Interviews and Reviews

Designing Dreams: Elena Shabanova, Senior Product Designer, on Navigating Challenges and Cultivating Creativity in Tech

Cultivating Creativity in Tech

Meet Elena Shabanova, a Senior Product Designer at PolyAI with over nine years of experience in tech. Elena has honed her expertise across graphic, UI/UX, and product design, contributing to companies like SberTech, Gett, and SpatialChat. At PolyAI, she refines conversational AI platforms, enhancing customer interactions. With experience in diverse markets including Russia, Israel, Europe, and the UK, Elena offers valuable insights into the dynamic world of AI-driven product design.

Let’s start with a brief introduction. Elena, please tell us about yourself, your current role and project. 

I’m a Senior Product designer at PolyAI with a focus on building a conversational AI platform to help callers solve their issues without wasting time waiting for an available agent. Within the last 9 years, I had the pleasure of working with various great tech-led companies such as SberTech, Gett, and SpatialChat.

What was your path to become a product designer? Now that you are a seasoned expert in the field, what advice can you give to those who want to become a good product designer? 

I had quite a rough and eventful path with the wrong career decision before I became a product designer.

At the time, when I should’ve selected the course at the university I chose to become an accountant under the influence of my parents, so I gave up on following my dream to become a designer.

A few years later, when I wrote my work for a master’s degree and had a few years of working experience as an accountant I understood that I didn’t love what I was doing and the only things I loved to do was design that I learned as a hobby.

It took half a year to get my first job as a Graphic designer and then I dived into UI/UX design out of curiosity.  I have always been extremely interested in helping a business to reach its goals via interfaces but working in an agency didn’t allow me to dive into business problems that deep. I made one more tiny transition from UI/UX design into Product design that enabled my full potential.

For the last 6 years of work as a Product designer, I’m still extremely excited about my work and love this rapidly evolving field.

The only advice I can give to those who want to become a good product designer is to not design interfaces without asking for feedback from real users, because without user feedback our work is meaningless and it is just playing with pixels.

During your career, you had a chance to work in different markets, such as Russia, Israel, Europe and the UK. Could you share some tips on what is important for a product designer? What skills and knowledge  are most important, what projects do you need to have in your portfolio?

Regardless of country, It is always important to have a strong knowledge of the composition, color theory, proximity laws, tech constraints, user testing, and other basics. This knowledge is extremely crucial for product designers at any stage of their career and it influences user experience and the success of the entire product.

Apart from hard skills, it is always important to improve presentation skills, use empathy with users of a product you working on, and communicate with your colleagues because teammates can help you to find the best solution or boost your productivity.

Regarding the job-seeking process, I was impressed by how valuable is to have strong presentation skills and detailed case studies in your portfolio for the UK, Israel, and Europe. From my experience, the most brutal job market is in the UK because there are a lot of brilliant designers who are also aiming for the same position as you are. It means you should be more prepared and rehearse what you would share during case study interviews, critique interviews, whiteboard interviews, and others. Also, your CV and portfolio should be shiny and catching for a potential employer.

Unfortunately, there is no universal advice about projects you should have in your portfolio. For instance, banks or fintech companies are more likely would have a chat with candidates who have any case studies connected to the financial field. Please, do not give up on applying for a company from a different industry because your portfolio, experience, and stills could be what exactly they looking for.

In your practice, what are the most challenging tasks product designers need to solve?

From my experience, the most challenging tasks are to find a balance between better user experience, and solving business needs without overcomplicating the work for engineers to deliver features on time. Yes, this sounds like 99% of the tasks that product designers could have on a daily basis.

These types of challenges are the reason why I love being a product designer.

Product designer job can cause substantial stress, as product design leaders have to keep in mind both user needs and business objectives. How to find a perfect balance, stay inspired and avoid burnout?

It took me a few years to find a balance that fits my mindset perfectly. Most of the things that made me stressed, inspired, or pushed to bun out were connected to the product I worked for. I found out that I should find a product that I believe in with whole my heart, that could change an industry or people’s lives. These types of products will help to gain inspiration and keep being passionate about daily tasks.

It is really a tough task to avoid burnout because there are a lot of factors that could cause it. The easiest way to avoid it is to not overwork, have a great sleep, and spend time on hobbies and physical activities especially if you are stressed.

Unfortunately, a company also plays the main part in the burnout of employees. The best option to decrease the possibility of burnout is to speak up about the workload, expectations, and everything you’re worried about with your direct manager or HR department.

How to efficiently organize communication between the design and other product teams, for example, development?

I might say, that for the most efficient communication with developers is better to have at least these three meetings:

– kickoff meeting to discuss possible constraints, ideas, and solutions;

– meeting to decide on final designs;

– handoff meeting where a designer explains everything on a Figma file and answers questions.

From my experience, having regular communications with other teams too is the simplest way to gather feedback, ideas, insights, and issues that help in building a better product. For example, I have weekly calls with the Customer Success team to gather the most recent issues, feature requests, and ideas to improve user experience and reach business goals. 

You have expertise in working on large-scale projects such as Gett and Sber Education. What is important for scalability of a product from the design perspective?

The most important things that allow these products to scale from the design perspective are the ability to communicate with other designers, access to user feedback, and flexible design systems.

Communication with other designers helps a lot to align other teams to reach one goal together and keep everything consistent. Especially, it is essential when multiple designers are responsible for multiple features on the same screen of a product.

I believe that there is no need to mention how important user feedback is for building scalable products. It is crucial to know what needs users have to scale a product to solve these needs and help a business grow.

Also, I was lucky to work on many large-scale products but not all of them had flexible design systems that caused a lot of extra work and in the end, was a main blocker for scaling more efficiently for a company. 

In your current role as a senior product designer at PolyAI, what are the main challenges of design for an AI product and conversational assistants in particular?

As you can see, there are a lot of AI products that have shown up last few years. This industry is highly competitive, fast-growing, and very beneficial for its users. One of the main challenges for me is to keep interfaces intuitive and simple for users to reduce cognitive load. Happens that most people wouldn’t like to spend time learning how to use one more tool and prefer a less powerful competitor with a more intuitive interface instead.

Also, AI products are very advanced and accessible without severe legal restrictions and regulations right now. There have already been a few cases of fraud that involved AI technology. So another challenge is to create guardrails that will prevent fraudulent activities and keep users’ data safe.

You are currently engaged in a project in the AI field. Do you take advantage of the technology in your work? Are there relevant implementations of AI tools in product design?

I love exploring new AI tools and definitely taking advantage of the technology to save time for more crucial parts that an AI can do for me right now. Most of the time I use summarisation by Miro Assist, multiple AI-powered plugins on Figma, and most useful on a daily basis ChatGPT for UX writing.

I’m also happy to see that many website builders also use the power of AI so designers can build landing pages for a product or portfolios even faster without the help of engineers!

This is an exciting time to live in, and I can’t wait to see what else this field can bring us in the future.

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