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Beyond the Screen: Stéphane Martin

What makes a good design leader? Stéphane Martin knows: It’s about having a comprehensive overview of how design affects business. We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Stéphane, about his career as a designer and manager, and current role as Principal UX Designer at Riot Games, developers of the most-played PC game in the world.

As a part of his day to day, Stéphane focused on product design strategy, UX research, design as a discipline, and the hiring and coaching of designers. A product design leader with 13 years of experience in design and tech, Stéphane specializes in SaaS products - free or subscription - with high traffic and large, specific audience. Through his work in this field, he’s learned the importance of design trade-off, and profoundly knowing your customers.

How did you get your start in product design and what drew you to UX design specifically?

I've always been attracted to new technologies and was eager to see what the future for technology holds. It has impacted many aspects of my life, from Binge-watching sci-fi series, trying out the latest trendy gadget, and eventually my work life.

I started as a print graphic designer but felt like something was missing: Something exciting; Something that would resonate more with me and satisfy my endless curiosity.

Print graphic design was stale for me, but the web seemed to be continually evolving. At the time, new technologies were appearing almost every six months.

I found the constant need for adaptation compelling, with the positive consequence of keeping my job from being monotonous.

As I gained more experience, I realized I was more attracted to problem-solving than the graphic design aspect, and once I discovered the endless depth of UX, I was hooked!

You write a lot about design leadership. What are some common misconceptions of design leadership, and why is it more important that leaders take the position of coach, rather than mentor?

A common misconception of design leadership is to think that it's focused on design. This can lead to choosing the wrong success metrics and impact collaboration with peer disciplines. A usual sign is feeling like design doesn't have a seat at the table at your company.

Ultimately, it's about business: How solving problems through design impacts the business of your company.

When it comes to coaching, my primary goals are to help individuals grow in their craft, the team work better as a group, and ultimately produce better results.

I assume people closer to the product are better equipped to solve customers' problems. With that in mind, a coaching approach will empower designers to make better decisions for customers. It strives for better autonomy and mastery, which helps retain talented professionals. If you're frequently providing the answers, it'll hinder their problem-solving ability.

Ultimately, it's about business: How solving problems through design impacts the business of your company.

For many designers, a promotion can mean less design work and more managerial and administrative tasks. What's your advice for designers who are looking to advance their careers while still doing what they love?

It's all about knowing yourself. Don't think about money and focus on what you love. If you enjoy design work more than management, never accept a management position if it's just for a raise or a sense of advancement. Nowadays, senior individual contributors can earn salaries that are better than or equivalent to the salaries of senior managers in tech companies.

Think of yourself in a T shape. It means having a solid base in all aspects of design (the top of the T) while specializing in a specific topic (the bar of the T).

To find where to specialize, you have to understand what you love doing. What excites you. Something that doesn't feel like work to you. It will usually be one of your strengths. Focus on this strength instead of your weaknesses. And if you can't use it in your current company, find an organization that needs that specific skill.

That said, if you do enjoy managing people, you have to embrace a new perspective. As long as you're solving problems, you're still doing design. It's just a different kind of design at a higher level.

When you're reviewing a designer's portfolio, what stands out for you? What separates a great UX designer from the rest of the pack?

Good designers write use cases. Great designers write compelling stories.

When I read the typical use case on a designer portfolio, it seems like everything went perfectly according to plan. The design process respected perfectly — a joyful ride.

First, I can't believe this since it's rare. Second, I want to know how you react in a real-life environment where things are messy and hard, and where it'll be impossible to execute a perfect design plan.

People stand out when they highlight struggles, challenges and how they overcame them. This makes it easier to think about how they would react in my current company where we have strains.

What if the researcher is on holiday and you have to start designing now and do research later? What if you're working on a secret project and can't talk to customers? What if it's impossible to get quantitative data? You get the idea.

Highlighting a few great stories is far better than showing too much design work: It shows that you can select and prioritize. I'm usually convinced after one or two good cases. What's more, you're just setting the stage for choice paralysis.

Good designers write use cases. Great designers write compelling stories.

As a design company, we've seen design and design thinking take on an increasingly critical role in product design teams and even in the rethinking of company culture. How do you see the role of design and design-thinking changing in organizations?

I think design is getting more critical in organizations thanks to customers. Nowadays, everybody with a smartphone knows what good design looks like. They've used good and bad apps, and expectations have grown. For this reason, design as a competitive advantage has become more evident to companies.

It's one thing to get feedback from fellow designers, but as design teams know, in an organizational setting, most feedback comes from non-designers. Do you have any tips for how to handle these, often tricky, feedback sessions?

These conversations are crucial, and designers need them to build great products. We need to collaborate with other disciplines to design the best solutions.

I recently wrote an article that covers this topic called, "5 tips for handling difficult feedback from non-designers", so I won't go too deep in details here, but here's a few things you can do:

     
  • Set the context and manage expectations
  •  
  • Handle difficult conversations by asking questions instead of entering a conflict
  •  
  • Manage stakeholders through data-informed decisions
  •  
  • Remember that you own the end result, and every piece of feedback doesn't need to be implemented

Since working at Riot, how have you seen the world of gaming and gamers evolve?

The gaming world is becoming more inclusive, and it's reflected in design. Nowadays, gaming is also seen as a meaningful career and passion.

It's easy to imagine that UX in the entertainment and gaming space is more exciting than in more traditional industries like banking or health. In your experience, how similar or different is UX based on the industry?

Coming from the tech world, I expected UX in gaming to be vastly different. Surprisingly, it's the same! I feel like I'm doing the same job that I was doing before, and that's the beauty of UX: It can be the same job in different industries.

Finally, do you have any advice for designers who are conducting UX research and user tests remotely and from home?

It's a good practice to keep human nature in mind while conducting research. The people interviewed are usually stressed during testing, and want to please you unconsciously.

Make the candidate feel comfortable. It should be effortless to access the design you're testing with no chance of them feeling it's not working because of them.

It's also crucial to see the facial expression of a person talking, as it can change the meaning of what they say. Your goal is to understand what they really think, not just what they say.

If you don't have the budget for a fancy research app, Google Hangouts or Zoom is more than enough as long as you can link to a prototype or design.

Want to hear more from Stéphane? Follow him on MediumandTwitter.

Know someone you think we should interview next? Let Maya know: maya@goodpatch.com

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Maya Guice

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Maya Guice

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