risk having people not have access to their money, that's huge brand risk. And it's also a huge legal risk, so they have to make everything accessible. Um, that's another argument you can have. And also, like, being sued costs a lot of money, so there's financial incentive.

Tregg: Um, I I am working on something that's about pitching accessibility, and it is through the lens of, as a business thing. It's like, how to get people to do the right thing ethically, through business, um, like business argumentation, like pitching it like a business person. Um, yeah, I think, uh, I hear you. It is if that's the only thing it is gross, but I think there's it's important to to understand also that like people People don't want to do the wrong thing.

Tregg: Generally, I think people would rather their Products be Good ethically generally and if you're at an organization, that's not like that. Maybe it's time to look for a new job And I know the market's hard. So rewind and watch the portfolio portion again people generally want To do the right thing and what's tricky about accessibility is if I go to you and I say hey the thing that you made is Actively harming people or actively harming me or our customers are actively harmed by the thing You've designed and built a lot of people Go into their shell They don't want to be a bad person and then it becomes like they find all these reasons to not Take ownership of it the way that it's communicated often is so There's like a lot of moral grain standing about it that it turns people off.

Tregg: And so like, if we can get past that level, like, yes, it's the right thing to do. Like, I think that's obvious. I think if you're avoiding it, you're doing something wrong. But that's like, we don't want to guilt people into doing the right thing. Instead it's like, I think it's the right thing to do and here's all the groundwork I laid to get this done.

Tregg: Like I looked at the amount of issues we have. I talked to these people in the organization. This is how much time it might take us to fix these problems. If we change these processes, the new things we make will be accessible. Um, it just, we can't start from a place of like, shame. Because shame doesn't change behavior.

Tregg: What it does is it causes people to like, want to go back to the stasis. They want to go back to where they were. They start like, feeling defensive. And the last thing you want is a defensive stakeholder. Right?

Tom: I always feel a bit icky if I have to go down the road you're talking about, but you've given me a bit of a reminder that actually, if it can get the ball rolling, if it can get you at least a conversation without putting people on the back foot. Uh, if it's got to be the opener to make the good things happen, then then worth considering, um, even if it feels like a bit of an ick at the time.

Tom: So

Tregg: Yeah, and I personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with making money. I think if you were like, we're gonna charge for accessibility features, absolutely screw off. Like, Zoom tried that and they got sued for it. Um, you can't do that. Like, just, it has to be open and accessible to everyone. I, I know and you know that it's not the reason to do it, but it is a nice benefit and it is the way to sell to certain people. Um, and like, I think that's a form of empathy. Um, if you really look at sales as a whole, uh, a really good salesperson is just really good at Empathizing and understanding the person they're talking to, uh, sometimes to, uh, to like a, uh, extreme degree.

Tregg: Uh, but you're just like understanding where someone's coming from and then shifting your, your pitch to them. So like, Oh, I know that you care about X, Y, Z. So I'm going to speak to those things for you. I'm going to tell you the concerns you have and then how do I address those with this initiative?  

Tom: We talk about empathy and awful lot in design, particularly from a kind of UX and research perspective, but sometimes we don't take that into our own business relationship, stakeholder relationship. I think it's really valuable to start practicing that outwardly.

I think we would do well to have empathy for the people we work with as well as our customers. Haha.

Tom: I think that's a perfect message to to, to wrap on actually, um, track so much good stuff in there, man. How can people find out more about you, more of your writing? I'm sure we have piqued their curiosity about your hot takes so, um, yeah, how can people check you out online?

Tregg: Yeah, uh, so I have a side project that is for, design resources, uh, it's highly curated. I started it after I graduated from school and I had this like fresh list of resources and I was like, I collected all this stuff that's free on the internet, I should give this to people. Uh, so that's degreeless.

Tregg: design, uh, and the idea is that you could get a, a fake design degree without actually paying for it and like learn everything I learned. Uh, without having to pay 30, 000 to 40, 000 U. S. dollars for a degree. Uh, and on there I have a sub stack where I've written about design and things like, is product design the right career for you, deleting your personas, um, is design education broken, all those sorts of thoughts.

Tregg: And then, , if you go to at, tragify on Twitter or formerly known as TwitterX, I guess. .

Tregg: I tweet about all sorts of things, uh, accessibility, often for my 9 5 Stark, um, I talk about research, all that kind of

Tom: Nice. I've been enjoying the little videos you've been putting out about the features in stock and that sort of stuff. Really good stuff. Amazing. Thank you so much dude. Really really appreciate the time today. Um and yeah, we'll make sure there's links to all of those things in the show notes and yeah, I might be seeing you in San Francisco in in June.

Tom: Who knows? Are you planning to go to? I keep calling it config. It's config. I'm never gonna get used to saying

Tregg: Thank you. Thank you. I, I was at config, and, uh, I was like, I've been saying, Config, config, I don't know, whatever one that isn't the right one, it's the one I was saying. Uh, I was saying, config. Cause it's a

Tom: but they say config. I don't know. Oh, I thought it was another West Coast thing that I can't relate to, but I'm glad it's not just me.

Tregg: It might be.

Tom: Brilliant, man. Well, um, thanks again for that. Take care, everyone.

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John Carter

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