Sustainability, equality & kindness in design and life by Jade Tan

December 18, 2019

A few times I met Jade, she was a pocket of sunshine, interested and curious about what you had to say. You don’t meet many people who ask about your day or your job and are genuinely interested. Jade is. She was recommended by Tanya and Alix in their Storyo interviews. So here we are! Jade does incredible work in the design space and NZ tech. She is an ex-Director of Product Design at Vend, current Director of Product Experience at Vital, Ultimate Frisbee enthusiast and a poke bowl trend starter (if you have ever eaten a delicious trendy rice bowl with salmon or tuna, thank Jade!)

Jade, tell us a bit about your journey into the design world?

The purpose of design is to compose and deliver complex ideas in simple, meaningful ways. Ways that speak to us, that connect us, that give us the power to act.

That might sound profound, but as a kid, I started off with mostly mindless doodles. Like many Asian kids, I grew up with an unhealthy dose of textbooks and finger wagging. Open any of my books though, and you’ll find a canvas full of pencil scribbles, scratching stories of my daily humdrum, visual momentos, and pure imagination.

The first serious thought about what to do with all that came after high school, with the existential question:

“What will you be happy to do, for free, everyday for the rest of your life?”

I decided to dedicate myself to learning the fundamentals of design, and began applying it to a variety of disciplines — graphic design, illustration, advertising, editorial, brand design…

Eventually, I found a deep curiosity and passion for the field of UX (user experience). Designing digital objects for everyday people. Learning how to create a symphony of shapes, colours, typography, icons, movement, and layouts, to bring functional value, purposeful utility, and captivating delight.

But what really interested me was the fact that it is impossible to create successful designs without deeply understanding what pains, impairs and disadvantages people. Then, the real challenge is to make use of that to develop a compelling solution through technology to help us better ourselves, our communities, our workspaces, and our environment.

So if you ask me, design is a journey of fulfilling two things: accessibility and empowerment.

As an absolute admirer of visual design, the work you have done looks amazing 😍 What have been some of your favourite & interesting projects that you worked on?

Interestingly enough, the first UX project I worked on had no visual design!

In 2012, I was working on an app to help people who were blind and visually impaired better navigate the world around them. We called it Mobile Eye.

Back then, mobile accessibility standards was poor, if not non-existent. Many in the blind community were denied touchscreen devices, as it simply was not usable by non-sighted people. Things changed when smartphones like iOS3 and Windows 7 finally integrated VoiceOver technology into all parts of their OS.

This made all the difference. Blind users could now trail their finger across the glass screen and hear each item be read out loud, before double-tapping to make an action.

With that, Mobile Eye allowed many to see using their smartphones for the first time. Users could switch on their camera to scan what was in front of them, and swipe in different ways to figure out things like colour, text, and brightness. It sounds simple today, but Mobile Eye was first of its kind to shine light on the day-to-day tasks that are often taken for granted. For example:

1. What's the colour of this shirt?

2. What's on the menu?

3. Which of these 2 cans are cat food or tomato soup?

This was made possible by working alongside teammates Aakash Polra and In-Hwan Kim, in collaboration with the Royal NZ Blind Foundation.

A more recent project was designing and launching Shaka Bowl, a surf-casual eatery that brought Hawaiian poké to Auckland city. We started with humble origins as a market popup, and within a year, this passion project became a double-location business — a little personal success story I’m quite fond of!

Shaka Bowl eatery

Your longest stint was at Vend (a retail and inventory management system software company that started out of Auckland). Tell us about your journey there? How did the challenges change for you when you became Director of Product Design?

I hit a massive growth curve there. Over the course of 5 years, I grew from an individual contributor, to eventually leading and managing the product design department.

However, it’s not something I claim sole credit for. Being surrounded by incredible people and managers who were highly talented and experienced shaped me profoundly. With the right amount of support from Vend’s leadership team, I was able to create a space to experiment, push boundaries, and challenge standards.

We accomplished great things — from unifying a fragmented product into a cohesive pattern library, and growing the design team to be humble and inclusive; to designing a product that is now a category leader in the retail market.

That moulded my approach to leadership, which is something I’m still learning and reshaping today. I think of my role as a leader to be one who builds soft foundations for diverse teams to flourish, and equips people with the tools and skills to challenge ideas, resolve conflict, and manage change.

Jade cycling - beautiful water view at the back

People expect a lot from any form of leadership. Whether it is your parents, teachers, government or managers at work. We don’t often see these people admit that they don’t know what they are doing or feel scared or worried. Could you share some of these experiences that you might resonate with in the leadership roles that you held / hold?

I don’t think I’ll ever figure out what I’m doing. When I’m feeling blows of imposter syndrome, the negativity hits hard: What am I doing here? What value am I even bringing? What am I doing that others are not already capable of doing?

I’ve learned to recognise this thought pattern of self-deprecation.

Similarly, I’ve also learned to recognise when I feel on top of my game. And powerful. And worthy. The moment when I nailed a challenge uniquely well, and basked in the praise and recognition (this second bit requires with the awkward ability to take a compliment, which is a topic for another time!)

What comes next is difficult but not impossible. On a bad day, sit on those negative thoughts. Yes, let it flow, don’t deny yourself. Question these thoughts, reflect on what went wrong, ask why this issue means so much to you.

Then, know how great it feels having overcome the pain and doubt. Know that you’ve won before, and will win again. Know that this is what growth feels like.

This helps when I’m stuck on my own. But really, the best remedy is having someone to talk to, who can unapologetically remind me that this woman exists in me.

What are you inspired by? When choosing a project or a job - what drives these decisions?

It’s the people, and the product.

Over the years, I’ve come to develop values that I care a lot about. Sustainability. Equality. Kindness.

Believe me, like with everything, design can be a tool for harm and manipulation (search: ‘dark UX patterns’).

I want to use design for good. To solve problems for people and humanity. To be part of a world where technology works for people, not the other way around.

Tell us about Vital? What do you currently do there?

I currently work at Vital, a startup for doctors, nurses and patients in emergency rooms. We’re building a world where patients and family members know what’s happening in the ER, and what to expect next – in what might be the worst day of their lives.

Amidst the chaos, we want to equip care teams and ER staff with digital tools to make faster, more accurate decisions. The goal is to help them provide better patient experiences, and speed up the bottlenecks that often result in long wait times.

Being in an early stage startup, I have my hands stretched wider than I thought they could go. I design the entire UX (user experience) and UI (user interface), work with different teams to plan and execute on our pilots, and manage the discovery and delivery process of our product as we carve a path to product-market fit.

It's a tough challenge. But I'm so inspired by the people in healthcare and specifically emergency care.

Vital design by Jade, title reads: “Optimize Your Flow with Artificial Intelligence”

What brings you joy in a day to day life?

Cycling to work! It’s a great workout. I get to ride alongside native bush and birds over dedicated cycle paths in the inner city. I skip traffic. And most of all, I contribute to carbon-emission-free commutes!

And finally, whose story would you want to read about on here?

Nicola Horlor (product designer I used to work with at Vend) and Mandy Perichon (senior javascript engineer at Vital)!!

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