Samara at work during synthesis and ideation.

Design Leadership and Finding Your Design Path: An Interview with Samara Watkiss

Samara Watkiss graduated from AC4D in 2015. Since graduating, she has led design at Austin start-up Click Security, which was acquired by Alert Logic in April of 2016. In this wide ranging discussion, we look at how Samara found AC4D; review the evolution of her final project Summit, a financial app geared towards helping millennials pay down debt; and reflect on what it means to be a designer and collaborative leader.

How did you find Austin Center for Design?

In previous design and strategy roles, I kept ending up working on what I later came to know as interaction design challenges; for example, I was asked “hey, can you make a user flow for this?” and “could you figure out the game mechanics for this Facebook game?” I knew I was good at it, and I was actually better at it than straight graphic design. In time, I realized this was interaction design.

I looked at a variety of schools. I looked at California College of the Arts — there were a couple that seemed interesting, but were often extremely expensive, were multiple years in duration, and I already had some professional momentum so I wasn’t looking to take many years out of the workforce. And I realized I was also interested in developing a better business sense, because I think designers who understand and can speak the language of business and can bring that narrative together with their perspective of creativity and empathy are most effective and get a seat at the table in strategic decision making, which is definitely what I want.

I had heard of AC4D, and I reached out to Jon Kolko and said “can I come visit?” Girls Guild (a company formed by AC4D graduates focused on empowering young girls by connecting them to women makers) was working that day I came to the studio, so I also got to talk to them. I followed that up by doing the AC4D Design for Impact bootcamp. I was like, “Oh!” That confirmed it was the thing for me. Then I discovered applications were still open. I thought if anything, it would be a year out, but Jon was like, “nope, apply!” That was March 2014 and I got accepted end of May, and moved to Austin in August.

What drove you to attend?

In addition to what I just mentioned, I chose AC4D because I wanted a theoretical underpinning to the work I was doing; and then I wanted the social entrepreneurship exposure. I had pretty much worked exclusively on big enterprise level clients to that point, and I wondered where else I could do this work, and I wanted to set myself up to work on things that matter.

At AC4D, you worked on a year long project, focusing your design efforts on a large scale social issue. Could you talk a little bit more about your project and team?

I had a terrific team in Jeff and Lauren. We were interested in financial health and human behavior. You can crunch all of the numbers, but it seemed like, especially for our generation and people a little bit younger, there just wasn’t a place to have financial conversations and make sense of things. We felt like this was a topic ripe for design research.

We conducted contextual inquiries with people in their homes, focusing on how they managed their money, and who did they talk to about it. We met with millennials — single and couples — and were particularly interested in when people move away from their parents, how do they develop their awareness in their twenties (which we considered sort of an extended financial adolescence) and figure out their priorities? In our interviews, we found common behaviors and emotions around credit card debt, and people’s struggle to pay it off. In particular, spending is a way in which we reward ourselves, but there isn’t a way to connect to that same emotional energy to pay down debt.

Through an iterative process, we developed a service delivered by mobile app that helps people pay down their credit card debt in little increments, day by day. We tried to make THAT rewarding, connected to moments where they felt like they were doing something good for themselves. So it wasn’t just this budgeting experience at the beginning of the month, then coming back at the end of the month and feeling disappointed. Through our research, we knew our participants didn’t know how much (to put towards debt in a daily sense) was enough. And our participants didn’t want to give up all their fun; they needed something that could help them find the balance of enough to actually make a difference to their debt, but not so much to make them put up their hands a say “I give up.”

The best thing I learned from that project was how to prototype lots of different parts of a service experience. For example, when are the moments in a person’s day that were the best triggers for savings interventions — to say, “Hey! Do you want to put $4 towards your credit card debt?” And how to tie those together to build towards a continued sense of positive reinforcement, changing their relationship to their debt and behaviors around it? It was amazing to do this type of prototyping, and was something I really learned from the faculty at AC4D. They kept saying — ‘what is the most important part of your service? How do you even get close to trying it? Now go try it!’

Keeping track of prototyping efforts for Summit.

Can you walk us through how you got to your service idea from the research?

We went through an ideation process — we were determined to come up with 300 ideas from our research. AC4D teaches a variety of ideation techniques that are informed by research insights — we took these 300 ideas through a down selection process by evaluating them on the criteria — what mattered to us, as something we wanted to put in the world — what felt feasible; what we were excited to do, what we thought would actually impact people. We down selected to 9 ideas, sketched those, and started to see the overlaps between them, and then combined and modified the initial 9 down to 3, which we illustrated at storyboard fidelity.

After additional feedback, we chose the Summit concept — but I want to be clear, it evolved a LOT along the way through iteration and testing. As I reflect on it, I know that the ideation and down selection phase were really important to helping us understand exactly what we wanted to eventually focus on, we had considered a lot of different possibilities, so we weren’t distracted down the line and could stay true to the core of what our product should do.

Summit Concept Screen.

What did you want to do after AC4D? Did you consider taking Summit forward?

I don’t know if I knew. I wanted to do everything. As a team, we weren’t ready to execute against Summit right away. AC4D is an intense and valuable experience, and I needed a break to process and figure out what I really wanted. Now, about 18 months out, I feel many of the lessons I learned at AC4D coming to fruition and my understanding deepening. I’m excited to revisit Summit, both the specific product, and the lessons learned from it, to see how to continue it. The work I have done since graduating has given me more perspective and confidence to take my own projects from concept to reality.

So what have you been doing?

After AC4D and thanks to an AC4D connection, I had the opportunity to take over the design department for a network security startup called Click Security here in Austin. One of the things that drew me to that role was the opportunity to own and manage the design for an in-the-market product, which I hadn’t had in my past consulting experience.. Click Security was acquired this last April, which was exciting!

What was it like to put on that Design Director hat?

When I started, it was about managing short and long term goals: what stepwise improvements could we make in the product? When could I trust my intuition and when do I need additional research? We were going to have a release in 6-weeks and I was just beginning user research, so I asked myself “What good decisions can I make now to move this in the right direction?” All while I was getting caught up on Network Security to understand the subject matter.

I remember there was a steep learning curve in the beginning. Developers would come to me and say, “So, if a user clicks this button, this window is already open and it’s in this state, so what happens?” And I’m thinking, “Why are you asking me?” Then I realize: Oh, because I’m IT! That experience pushed me to get better at sharing user research and structuring my deliverables to empower developers to make some of those decisions themselves, and being more detail-oriented.

How has AC4D impacted your work and allowed you to grow?

I realize because of my experience at AC4D and what I learned there, that one of the highest compliments I can give people and myself is: Hey, you made a thing! I really learned at Austin Center for Design the value of just doing — something. Once you’ve made something you can have a conversation about it rather than just getting lost trying to explain something or talking at each other.

As a designer, I see my job as figuring out what is the next thing we can make. Sometimes that is figuring out what design is right to test with users, what fidelity it should be at to get us feedback that is helpful, and then sometimes it’s asking, “What can I make to help manage my team better? Or, what can I make because this hand-off is not working?” I still tend to want to make a thing and not show anybody because I don’t feel like it’s ready for feedback yet, but coming out of Austin Center for Design, that loop is shorter for me — I’m like, “Nope, I need to make a thing and I need to get it in front of peers or users.” They’re not going to judge me, they’re going to judge the thing.

What does your Austin Center for Design experience mean to you?

It made me braver and scrappier as a designer — it was challenging, and fun, and now I know I can work like that, so I have this internal bar that I look for in other experiences.

Do you have any advice for individuals who are looking to get into design or social impact?

If you want to get into design, or want to be a better designer, this is a generous community. People will talk to you and meet with you if you ask. When I graduated from art school and was trying to figure out what I was going to do, it was the middle of the recession and nobody was hiring, but nearly everybody I contacted said, “Well, come in, I’ll look at your portfolio and talk to you.” I made it a point when I was at Austin Center for Design to get the email address of every speaker who came to talk and I tried to get coffee with them. If you want to do it, or want to do it better, talk to the people who are doing it well.

The same goes for AC4D — Having this community of Austin Center for Design alumni and people who are involved, who will get coffee with me, help me, talk through problems — it’s invaluable.

Something else I probably learned at Austin Center for Design, that took a year or so to really percolate in my head, was to ask the question: I want to design on X issue — instead of looking for a job that is all set up to allow me to do work on that issue, why can’t I just start? And then what do I need to rearrange in the rest of my life so that I can do that?

Any other thoughts you’d like to share?

It’s an awesome time to be a designer! We have the skill-set to be able to talk to, and really listen to people in order to design stuff that matters to them — not just on screens, but services and processes too. I feel so lucky that I have a job that fulfills my desire to connect with people and to be creative and strategic.