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LinkedIn's secret to designing great experiences (Hint: It's not data)

Our friends and hosts of the Mobile User Experience Awards (MUX 2019) recently chatted with panelist Christina Ray, Director of Product Design at LinkedIn to get her perspective on what it takes to design better user experiences. You might be surprised to learn that data is not the answer…

Big Data. Huge data. We’re all drowning in data. At companies as influential as LinkedIn, the waves of data are towering, at a scale nearly too great to make sense of. Because of this, data is now more integral than ever to building successful products and mobile experiences. From uncovering a new market opportunity to measuring user satisfaction, the harnessing of quantitative data is a competitive advantage and companies are scrambling to snap up data scientists who can make sense of it all.

Rigorous analysis alone won’t show us the way forward to creating great experiences.

But what about the designers who specialize in building empathy, not database queries? Do they have a place in this data-driven, quant-crazy world? What skills will help them shape complex, and compelling, experiences on a global scale? “Soft skills,” says Christina Ray, a Director of Design at LinkedIn, her eyes lighting up. Christina’s influence can be felt across many products at LinkedIn, from LinkedIn Premium to her current role leading the team behind LinkedIn Learning.

Christina’s team is part of a design organization that spans continents, from California to Bangalore, designing across all platforms but with a mobile-first mindset. With over two hundred designers, maintaining a culture that values soft skills and collaboration is one that Christina takes seriously — she firmly believes that rigorous analysis alone won’t show us the way forward to creating great experiences.

So, what are some of the ways that Christina fosters a collaborative environment at LinkedIn? Here’s what she had to say:

Take risks on people

For a leader at a company of LinkedIn’s size and influence, Christina is warm and open, holding an unyielding faith in the power of human connection and intuition. Once the owner of an art gallery, she points to that experience as foundational to her leadership style.

“As a small business owner I learned to take risks on people,” she explains. “I developed a sense of intuition about what a person might need, and when to invest in them. In fact, ‘Take Intelligent Risks’ is one of the core values here at LinkedIn.”

Leverage the unique powers of your designers

Much like an art gallery has a stable of artists, where one artist may specialize in sculpture and another in painting, Christina aims to leverage the unique powers of each of her designers, whether it’s public speaking or prototyping mobile microinteractions.

“I’m always thinking — how do I empower my team to become the best version of themselves?”

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Photo taken at LinkedIn Learning Content Production Studios in Carpinteria, California — Credit: Rob Surrency, Senior UX Designer at LinkedIn.

Foster a culture of transformation

“We foster a culture of transformation,” Christina tells us. “We encourage designers to dive into problem areas, but also leverage their own interests and skill sets by moving to different teams.” This is valuable, Christina adds, as it promotes organic collisions where designers can make connections between their work and other projects across the organization.

Empower teams to develop their own culture

With a mindset of transformation at such a scale, how does this culture stay intact? “We don’t expect a cookie-cutter culture across teams.” Christina says. Rather, teams are empowered to develop their own culture, one that forms a partnership between design and product, with designers contributing to strategy and planning. In a modern tech environment where the only constant is change, it’s the soft skills that help to build this partnership and embrace ambiguity and change.

Value communication

“I’m always looking for people who can not only design the right flow, but also communicate it well, be persuasive, go talk to people.” Christina says, “Because to be a strategic partner, you have to be adaptable and OK with things changing. After all, you can’t stop the plane while it’s flying”.

Does this imply that designers who love data are mythical creatures? Not at all. When they do come along, as they will every so often, Christina is excited to leverage this superpower to strengthen the team. “They can become a mentor for other designers who have different skill sets.” Christina says.

Growth ⚡️

Growth ⚡️

by Diana Stoyanova

style exploration of an awesome project I worked on alongside @Vidico 🦄 Check out the final look on: https://zypsy.com/

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Conclusion

It’s almost serendipitous that such an advocate of soft skills is also behind the design of LinkedIn Learning. If working on the platform has taught Christina anything, it’s that people love learning and developing their soft skills. Cultivating this mindset is one of the things she enjoys most about building a team.

So as we continue to navigate our way through the ocean of data, it turns out the key to moving forward isn’t only hidden in a database table or a cohort analysis — it’s also found at a whiteboard, through the exchange of ideas and embracing of debate.

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Christina Ray is one of the latest additions to the panel of the 2019 Mobile User Experience Awards (MUX) that celebrates incredible mobile apps. Check it out — www.muxawards.com.

About the Author: Kiley Meehan is a Design Manager at FreshBooks and writer for the MUX Awards.

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