Carla Gonzales is a Staff Product Designer at Slack, on the Lifecycle team. In this interview with the Slack Design + Research blog, she shares her strategies for getting good feedback, managing large groups of stakeholders, growing her career, and staying resilient. Content condensed and edited.
How do you know when the right time is to ask for feedback?
It has become a more regular practice in our team to simply not think of feedback as something that only happens at certain point in time. Feedback contained to a single meeting, for instance, makes it feel more like a deadline, and doesn’t give proper space for collaboration or exploration. It also doesn’t provide the best conditions for those giving feedback to be as thoughtful as they can be.
We’re trying to get rid of “feedback as a milestone” basically, and instead, make it a more open and constant dialogue from the start, keeping in mind that prototypes and products themselves are in constant change. Particularly when testing a prototype, those giving feedback should do so grounded in reality, the actual use of a feature over a longer period of time.
How do you usually get feedback, and how do you prioritize it?
Giving context on the state of the project and the type of feedback you’re looking for helps. However, folks should feel welcome to express the feedback that they want to give, even if it’s not precisely what you were looking for. It’s often more effective and inclusive to hear everybody and assess the feedback critically based on user needs and project goals. When working cross-functionally with non-designers, not everyone speaks the same language and terminology can get in the way. It’s critical that the designer understands the feedback well and know what the root of the problem is, rather than executing on a suggested solution that might not have been thought out holistically.
How do you stay resilient and motivated when you’re working on a project with lots of feedback and stakeholders?
I feel like every time I work on a new feature, it is informed by everything else I’ve done in the past. There’s a certain kind of confidence that just happens naturally as you gain more experience as a designer. However, if you’re challenging yourself, you will continually face design problems that increase in scope and stakeholder involvement; feedback will always be something you’ll need to include in your process.
My general advice is to not take feedback personally. You can learn how to be a bit detached, but to be completely desensitized you would need to be a robot, really. Stress and frustration is normal, and it’s best to have some compassion for your feelings and maintain perspective. For highly competitive or challenging jobs, where working long hours, for instance, is unavoidable, you have to make a real effort to take care of your physical and creative self. That will help you think clearly and realize feedback is often good in the sense that it gets you a step closer to a better informed design solution.
What do you wish you had known about feedback and about being resilient earlier in your career, right out of school?
I think younger me thought that I would reach a point where I wouldn’t make any mistakes. Especially because I started my career working at graphic design studios, an environment where the idea of “mastering the craft” is very common. You do become better at your job over time, but this idea that you’re going to master it all, have all the answers right away — that’s not gonna happen. Especially in our industry, where things change so fast. To some extent nobody knows exactly what they’re doing in product design, and that’s what makes our jobs quite exciting.
I also think I wasn’t always aware of the effects of being different when working in a very homogeneous team. The majority of my experience has been in teams where I was the only person of color: the only one with an accent or without education from a specialized art school. If you can recognize that you might be undergoing stress due to isolation or simply not having close peers, it is important to consider whether or not that is an environment where you can truly thrive and act accordingly. Your creativity will thank you.
Who do you look up to or try to model your career after?
I’ve always tried to work with people that I considered smart and kind. Surrounding yourself with people that are good at what they do and generous about it is one of the best things you can do. And this can be in regards to designers doing individual contributor type of work, but also managers and other roles. One of the people at Slack that I admire is Tina Chen, the design manager in the Platform design team. She’s sharp, pragmatic and empathetic in a way that really helps you grow. And I think that comes from her resilience and ability to always turn every situation into an opportunity. Her leadership and generosity has such a multiplier effect amongst people in the team. Every time I talk to her, I want to be as helpful towards others as she is.
Outside of design, there are many stories of particularly women in the entertainment industry that I have followed over the years. Writers like Jill Soloway (of Transparent) and Jenji Kohan (Orange is the New Black) who had the conviction to tell the stories they wanted to tell on television, I think you have to be extremely resilient to thrive in a writers room or to pitch your project a hundred times until you get what you want.
How do you build trust within a team?
Trust for me comes from working together and getting to know people at a deeper level. There’s definitely a certain level of bonding that comes from launching a feature together. We have spaces for informally socializing at Slack, whether it is team lunches or our #random channels, but I personally prefer having individual lunches with the people that I work with, to get a better sense of how they are doing. I appreciate knowing if someone is going through health issues or has worked until very late last week. Our jobs ask from us to be creatively vulnerable and kindness during stressful moments is often the best condition you can provide others to perform well.