Why work for a hyper-growth product company with Ivy Mukherjee

Juraj Mihalik

Hey Ivy. Can you walk us through your background, and what led you to design?

I come from a community/state, which is really famous in India for endorsing different creative hobbies while growing up. I inherently liked drawing as long as I can remember. It started when my cousin was going to a drawing school, and I used to copy every single drawing after she returned from school. That’s when my parents enrolled me in the drawing school as well. I have always loved drawing and did it with the utmost dedication: back in my high school days, I used to draw meticulously for our biology class even though we didn’t get enough marks for a good drawing. From drawing comic book characters to drawing nature, I believe drawing has been the only creative hobby which has stuck with me till now.

I have studied Multimedia Design, and it’s quite a funny story about how I actually ended up taking it as my undergraduate degree. I took science subjects in high school and was mostly set for studying "Ecostat" (Economics & Statistics), even got enrolled in university for the same thing. However, my parents noticed the newly opened Multimedia course and asked me to give it a shot. After the written examination and an interview, I found out that I was selected for the course. That was the moment of dilemma, where I didn’t know what I was supposed to take up. After several calls to a few mentors and my father’s friends, I ended up taking the 4yrs Multimedia course at St. Xavier's College in Kolkata.

During my undergraduate course we had subjects like history of design and animation, or 2D Flash animation, 3D character design, animation, illustrations, After Effects, or even full-fledged film making - basically you learn everything about everything and somehow I never liked such course structure where I am supposed to learn things I am not really interested in.

I tried my best to concentrate on several subjects, but I only enjoyed doing traditional illustrations. I would simply put most of my energy upon that facet.

After one year of my degree, I gradually started to understand the importance of networking and real-life skill sets, which I should invest more time being in the university. The course structure, faculties, and collaboration with good companies were not so great given it was a newly established institution. So, I realized I needed to invest more time to find like-minded helpful people who can guide me when I transition into the “industry life” and might help me figure out how to get accustomed to it.

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Looking back, I would advise any student to reflect upon learnings, which can be proportionately used in the jobs you want to get into after graduating. Take courses which you are genuinely passionate about as you can be more invested in those subjects and get better every day. Use Google and find people whom you look up to, try to get in touch with them, show your interest and capability of doing good work. Making connections in the design industry is really important and crucial as you will learn from "real-world people and projects”, plus you may even start to collaborate with them - you never know.

To date, all my jobs have been reference based, and I have known few people from the teams/companies, which have helped me build trust and understand the products better. Also, as designers, one of our core tools is communication. I am trilingual, and I started speaking English in my university days. In high school, I studied in a native language (Bengali - my mother tongue) knowing just a little English back then.

To date, all my jobs have been reference based.

Confidence plays a huge role while learning anything new and crucial, and when you see others have already reached the point where you want to be, it becomes frustrating! I would suggest forming habits around such situations where you will be continuously practicing that particular habit, and you will achieve more than you can gauge with time.

Quite a journey! When was the moment you knew you wanted to work in design?

I graduated in mid-2014 and worked as a consultant for digital marketing agencies to create social media visuals, but never really loved what I did. This made me frustrated because I was struggling to decide what I should do. One of the reasons why I was left with that choice was mostly because I didn't have other skills at my disposal. Back then, I was not even aware of the term UI or UX. I kept making these social media assets for a few months, but at the same time, I was trying to understand which other fields I could dig into. For example, I was coming up with some ideas for societal improvement projects.

Given the gigantic growth of India in the past two decades, there are issues which still need the limelight and one of them is the scarcity of electricity in villages hampering efficiency of those people for half of the daytime—there are students with financial instability who are forced to drop out of school due to no electricity system and no basic solution of adequate school bags. To provide a combined solution of both the issues, I designed a prototype of a solar paneled school bag while working with Happy Horizons Trust. Deccan Chronicle (National English Daily) featured me, for my contribution towards social innovation and the school bag prototype went into production.

That was my first encounter with Human-Centered Design with an enormous impact on everyday lives. Solving problems for the people gave me mindfulness, which I believe is the daily motivation of my work.

While this was happening, I realized I would like to understand more about design and applied for a fellowship at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. To my surprise, I got the full package fellowship even without having much experience in other subjects of the course. Funnily I was the only female and youngest participant in the program.

That experience had an immense impact on my career trajectory and also on my personal growth as I was traveling abroad for the very first time and that too without my parents. It was the place where I was introduced to UX design and the startup ecosystem. While I was working on few group projects with other people, I started liking this spectrum of design where every day I was hustling to understand how products work, how businesses are impacted with product decisions and why design is so crucial in the world. After this experience, I started to work with product companies and could finally say I found my calling!

So what became your first “product company” design job?

It was an internship at an international advertising agency. Honestly, I sucked at it, mostly because I never liked learning digital illustrations and was living in my happy world of traditional medium. Also, I realized the culture of advertising agencies was quite the opposite to my way of thinking, plus I have always strived to have transparency both in my work and in my daily life objectives. I love to control my own life, and when that doesn't happen, I start questioning everything in my surroundings. In short, I believe agency life never provided me with any control over my work. While doing my fellowship in Israel, I realized I would like to be a part of some hyper-growth startup which has a good learning experience for amateurs like me, and I started applying back to few startups in India - that's how I landed the job at Grofers, which is a hyper-local delivery ecosystem.

However, I didn't join the company as a Product Designer - my dominant skills were still illustrations and visuals instead of "UI/UX" design, plus I had almost no real-life projects to showcase from that spectrum.

So, I joined Grofers‘ product team as their first Visual Designer. I loved it. It was the first job which really challenged me - crafting visuals for products is very different than doing it for ad agencies and marketing design. However, I loved learning the nuances, and the team was supportive enough not to let me fail in a hyper-growth situation.

I created things across all verticals of Grofers product portfolio, including the consumer app, merchants app, delivery partners app, website redesign, characterizing the empty states and a few months later I was leading the visual team with few new members as well.

I had enough time to assess my hypothesis that I would like to work in Product Design - not just support it visually. So I took my next job as a Product Designer at OLA Cabs - that's how my product design journey began.

For me, it was a permutation combination of doing many things, failing at them and then exploring other things - I can't deny the fact that it was overwhelming and I would like to say one thing:

Everybody has their kind of privilege, you may not have the same as me or others, but try to find yours and tap on those privileges to do what you want to do.

Not everybody is privileged enough to fail and explore new things, it is easy to talk about it, but I would tend to prioritize my economic security first and then think about exploring new things.

What was so tempting on product design for you?

Realizing that my choices can make such a significant impact on people's daily lives was the primary motivation. Over time I got more intrigued by identifying a problem instead of just being the tool for solving the issue as a designer. Also, product companies gave me enough transparency - that motivated me to work hard and push myself to the next level.

As a former Product Designer at Shopify, when did you join the team?

I joined Shopify back in January 2018, and it was a funny story which I tell people when they ask how/when I did apply to Shopify, and actually, to everyone's surprise, I never did apply to Shopify. I never thought international hiring was approachable in North America. One fine evening I got an email from a Shopify recruiter, and initially, I thought it was spam. Haha.

Btw, if you want to learn about the hiring process at Shopify, I have written a blog post about it.

What was your favorite project that you worked on?

If we’re talking about my job at Shopify, it’s hard to pick one. While I was there, I was associated with two teams: Analytics & Growth.

In the Merchant Analytics team, one of my first projects was to create a better hierarchy for the Analytics mobile version by using different components so that the system becomes much more sustainable in near future and merchants can understand the value of the actions with that modified hierarchy.

This project was very dear to me as I got the chance to work with the Design Systems people for the very first system and completely loved the process of brainstorming, creating, re-arranging, and modifying components. It went on for months, and when I finally saw my work going live and the Polaris team talking about it, it was a joyful moment for sure.

Dribbble - customers overtime insights

In the Growth team, I had one very challenging project (data migration system). It was very technical; it involved handling complex constraints and issues. At times it was very frustrating as things used to change drastically. I think I simply needed more knowledge and hand holding during that time, which I didn’t really get. That project was really one of the most challenging jobs I have had done in my career so far.

Shopify Data migration system

Few other work from my previous stints which I am proud of:

OLA Cabs - rewards platform (Partner Clubs)
Ola score - Driver partners performance management system
Onboarding screens - Grofers

Can you tell me more about your personal experience while working at Shopify?

Shopify was my first in many aspects:

Understanding and handling stakeholders

It was the first experience where the design team itself consisted of over 300 designers, let alone the engineers, Product Managers, and data people. It was challenging and overwhelming in the very beginning that a minor change will affect the entire system and needs to go through an ample amount of stakeholders before prioritizing it. So, as a designer, you need to have all the supporting documents, data analysis, and your proposed solutions to back up the new solution which you are suggesting. It can literally go on for months, which sort of happened to me while we were trying to change a few components from Polaris (Design System of Shopify) for the Analytics team.

Understanding design is truly a collaborative sport and transparency matters

We all know this, but if I have to talk about my previous experiences, I would say most of the times designers used to sit in isolation (away from the engineers and product people), at least that's what I had seen. The downside of this pattern is there used to be a lot more back-and-forth than need be, as the random collaboration didn't happen seamlessly. Realizing the importance of collaboration skill was a crucial lesson for me. I advise for improving it daily. There will always be design problems with a lot of technical constraints, so without being transparent with other teams, your designs might not get validated.

Understanding design is so much more about designing visual screens

With passing days and growing experience, I am seeing how my day-to-day work has changed from only “solving the problem” vs. making a hypothesis and assessing the problem itself. Creating strategies, researching, and discussing the scope of a project is what shapes a product from the very beginning.

Understanding how to provide and receive constructive feedback

Instead of throwing a comment like “it doesn't look good” or “this won't work”, try to be more mindful about how can you ask more constructive questions which will help both the product and the person you are providing feedback to.

I was very new to this concept, and I used to write down all the questions (and sometimes answers as well) which were being asked in every critic and feedback session so that I can have my framework. Same goes when you ask for feedback: respect every individual's time and stop trying to ask vague questions. Doing your background research goes a long way and helps to build trust with people as well.

Understanding communication skills matter a lot

I can not stress this more to this day. As designers, we have to get better at storytelling every day and long gone are the days when you worked just by yourself and only produced the screens which you were asked to make. As a designer, if you ask for a seat in the business, you need to show how you are helping define the product from the very beginning, and that will not come from just producing the visual screens.

As designers, we have to go out there and talk to all other stakeholders, and this won't happen if we lack communication skills.

As a designer, if you ask for a seat in the business, you need to show how you are helping define the product from the very beginning.

What are some key takeaways you always keep in mind now?

  1. As time has passed by and I have grown wiser (I would like to believe so) and more mature, I try to push myself to find like-minded people with whom I can grow and maybe be a part of their life journey and growth as well.
  2. Life is too short to work for assholes or even to be with them!
  3. Go out, grow your network!
  4. Don’t fall for ONLY brand names. Your project and the people you work with will matter so much more in the coming days. Take care of your mental health and emotional intelligence and try to work with people who understand these fundamentals of life.
  5. To be happy and respected about your work, you will need to have the mental stability and work in an environment which suits your personality.

Let’s switch gears a bit. What’s the value of excellent customer onboarding?

I will give you an example of my mother, when she was getting the hang of Google Photos and how it works. She started using the internet for the first time on her mobile device, and we love connecting and sharing memories with photos. I was not there to install the app and front-load her with all the information needed for her to use Google Photos. However, after installing the application, she didn't need my help to set up the account, etc.

The ecosystem of Google worked so well, and she called me later saying how happy she was that she could understand what the apps were asking her to do without any help. She doesn't know what customer onboarding is, neither she cares! But she cares about how easily she can see all her photos in one place, download it or share it.

We need to create these experiences, where we don't need to explain to our users.

Why is smooth onboarding so important?

I believe onboarding is one of the fundamental and primary things which each and every service should do, and do it right. Onboarding is challenging, and retaining the users just after they onboard is the second hardest step.

However, customer retention will become only a dream if onboarding doesn't happen efficiently. Onboarding is directly related to business growth, so without it going well, we can’t really acquire customers. That’s why every service tries hard to make that first impression right. We love the 1st impression anyway, don't we?

Who has the best onboarding experience, in your opinion?

I have always looked up to Dropbox products and loved their product Carousel (which is not in use anymore). Dropbox had some of the best illustrators like Ryan Putnam or Alice Lee, who don't only made the onboarding lively but also turn it into a phenomenon. They were one of the few founders of illustration styles for mobile products and avatar design. The characterization of each Dropbox product was terrific, which by the way played very well in the Carousel product.

From the beginning of May, you joined Grab as a Product Designer. Are you excited?

I am super excited! I have joined one of the fastest growing unicorns of SEA. GRAB was named one of the 2019 disrupters by CNBC, and it's named one of the most innovative companies by FastCompany as well.

GRAB is SEA’s super app, which is so much more than just ride-hailing. Our backbone is enabling people with everything they need every day - it can be going from point A to B, ordering food when you are hungry, getting something delivered from one place to another. We have various subscription models, and we are getting into new verticals very soon. For example, GRAB Pay is one of the most common and very popular services where you can use a digital wallet to pay for your food and other services.

GRAB currently operates in 8 countries - Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and we are pushing ourselves hard to make the life of SEA people safe and comfortable with our services.

Why did you choose GRAB in particular?

There were fundamentally two reasons - one personal and the other professional:

  • Personal – When I lived in Canada, I realized how far I am from my family and my partner, and this was a fundamental reason to move back - if not to India then at least very close to it.

  • Professional – At this point in my career, I wanted to work for a hyper-growth company which would enable me to work on various projects and with multiple teams, as I want to understand different domains. GRAB fits into these criteria. Plus they are building a robust design-centric culture.

Lastly, I have to mention that during my interview process, I got the chance to talk to my prospective manager (Norman Teh), and I was very inspired by the vision he was trying to bring alive. I could resonate with his thought processes and believe in his path. That was the nailing moment for me to join GRAB.

What is your new role at GRAB?

I am working as a Product Designer in the Tooling & Customer Service Experience team. We often talk about how we are going to achieve milestones for our business, delight our customers and partners, but we need to talk more about our internal partners who are handling the customers when something goes wrong as per their expectations. Without efficient tools and systems, the experience will break down overnight, and nothing can harm a business more than losing the trust of your end customers.

I am a part of a team which is looking after creating and maintaining the experience for our agents who provides the backbone (customer satisfaction/support) for every service of GRAB.

What activities are you involved in?

I am involved in understanding the problem scenario, assessing our hypothesis, scoping out the project, and prioritize the same. After that, as a Product Designer, I create the flow and experience for our users. These activities help me grow my mental models and frameworks over time. I am always intrigued by challenges which can have an immense impact but never had much exposure beforehand.

Plus, I work closely with various stakeholders for each project - product managers, business operations, analysts, Customer Experience Agents, and User Experience Research team (UER).

How is that different in comparison to Shopify?

First and foremost difference there is the growth opportunity: here in GRAB, I believe I will get to see the impact of our work soon and can iterate on it more often. Also, I would like to dig deep into other domains such as food and maps in the coming days.

Having worked in OLA Cabs, I think I have a better understanding of a few domains which will help me in building on top of my pre-requisite skillsets. Designing experiences for developing countries has always been fascinating to me.

Almost done. I’m wondering what’s an interesting or fun fact about yourself we wouldn’t find on your social media?

I think most people don't know that I was born in a small village in Eastern India, where my father was also born. We stayed there until my mid-high school days (till 7th standard), and my parents realized that they would like to provide me with the much better education system and exposure to the real world; so that was the time we moved to the city life.

The reason I wanted to bring up this facet of my life is twofold - (1) I try to make a conscious effort to remind myself where I come from, so that I can self motivate myself going forward and (2) to ensure that anybody who is very new to the industry and coming from a similar background will have more confidence. All it takes is hustle plus confidence in yourself. The rest will fall into place with time.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

That's a great question! I believe many of the readers will know this (if some of them follow me), that I am a big time foodie! I have always loved eating, trying new food and seeing people eat made me happy, but I realized that the process of making food/cooking gives me immense joy and it kind of works like a stress buster. That happened when I moved to Canada to work for Shopify all by myself. Youtube channels have been the God gifted source to me, which I used to watch religiously after work and I started cooking because I started missing my home food and Indian food is not affordable to buy every day in a foreign country.

That was the start of the journey! I stocked up all the spices necessary for cooking, and there was a time when my mom told me that I have more varieties of spices and utensils than her kitchen! (Thanks to my partner who used to visit me from India with suitcases filled with spices :D). So, yes, I appreciate food and the amalgamation it went through with the timeline. When I am not working, I am mostly trying to cook!

I mostly travel to eat good food, and I am very particular about it! All my trips to date have come with me rigorously planning and reserving each place where I would eat.

Bonus question: What’s your favorite avocado recipe?

I think it will be guacamole with lots of onions and chilies. The credit will go to my fiancé as he loves to eat Mexican food. :)

Want to stay in touch with Ivy? Find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, Medium or have a look at her website.

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