Case Study Talk

Simon Pan: Reflection, growth and the art of the case study

Simon Pan

He’s renowned for case studies such as Uber Magic 2.0 and Amazon Prime Music. Currently shaping the future of news at Google. In this interview, Simon Pan invites you into his design process and give his advice on what makes a successful design case study.

Hey Simon! Who are you and what's your background?

I’m a Bay Area-based Designer at Google, working to transform how people consume and comprehend the news.

I became interested in the news space when I realized how conscious decisions about my information diet became a positive influence in my life. Especially how I was seeking out provocative ideas that challenged my belief systems and approached topics with a beginners mind. When the news opportunity came up, it felt like an interesting way to align my work with my values.

"Ironically, learning to question or think critically about the world was inspired more by music than my education."

I grew up in the tiny town of Umina Beach in Australia. It’s everything you’d expect—small, white, and insular. In retrospect, growing up in a place like that was difficult, yet important towards shaping who I am. As a third culture kid, I had a confused sense of identity and belonging.

At a young age, I recognized that trying to surf or sport was never going to be my thing. I could never look the part, so I didn’t bother. What I lacked in hobbies, I found in music. As cliche as it sounds, I found comfort in it. When all the kids around me tried their hardest to assimilate to some standardized cool, I was much more interested in the mystery and individuality expressed through music. Spending time with music taught me to relate, to think, to question, and to broaden my view of what was out there.

The themes of thinking, questioning, and broadening has stuck with me throughout my life and really factor into deciding how I want to spend my time—personally and professionally. These themes inspired wanting to work in the news space and also drive my lust for travel, art, and learning.

How did you get into design and how would you describe yourself as a designer?

Growing up, I was obsessed with computers, music, and art. I spent a lot of time tinkering with the school PC’s, where I learned how to make websites. I eventually got my own PC and made a Nine Inch Nails fansite that had bootlegs, lyrics, guitar tabs, wallpapers, and MIDI ringtones.

At the time, I didn’t have any understanding of design or design careers. I thought design was all about creativity, and creativity was inherently natural in people. Even though I wanted to do creative things, the vision of a creative career felt so out of reach for me. I didn’t even consider design to be an option. Since I was good at computers (which at the time meant tinkering with software and making websites), I ended up naively enrolling in Computer Science. I had no idea what programming was or what I was getting myself into.

My first two years of University were a disaster. I couldn’t connect the theory with the bigger picture and didn’t understand the “why?” behind the assignments. I worked really hard and yet still flunked most of the programming classes. I really had a lot of trouble comprehending the material. This went on for years, and by my third year, I felt so lost.

Determined to finish my degree, I elected computing courses that didn’t include any programming. One of those courses was Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). HCI changed everything for me. It was the first course where I could see “the bigger picture” and the purpose behind the theory and work. It was also the first computing course where I excelled.

I was intrigued by the human-centered design process and decided to enroll in as much related coursework as I could—even after I was eligible to graduate. I got my first break when my HCI lecturer Daniel Woo offered me a role to work alongside him in the University’s HCI lab.

Working in the lab gave me a safe space to try and expand my design skills. I learned everything from foundational research, user testing, Interaction Design to front-end coding. I was constantly reading books and applying them into my day-to-day.

The first time I felt like I had designed something meaningful was for the Independent Living Center NSW (ILC NSW) project.—a not-for-profit government organization for allied health professionals and assistive technologies. This project showed me how using poorly designed technology could severely affect someone’s day-to-day. In this case, it was the staff’s ability to provide effective client care.

"Being immersed in the problem space allowed me to see how each small improvement I made mattered."

Eventually, those small improvements started to sum. People’s moods changed. People’s behavior changed. People’s potential changed. When I realized that design was all about envisioning and creating a better future for people I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

Tell us a little bit about your design process, how does it work for you?

Methodologically my process varies so much based on the type of project, the need, and the stage. What is consistent are these mindsets that I have found helpful:

Don’t wait for answers
When you feel a lack of clarity around what you should be doing, and no one can give you an answer—be proactive. A critical time for proactivity is at the start of a project where there is a lot of ambiguity or a false sense of consensus.

Based on my own experience, I’ve seen that projects are mostly motivated by feature ideas, not user needs. Generally, this type of motivations creates ambiguity for the people problem you’re trying to solve. Framing the people problem is the first step in any project that a designer can lead. If the problem is unclear, go find it. If the problem is framed around the business need, go find the area (if at all) where it intersects with a user need.

The team’s assumptions are the biggest risk to any project. Good teams will list them out and make a plan to learn more. Arrogant teams push forward and pretend they are doing something that’s good for users. I always try to play a critical role leading here by listing out the biggest areas of unknowns that carry the highest risk. Explicitly calling out the team’s assumptions is a good way to move forward.

Approach any solution with a strong disbelief system
I first heard the phrase disbelief system from Marty Neumeier’s The 46 Rules of Genius and instantly tried to embody it. Having a strong disbelief system means to be aware of confirmation bias based on the idea that ideology kills our spirit of inquiry.

So rather than starting from a place of belief that you’ve created a good design solution, start from a position of curiosity and skepticism. This becomes more challenging as you become more experienced because it’s much easier to reach for solutions that we have worked in the past. In other cases, we trick ourselves into thinking we are doing something on behalf of the user, when we are just entertaining our creative narcissism. I personally fall into this trap all the time and wonder if this stems from reconciling a deeper desire for expression and autonomy with designing in a business environment.

My advice here is to stay close to your users and continually ask yourself what would it take to see this fail?

Remember your “why?”
On any complex project, it’s easy to get bogged down into feeling the grind. Busywork and conflict can certainly make you feel uninspired.

Feeling uninspired can happen when you are disconnected with your “why?” So take the time to reflect on what attracted you to the work in the first place and figure out how to reactivate that. It could be something in the company or the team mission, the longer-term goals you set for yourself, or your core values.

Look for the growth breaks
On every project, I deliberately seek out opportunities to grow as a designer. I start by asking myself what I could try that’s new to me and makes me slightly uncomfortable. The key to getting better is called deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is a method of practicing which requires you to break down a larger skill into chunks and pair it with immediate feedback loops. Just doing is not enough.

If you’re stuck for ideas on where to grow, look for inspiration from adjacent design fields or analogous problem spaces. I do this by reading books or academic literature which often leads to a whole new world of techniques and lenses beyond what I’m capable of.

If you view every project as an opportunity to deliberately learn and expand your toolbox, you’ll get damn good in no time.

You have a track-record for documenting your work and writing amazing case studies. How has that helped you as a designer?

My personal challenge at the end of every major project I work on is to distill what happened into a narrative. This process of reflection helps me in three ways: personal growth, interview preparation, and teaching.

I truly believe that writing is thinking and distilling thoughts and experiences into something more meaningful is a tactic to help me think and recall better. I’m always looking for ways to get better at writing and writing long-form case-studies has been an outlet to practice this.

"For my professional growth, writing allows me to construct meaning from my experiences."

Initially, I started writing case studies as a reaction to what I was seeing in the design community. I found it disheartening how the final mock and the tangible elements of the design process were valued more than the elements that uniquely made us Interaction Designers. While I do believe that aesthetics are important, I disagree that a few screenshots, deliverables, and process artifacts can truly represent the skills of an Interaction Designer.

I was interested in writing about how the product worked; the skills (or lack of) used to bring the product to life; the context in which it was shaped—all the gritty and messy parts involved in defining the problem, uncovering the constraints, and exploring the solution space. I thought that telling a story about the actual process (not a contrived one) could help someone else better appreciate the elegance of the solution.

The fact that people feel connected to my case studies is awesome and unexpected. I’ve always approached the case study as a selfish tool for growth more than something for anyone else. I’m very grateful that the authenticity and details in my writing resonate with people.

What do you think is key to writing a successful design case study?

This really depends on your purpose for writing a case study. I'm going to assume that the majority of people are trying to land a job with a new employer.

My advice is to optimize for your audience, the context in which your case study will be used, and work backward from success. If you are writing a case study to land a job interview then you are successful when you have attracted the attention of the hiring manager. However, If you are writing a case study to impress a client, your case studies will need to do more than sell the quality of your work, but also the value of the services you can provide.

"In general, a good case study will need to communicate that you have the skills to do the job they need to fill."

The other goal of your case study is to create enough curiosity about you and your work that the hiring manager will consider how you might fit into the team.

Since hiring managers are extremely time poor, your top priority is to optimize for time, attention and skim reading. A successful case study will distill the most salient points of a project into a narrative. It’s critical that you focus on clear and well-structured writing for the role you’ve played, the skills you have, and the outcomes you drove. Remember, you have 5 minutes max.

If you communicate well, your hiring manager will be curious about what it might be like to work with you and consider following up with you to be worth their time.

If you’re writing a case study to present during the job interview, then you definitely want to focus on constructing your narrative as a presentation. How are you going to create an emotional connection with your audience? How are you going to sustain the attention of your audience? How are you going to show, not tell? The case study presentation is a chance to go deeper because you have a captive audience. You will get questions, so focus on communicating intentionality behind decisions and don’t present anything that you can’t justify.

In both scenarios, it’s important that you can confidently talk about your project, identify your skills gaps, and develop a better understanding of the type of role you’re looking for.

You're currently designing the future of news at Google. It sounds exciting, what can you tell us about it?

All I can say is that I’m very excited about the opportunity in the news space right now. The last ten years has resulted in a huge shift in the way people consume the news. While our levels of immediacy and access have evolved, the news experience has not.

I think this is a pivotal moment where Google can provide more value for both users and publishers with technology.

What's your best advice for aspiring designers looking to land their dream job?

The most useful advice I can give on this topic is to regurgitate Cal Newport’s advice from So Good They Can’t Ignore You. That is, if you want the rare and valuable qualities associated with a fulfilling job e.g. creativity, impact, and control you need to possess something rare and valuable to offer in return. Newport refers to the accumulation of those rare and valuable skills as career capital—something which can only be gained through deliberate practice.

For aspiring designers, it’s easy to focus on titles and salaries. My advice is to focus your energy on opportunities to build your skills, stretch yourself and solicit feedback. With enough projects and evidence of driving outcomes, you’ll be able to cash-in your career capital and choose the type of work and environment you find rewarding.

What do you hope to accomplish in the future?

The mental image of the skills I want to master and the types of projects I want to have done in the next 5 years includes:

→ Using my position and skills to give back to my community in a meaningful way.

→ Design the next generation of products, services, and systems for people that are underserved and marginalized.

→ To be able to more critically think about the role of technology, humanity, meaning, and ethics and have a perspective that someone might give a damn about.

→ Live a more creative and artistic life outside of work by identifying what I want to say and figuring out the medium or platform to say it.

Where can we go to learn more about you and your work?

You can also follow me on Twitter or see more of my work at simonpan.com.

I’m also currently writing a book to help designers build a great portfolio, nail the design interview, and land the UX job they’ll love. If you’re interested sign-up to my mailing list to get updates.