Designing for Good

Laura Martini works at the intersection of healthcare and tech. She’s built design teams at two healthcare startups, Medisas and Counsyl, and done product design work at Apple and IDEO. We asked about her path to design and how she’s focused her UX practice on work that’s both personally meaningful and helpful to society.

How’d you get your start in design, and on the web (if the two are different)?

Growing up, I always thought I wanted to be a lawyer, because I loved logical arguments and public speaking. Eventually, I realized that being a lawyer wasn’t exactly like Reese Witherspoon made it look in “Legally Blonde.” During my freshman year of high school, while I was reconsidering career plans, my family began remodeling our house. As we worked with the architects, I discovered I had a real knack for looking at blueprints and envisioning spaces. It got to the point where my parents wouldn’t make a decision about anything without me—even details like wood finishes and paint colors. When I told the architect that I wanted his job, he told me that if he had his life to live all over again, he would choose to be something I’d never heard of before: an industrial designer. The seed was planted.

Fast forward a few years to college applications. I wanted to be a designer, but didn’t have a portfolio of work that would qualify me for any caliber of design program. I found out about the MIT Media Lab, which struck me as a perfect back door to the field for someone like me, who was more comfortable with a calculator than a paint brush. My intuition was right, and a few weeks into my freshman year at MIT, I was lucky enough to have John Maeda take me under his wing and offer me a spot working in his lab. I had never touched Photoshop before, and barely knew how HTML worked, but he showed me the ropes, and gave me a lot of encouragement. I’m still close to a lot of designers from that group, who thrive at the intersection of art and technology. It’s funny, design work involves a lot of logical thinking and storytelling, which are the two elements that initially made me want to be a lawyer. I just found them in a completely different profession.

Design is such an applied field, where many important lessons can only be learned on the job. With that said, how have your degrees from MIT and Stanford been useful to you?

One of the things I love about design is that people can come into it from nearly any background. Some of the best people I’ve hired have been English majors or didn’t even go to college, which aren’t pedigrees you often find in product organizations at Silicon Valley tech companies. I’ve found that what’s most important for a startup like Medisas, where I currently work, is that a designer knows how to think about a problem deeply and can communicate with a developer. However, I still think formal education is valuable. There are two reasons for this:

The first is that school can teach you how to think. My background is a patchwork of technical (mechanical engineering), human (cultural anthropology), and design (product design). Each field gives you a different way of looking at the world. From engineering, I learned how to solve complicated problems, where you have no earthly idea what a solution looks like—but, just like in design, you have a process, and faith that you’ll be able to muddle your way through. From anthropology, I learned how to think through the ethical and human implications of a product. I draw on these skills when designing something like genetic information for an unborn child, or how to display Do Not Resuscitate information for a patient in a hospital. These are weighty projects that require more than an understanding of color theory or the latest web framework. And finally, the design degree helped me learn how to tell the story of my work, weaving coherence between a problem and a solution. This is an important skill in the workplace, where design can face headwinds from competing business and technical needs.

The second benefit of formal education is that some of the information itself turns out to be surprisingly useful. For example, I took an undergraduate biology class with Eric Lander, a leader of the Human Genome project. Who knew that a few years later, as the lead designer at a genetic testing company, it would be my job to explain to patients how DNA testing works? More recently, for a project at Medisas, I’ve had to dust off my knowledge of chemistry and biology, as I’ve been designing a better way to display lab results to doctors. While you don’t need a technical degree to design in healthcare, it certainly doesn’t hurt.

We’re really excited to have you on our stage this year, and to hear your talk “Making the Right Thing.”  What’s the talk about, and what will people take away from it?

The talk covers two different angles of what the “right” thing is to build. Designers and developers are increasingly being asked to track Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and defend our work with data and hard numbers. I’ll talk about some of the numbers you can use to track whether a product is succeeding, and ways to figure out which metrics are important for your company.

But being effective isn’t just about solving the needs of your users (or your business team); it’s also about building something that aligns with your personal values. For me, I’ve scratched this itch by working at healthcare companies like Medisas, where I can directly see the impact of my work on human lives. But there are many ways to find connection with your work, both the paid and the volunteer variety. Finding the right thing for you to work on is an important part of building good products.

What are some tools, tricks, and/or techniques you can’t work without?

I’m a big fan of old-fashioned pen and paper for sketching ideas and taking notes. My favorite tools are Pilot fountain pens and unruled Moleskine notebooks. But I’ll happily work all day with a freebie ballpoint pen and a stack of paper I’ve nabbed from the printer near my desk.

When it comes to working out the details of my designs, the prototyping landscape is like the Wild West; the exact mix changes day-to-day as I try out tools like Zeplin, Flinto, and Lingo. Two staples that I couldn’t work without are Sketch and InVision — especially the Craft plugin for Sketch. Both started out pretty basic, but have gotten extremely powerful, and help me bridge the gap between design, the users we get feedback from, and the developers we work with.

What has you most excited these days?

I see a lot of product people fired up about using their work to make a dent in the world. There’s a lot of power that comes from building, and I see people realizing that making the world a better place isn’t just an option, it’s an obligation.

In addition to all the people I know in healthcare, I’ve also met designers working on video platforms as an outlet for helping gay teenagers, engineers working on free SAT prep software for kids who can’t afford paid courses, and so many more stories of people working on projects with social impact. I love it when people solve problems that are important to them, and also relevant to society.

Laura Martini will be an integral part of An Event Apart Boston, May 15-17, 2017. Don’t miss a chance to learn from Laura and eleven other top-notch speakers—register today!