Facebook is known for a lot of things. For being the biggest social network ever, for having an extensive design and engineering team, and for its founders’ other ventures. One of them is Asana, co-founded in 2008 by Dustin Moskovitz. It’s a shared task list service designed to improve the way teams communicate and collaborate. I’ve used it in the past, and it’s very efficient at what it does. And although branded for teams, the web and mobile app works just as well for individuals. One of the main reasons for this is the interface. Asana’s design team did an amazing job at making a seemingly complex idea super simple.
Today, we’re speaking to Stephanie Hornung, its lead designer. Stephanie has done a lot as the founding designer of such a big startup. And with big startups come even bigger engineering teams, with which she’s been able to hold her own. We ask her how she found her way into the design field, what her experiences have taught, and what makes her tick.
Who are you? Let us know where you hail from and what you do.
In the simplest terms, I’m a New Yorker who has been indoctrinated by the easy way of life in California. So basically I have a lot of strong opinions and am pretty goal-oriented, but have learned to be less attached to outcomes if things don’t go as planned. This is a great fit for being a designer in a fast-paced start-up like Asana.
As the first designer to join the team over 2 years ago, my role has evolved from UX design and product strategy to include growing our brand, building our design team, and evangelizing design thinking and culture at all levels of the company.
How did you get into design? Was it a case of being a creative kid, and that evolving, or did you only get into it later on?
I was kind of a creative kid, but more in an angsty teen sort of way — lots of art classes, always drawing and doodling, trying to make my own clothes, etc. I wasn’t particularly good at any of it though. I romanticized art, and didn’t really understand the amount of work and practice it takes. And because I had this desire to be an “artsy girl” I ignored my talent for math and science. I pretended it wasn’t there because it didn’t fit into the model of who I thought I was.
Then there was more floundering through college, where I got a basic liberal arts education — I literally have a Bachelors of General Studies. I didn’t actually contemplate design as a career choice until graduate school, where I thought I was studying to be a librarian! It was there that I discovered the possibility of using my talent for logical problem solving and finding patterns (which reared it’s now-lovely head in math class) to create beauty and enjoyment for other people.
I count myself as lucky to have found a career path that allows me to use both parts of my brain, to be creative and logical, and to build things that are both useful and delightful.
How did you join Asana and why?
Joining Asana as the first designer was a big decision for me. The product was in a proof-of-concept phase, so there was a lot of work to do to get in shape. But from my first phone conversation with Justin Rosenstein, I knew there was something there. Asana’s mission is to change the way people work together, to help people be both more productive and less overwhelmed by their work. Achieving this mission could positively impact a large part of the world…. What designer wouldn’t want to be involved in something so huge?
Enterprise applications historically haven’t been as sexy or exciting to work on as consumer and social apps, but there really isn’t a good reason they can’t be. Justin and Dustin both showed me that one of their goals was to change this misconception — to bring the simplicity and delight of consumer products to people’s work life. This was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up.
What are you working on?
One of the biggest challenges with Asana is that it’s a collaboration tool. In order for a team to be completely successful with the product, a good portion of the team needs to use it. This means that you not only have to show a single person that the product works, you have to engage an entire team, where each person may have a different role.
On top of that, there is a fundamental problem in information organization: how do we collectively organize and manage information when everyone working with it has different mental models, uses different words to describe things, and has different priorities? These things can even change within the same person depending on current needs. Just think about how you organize your documents and files — you believe the system you start with makes sense, but over time your needs change and it gets difficult to remember your original intention, so finding things and deciding where to put new ones becomes a challenge. With a collaboration tool like Asana, this problem is amplified because you have multiple people building the system together.
These are pretty big problems, which I am probably tackling in every project I work on in Asana. In fact, I could probably say these are problems I’ve dealt with throughout my career in one way or another. But right now, I’m facing them head-on, with features that focus on organizing projects and teammates more fluidly.
So, in short, my biggest goals right now are (1) finding ways for people to get their team on to Asana (2) help them find the teams they should be part of; and (3) and create ways for people to organize and focus on the projects they care about.
Tell us about your setup. What tools did you use to create the shot(s)?
As a Fireworks enthusiast, I’m in a small but dedicated community of designers. It saddens me that the tool just doesn’t get the love it deserves from Adobe, because it has some extremely powerful features that I’d hate to give up. I find the ability to create clickable prototypes that look and feel like our app, complete with hover interactions, without writing a ton of code, indispensable.
I believe that interaction and visual design are so closely tied that I tend to do both at the same time. Of course, I start high level with sketches, or often times Balsamiq mocks so I can share the ideas, but once things get into real interactions I tend to iterate on visuals and interaction at the same time.
Choose a favorite piece of your design work. Tell us why it’s a favorite.
Well, since after a bit of time and usage, I tend to view my work in terms of how it can be improved, I’d have to say my favorite piece right now is Inbox, the most recently released major feature I’ve worked on. We’d been planning for over a year to add a notification feed of sorts to the product, to allow people to get out of email and benefit from the fast interactions that are core to Asana.
We intuited that one of the big goals here was helping people sift through all the notifications by improving the signal-to-noise problem that our current email solution had. This implied that we’d need a reliable algorithm for determining important stories, which seemed like a dangerous thing to test. One of Asana’s core values is trust — we want our users to feel like they know what’s going on and that nothing has fallen through the cracks. If we implemented a ranking algorithm that didn’t work for everyone, we’d break that trust. This was a risk we didn’t want to take, but we weren’t sure how to increase that importance-signal without it.
So we decided to try out some simpler things and see how they felt. And it turned out, we didn’t need that ranking at all! By grouping stories around a task as they come in we could give people a similar functionality as conversations in Gmail, without the multitude of messages, repetitiveness of quoting, and confusing chronology. And by showing everything in a feed style, processing content is much faster because it can be skimmed and only acted upon if needed.
So why is this a favorite? I’d have to say it’s because we tried out something simple and iterated on it internally until we found something we felt worked. I worked with a great team, and we put the time and energy into making something we all believed in. It was really the success of the iterative process that makes it a favorite. Of course there are things that can be improved on it, but it feels like a success because it has had a big influence on how I work, and how I interact with my coworkers via Asana.
What else do you do when you’re not designing?
When I’m not designing, I’m probably being nerdy about something else. I grew up dancing (I can probably kick higher than anyone you know), and have a debilitating obsession with music, especially Detroit techno and 60’s psych-rock. That might seem like an odd pair, but they both make me feel crazy in the most enjoyable and inspiring way.
While music has always been my go-to for opening my thought process to new things, I’ve recently started going a more traditional route. I’m learning to blow glass, which is incredibly difficult but quite rewarding and full of life lessons. It’s a great exercise in learning to take risks and push your limits for the chance at beauty, be in the moment, and detach yourself from the results — since nine times out of ten what you’re working on will shatter on the floor.
What was your biggest success as a creative? Failure?
No project ever goes exactly as planned, and even those that end well are full of opportunities to learn. Thinking in terms of success and failure would imply to me that there’s a goal of perfection, which I could never achieve, and would probably make me really depressed! I much prefer to think of my work as always building on the skills I’ve learned at each turn, regardless of the outcome.
Who are you design role models? The ones who you “like” each of their Dribbble shots.
When I’m looking for visual inspiration, I look to Kerem Suer and Veerle Pieters who have so much style they makes me gush, as well as some illustrators like Grzegorz Ostrowski. I’ve also admired Matthew Smith since his days with Pattern Tap.
What are some designs or products that you feel are underrated or overlooked?
I’ve been impressed lately with some of the products coming out of Microsoft. It’s really admirable and, dare I say ballsy, to completely reimagine the way we work, especially given their size and customer base. They took a big risk, are pushing the limits of design, and have the resources and reach to determine what works. These new ideas aren’t relegated to specialized fields or small early-adopter communities, they’re being used by broad swaths of society. Everyone deserves good design, and I think it’s really wonderful that large companies are recognizing that and investing in it.
What is your main goal as a designer? What do you seek out to accomplish?
To help people achieve their goals by making their lives easier. That sounds pretty cheesy, huh?
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
If you asked me 5 years ago, I don’t think I would have guessed I’d be where I am now, so I tend not to take part in these sorts of predictions. I look forward to finding out what sort of product I’m working on and with whom! I hope it’s something I love and that it makes people’s lives more enjoyable.
From your experiences and career, what words of wisdom can you share to up and coming designers?
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Design isn’t black and white, and while you may believe your designs will have a certain effect, sometimes there’s just no predicting it. So do your best to really hear out all opinions and feedback. Sometimes it’s valid, but all of the time, just making your team feel heard is the best way to get them on board.
Here’s a tip: When getting feedback from your team on a design, don’t defend your design, instead ask clarifying questions about their feedback. If they’re presenting a different solution, take notes on that solution and try to take a few minutes to explore its implications together without comparing it to your design. Chances are you’ll discover a problem, and if you don’t it might be something you can incorporate! And if they’re giving prescriptive visual feedback, try to uncover why they feel the way they do and go back over your goals — it’s possible one of you has lost sight of what you’re trying to do. Regardless of the outcome, your teammates will appreciate being taken seriously.