Shadow My Day as Principal of Swim Interaction Design Studio in San Francisco

 

Gitta Salomon@gittasalomon | swimstudio.com
Hi, I’m Gitta! I run a boutique UX design studio, Swim, in San Francisco and have done so since 1996.  Before opening Swim, I worked for IDEO and prior to that at Apple, so I have almost 30 years (gasp!) of experience working as an interaction designer. I live in San Francisco with my husband Ovid and two sons, Kaleil (15) and Ilan (12). 

 

6:45 am Alarm — I listen to 15 minutes of NPR news and then I get up. Usually, Kaleil’s in the shower and Ilan needs a few rounds of prodding to get moving. I put on my running clothes and head downstairs to release the meowing cats from the garage for their breakfast. Ovid joins me and we start packing lunches for the kids and making breakfast. 

7:40 am Departures — Ovid drives Ilan to school. Kaleil checks his transit app – his bus is suddenly coming in three minutes. I help him with a verbal checklist while he throws together all his stuff and we head out together. I leave him at the bus stop around the corner and continue to Golden Gate Park for my run. 

Family of geese at Stow Lake

Family of geese at Stow Lake

7:50 am Exercise — I frequently run around Stow Lake and love noting the seasonal changes (there are baby geese!). I like how my mind drifts. Often I solve an interface issue or a family logistics problem by vaguely focusing on it.  

8:30 am Breakfast — I make some oatmeal, catch up on a bit of email, take a shower and then meticulously hand grind coffee beans for a single shot of espresso produced by my worn-out, stovetop Italian coffee maker. I steam some milk.  It’s a ritual I love, and my sole cup of caffeine daily.

My single cup espresso maker. 

My single cup espresso maker. 

9:00 am Work Starts — With my latte in hand, I head downstairs to the in-law unit aka Swim Studio HQ. We were in a few different studios downtown over the years, but almost 10 years ago we moved downstairs when our nanny had to stop working and I needed to do some quick scaling back. The commute is easy and since working virtually works well, Swim’s stayed in the space. We have a deal with Regus, so we use flexible office space downtown when we need it. 

There are 3 desks in the studio. Beth – one of the designers – sits at the desk next to mine. The other Swim employee – Jason – works from his home in Oakland. The extra desk is for the occasional intern or one of our extended network of subcontractors. These days we mostly communicate over Slack and Skype and Google Hangouts. Both Beth and Jason have worked at Swim for many years; they are like family. We argue (constructively, for the most part) and brainstorm concepts effectively using shorthand lingo we’ve developed.

We have a few subcontractors we’ve also worked with a lot over the years – members of the extended family – and they might Skype in also, depending on what is going on. Swim has always been a flexible workplace, and since I like to work on projects more than I like to manage them, we’ve always stayed small. That way I am ‘hands-on’ with every project.

9:45 am Email and Calendaring — I usually deal with emails and the calendar first. Inevitably there are meeting conflicts, client deadline changes, networking events to sign up for, and one or two kid appointments to juggle. I’ve usually mentally queued up several items to disseminate, e.g., a job opportunity to send to a professional colleague, a UX-related article on Medium to post on Slack for us swimmers to read, an article for a former client that points out their competitor is doing something we considered when we conducted research together. Often I send some constructive criticism to somebody about their product. I give lots of products a try, and if I note a UX problem, I’ve lately taken to sending an email. I enjoy this role as “central dispatch”; I love finding connections and making them. 

Conferring with Beth about how the visual design does (and doesn't) support the interaction design.

Conferring with Beth about how the visual design does (and doesn't) support the interaction design.

10:45 am Conferring on Client Feedback — While I’m doing my outbound communications, Beth leans over and asks me to have a look at the current build one of our clients just sent. We designed the original comprehensive wireframes for a responsive web app a while ago. Since then, we’ve scaled it back for an MVP and modified our designs (several times) to address changing requirements and implementation constraints. The visual design is being done in-house. As they convert our wireframes into final visuals, they sometimes misinterpret our design directions. We both notice that the relationship between two features is not being communicated correctly – the interface implies the two functions are at the same level, but one really ‘owns’ the other. Beth knows exactly which people on the client team need to hear a bit more rationale behind our design intent and she starts drafting an email. 

11:15 am Resuming My To-Do List — I turn back to more juggling of email and the items on my mental to do list. We'll be doing a handful of user studies to support an internal design team soon, so I provide feedback to our recruiters about the screener that will be fielded shortly. I touch base about the logistics for a webinar I’m giving for a startup accelerator next week. I check in with my intern over a Google Hangout to find out how he is doing on the questionnaire we are planning to send out soon. He’s a college student who is studying Human Factors Engineering at Tufts, and we’re doing a pro bono project for the local high school he attended.  

Ted and I discuss the questionnaire he is putting together.

Ted and I discuss the questionnaire he is putting together.

I spend the remaining time before lunch revising the content for my webinar. I use the questions I received the last time I presented to add content and clarify ideas.

12:00 pm Noon Lunch – I head upstairs and heat up some soup I made last night in my pressure cooker (more on that later). I usually eat in front of my computer, reading the New York Times, perusing the LinkedIn feed or skimming articles people have sent me.

12:45 pm Proposal Writing — I start writing a proposal for a potential new client. I told them I would send a draft to review in 2 days, so it’s time to get going. I find that — as painful and time consuming as it is — thinking through the inputs we need, the tasks we should do, and the specific goals we need to achieve is incredibly helpful for both the client and Swim. I usually coax myself to bust out the first draft as quickly as I can, knowing that Beth or Jason will provide insightful feedback once the backbone is in place. 

Even though I have created several proposal templates over the years, they never seem to be quite right for a specific client’s needs. I always end up crafting a significant amount of custom content in order to adapt our user-centered process to each client's unique situation, including their schedule and financial constraints, the internal teams' make-up, the nature of the domain and the state of the work done to date. 

Once I start writing, I get completely sucked in. I also usually spend quite a bit of time with the calendar, considering where we could get derailed by the client’s internal delays, or scheduling of user observation subjects, and how likely our other current projects are going to slip or conflict with what I am proposing. It’s a giant jigsaw puzzle. What I’ve learned over the years: the puzzle pieces can keep changing shape, so one can only plan so much. I always err on the side of not overcommitting – we want to be sure to make our clients happy AND keep our sanity.

Swim’s design for all elements of the screen mask

Swim’s design for all elements of the screen mask

2:30 pm Collaborating on Design Work — Jason pings me on Slack. He wonders if I saw the email he forwarded, if I’m available to discuss. Jason and I are working with We Care Solar, a non-profit that delivers solar-based lighting for third world medical facilities that have no electricity. Jason forwarded me an email from the offshore team whom our client contracted to produce the custom display mask. They’ve sent an “interpretation” of his work (he meticulously worked out the placement of all icons, segmented character elements, grid elements, etc. so that all system states are communicated clearly). We are systems thinkers and very thorough, so Jason has rationale for every element and its relative placement. I skim the email and it looks like the offshore team didn’t understand that rationale, and have come up with a layout that is relatively arbitrary with respect to user comprehension, but likely meets some technological constraints. 

Reviewing what our client’s offshore team produced

Reviewing what our client’s offshore team produced

Jason and I try to unpack their reasons for making the changes. We carefully construct a limited number of questions that we want to ask them. From experience, we know we need to be strategic – we don’t want them to be overwhelmed by a barrage of English or irritated at what might be perceived as too much meddling. This type of work is pretty key to what we do – we design, but we also need to communicate effectively. And we need to pick our battles. Jason and I agree on the main points, he reaches out to schedule a call and he drafts an email that will lay the groundwork for a productive conversation.

4:00 pm More Proposal Writing — I turn back to my proposal writing and push myself to finish it up. I share the draft with Jason and Beth, letting them know where I feel it needs the most attention. I look forward to their feedback and working on a final rewrite tomorrow.

6:00 pm Work Ends — The Swim workday is over. Occasionally, if there is a big deadline, I may work an evening or weekend, but I try to keep that in check. I head upstairs and see the kids are doing homework after getting themselves home on Muni. They are starving, and have already finished a bunch of snack foods. I get out the pressure cooker and start our soup du jour. I pick out a good mix from the vegetables in the fridge and I'm thankful I remembered to soak some beans in the morning – I can get vegetable bean soup, salad and pasta on the table in about an hour. After dinner, the rest of the evening is family time.