CONVERSATIONS-004

FARMACY Conversations: Edwin Toh, Senior UX Engineer, Google

A Shifting Physical, a Deeper Digital.

With the pandemic outbreak of COVID-19, we are forced into lockdown. When we emerge, it will not be into the world we once knew.

For our second series of Farmacy Conversations, we discuss the implications and observations of isolation, and how various disciplines can adapt and engage with a future where our established norms may no longer be safe.

Edwin Toh discusses isolation in New York, ruminates on the value in offices, and elaborates on how UI/UX design and technology is already helping us manage the lockdown.
Disclaimer: The opinions stated here are my own, not those of my company.
Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash
Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

Since the Shelter-in-Place order, things have definitely changed. Work-wise, we have been adapting and finding ways to keep up with our colleagues and work. The team I’m in is spread out across different cities, so we were communicating via Hangouts even while working from the office. The only thing that has changed for me is the lack of office amenities, the daily ad-hoc lunches and the in-person interactions I have with my colleagues. You gain a lot of unquantifiable things with an office.



"You gain a lot of unquantifiable things with an office."



Ad-hoc discussions, camaraderie, a stronger bond between colleagues, workplace culture… These things then go on to become sparks for the next great product or feature. Specifically, for UI and UX Designers, we try to design for everyone. I’ve gained so much more perspective by talking to and getting to know different people at work. Understanding how people think, and their passions allows me to grow as a designer.

At a large company, it’s also likely that we have no idea what other people are working on. So, serendipitous conversations around water coolers become opportunities to share what you are working on and find collaborators organically. Oftentimes, it can also lead to you helping on a project which is lacking expertise you may have. So, I think that post-pandemic, some industries will still need office space. For those that don’t, they’ll still want office space, perhaps for the reasons I mentioned. A friend of mine even speculated that eventually, having an office might become a perk.

A quote I came across at the beginning of our work-from-home period is that “we are not working from home; we are at home during a crisis, trying to work.” This resonated with me; it made me realise not everyone has the same circumstances that I do. Parents will have to take care of their children. Colleagues with partners in healthcare will have added stress. Not everyone has thick walls or a different room to do video calls in. I think it’s important to distinguish what we’re going through now from ‘working-from-home’ as a concept.



"I think it’s important to distinguish what we’re going through now from ‘working-from-home’ as a concept."



I don’t see a big change in how homes can be set up, even with the limited space in both NYC and Singapore. Instead I foresee a big shift to better appreciation of the ergonomics of working from home. A better chair, a standing desk, a coffee machine… things like that. When I was freelancing back in Singapore, I moved out of my parents’ place into a rented room that was more centrally located. It was both my bedroom and office. My studio apartment in New York is a bigger version of that. I have to separate my bed with a shelf and position my desk so I can’t see my TV and bed. This separation and creation of a designated space for a specific activity is really important, so I can visualize myself being at work.



"This separation and creation of a designated space for a specific activity is really important, so I can visualize myself being at work."



On a more personal note, besides work, since gyms have closed, I’ve started to work out at home using videos and online classes. I’ve also been cooking and buying groceries in bulk more. But I’m trying to do my part by ordering deliveries and takeout from restaurants as much as I can. There is the feeling that we are all in this together. I see a lot of local support for small businesses, especially restaurants. These restaurants have started selling gift cards for when they re-open, or for takeout. There’s a lot of entrepreneurship and creative thinking.

Food delivery services and apps have always been in heavy use here in NYC. In these times, they have gotten even more important and popular. Other apps, like Nextdoor, have been gaining popularity in recent years. There’s a new one, recently launched, which tracks what items are available in grocery stores near you. I think technology has, and definitely will bring people closer together in communities, just not in the traditional way.



"I think technology has, and definitely will bring people closer together in communities, just not in the traditional way."



Having been away from Singapore for five years now, I feel like nothing much has changed in terms of keeping in touch with friends and family back home. I’ve always relied on video chats and messaging apps for that; I’m just doing it with more people now. In that sense, tech has definitely made the world smaller. Now that we’re all at home though, video calls and hangouts are more spontaneous. It’s obviously not the same, but as someone who lives away from home and only gets to go back for a visit once a year, you take what you can.

So meanwhile, I think markets for things like these: home workouts, meal kits, delivery, apps, will continue to grow as the demand for them grows. But I don’t see a large behavioural change in consumer habits. And there are some things we won’t be able to replace. I’ll definitely miss weekends or nights where I’m out with friends, at the park or in a bar. We’re all looking forward to the day when we can do that again.



"To be a good designer, you need to work on the product for a period of time, and constantly iterate using data, user feedback and innovation."



UX Engineers build prototypes, internal tools and websites, to test or showcase our various products and features. As I come from a design background, this is the perfect role for me, since we have to work closely with designers. I have actually seen a lot more UI and UX designers coming from Singapore, albeit mostly in the product work. Having worked at digital agencies myself, one thing I realized is that to be a good designer, you need to work on the product for a period of time, and constantly iterate using data, user feedback and innovation. You need to validate all your ideas by testing them, either through launching, or prototyping them and running user research studies. I’ve never seen someone get all the product decisions right on their first try.

Well-designed technology can help to improve human interactions or connections; Zoom is a perfect example of that. It’s become the go-to video conferencing solution. By showing everyone who is on a call in a grid, you easily create the sense of presence, and feeling of being in a group. With hindsight, it sounds like a feature all video conferencing products should have, but only Zoom had it. Zoom also gives you the ability to change your background, making meetings and social calls fun. It’s features like that which bring delight and user satisfaction, and that defines a great product for me. Whatever we end up designing or building needs to have the user in mind. Zoom just shows how a small feature like that makes such a big difference for users.

Along those lines, I think design firms need to rethink how they work with clients, to provide UX services. It has to be a long term partnership where you work together with the client, and not on a project basis. The last agency I worked at operated on that model, successfully.

BEST WHEN TAKEN WITH A PINCH OF SALT.
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REF. NO.
CONVERSATIONS-004-EDWIN-TOH
CONTRIBUTOR(S)
Edwin Toh
PUBLISHED
09.05.20