November 27, 2018

Career Path: Alice Chiang, Senior Designer at Cantina

What does the career path and day-in-the-life for a Senior Designer at Cantina look like?

We connected with Alice Chiang to find out!

Where did you grow up?  What did your parents do for work?  

I mostly grew up in Columbia, MD in a Taiwanese-immigrant household. My parents immigrated to the states in the mid-80s with no American education or English language proficiency. As you can imagine, it was hard to find work and raise two rambunctious kids! So, they had to be resourceful and scrappy; my parents worked in various different roles, from a flea market in California (where we first planted our roots), to the food-services industry in Maryland (where we eventually settled).

My parents worked incredibly hard and modeled the importance of education, discipline, and optimistic resourcefulness.

Where did you go to college?  What did you study and what were some of your initial jobs out of school?

I studied architecture for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees! I guess I was really committed to becoming an architect, haha. I attended the University of Maryland, College Park for my undergraduate study.

After college, it was really hard to find work in 2009. Like my parents, I had to be scrappy! I ended up doing freelance design work for a small housing developer in Baltimore, MD and waited tables at a local sports bar. Later, I found a great opportunity in Shanghai and decided to move there solo and to explore the global architecture field in China.

I returned to the states in 2011 to earn my Master of Architecture at the University of Cincinnati. During that period I was first exposed to human-centered design (HCD) principles in my education and training.

My interest was piqued! I pursued a sociological and anthropological approach to my architectural master’s thesis. My thesis explored how the built environment could influence cultural identity and revitalize undesired areas in Chinese immigrant urban communities. My design focused on addressing a highway underpass that cut through the middle of Seattle’s Chinatown District. It was a terrible, ugly, giant thing that completely divided the neighborhood. I interviewed community stakeholders, local business owners, and individuals to get a sense of what could work in the neighborhood. The research and design work I did eventually won the American Association of University Women Selected Professions Fellowship and a Citation for Design through the university.

Alice Chiang's Master Thesis
An example of Alice's thesis work.

You started your career in architecture and then pivoted towards UX and Product Design. What sparked your interest in that career change?

I am reluctant to diss architecture because I do love the built environment. But after working in the industry for a few years, I was frustrated and jaded. I didn’t find the profession invested in integrating human-centered design principles into the practice. The industry tended to be more hierarchical and focused on pleasing a client (and the bottom line).

I decided to explore how my design and strategic skills could apply to different disciplines. I reached out to peers that had pivoted into UX/Product Design or Research. I loved hearing about the blend of HCD with business and technology and decided to move my career towards that direction. I took a boot camp course through General Assembly to supplement my knowledge, and four months later I had made the career shift.

What has attributed to your success thus far and has helped propel you to the position you have now?

A huge part of where I now has to do with my willingness to try new opportunities, my work discipline, and my eagerness to work with others.

Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as Senior Designer at Cantina?

My main role as a Senior Designer is to help our clients innovate and grow through experience strategy and design. Depending on their needs, this may involve helping our clients work through research initiatives, identifying problem areas and opportunities, or facilitating strategic ideation sessions. Since I am a consultant, I am usually required to be flexible and adept at working high-level or very deep at a problem area.

Any tips for someone considering a career in Product/UX Design?

Really explore your options; the field is so vast and diverse (it’s really great!) - it can feel overwhelming to find a focus. Reach out and talk to as many people in the industry as you can to get an idea of what it’s like working for a small/large startup, a small/large established company, an agency, for a B2B company, a B2C company, in education, finance, healthcare, etc.often I find that methodologies/practices vary depending on the type of company and the industry.

Day in the Life

Coffee, tea, or nothing?

Both! Really depends on my mood that morning and in the day. Lately, I have been trying to wean myself off coffee and shift more towards tea.

What time do you get into the office?

Depending on the location of the client office and traffic, I aim for between 8:30 AM and 10:00 AM.

What are three things that motivate you in your role?

  • The people; I have wonderful colleagues.

  • The work; we are often supporting our clients in doing the best work they can for their business.

  • The opportunities in the design space; I address design in a holistic manner that includes research and strategy for a variety of different disciplines (interface design, product design, service design). I get crazy excited whenever I think about the opportunities in those realms.

Every day is different, but can you outline what a typical day looks like for you?

Each day really is so different! For me, the workday starts before I walk into the office. I aim to get up early and to give myself time in the morning to be centered and prepared for the day. Having a morning routine that sets me up for success is absolutely critical for both my productivity and my mood.

The rest of the day is usually a mix of meetings and heads down focus time. I am usually working with both Cantina and client colleagues. The work I do depends on each client engagement, but it could range from user research sessions to strategy discussions to technical meetings with engineers. As the day progresses I assess if I’ve addressed the things I wanted to that day. If not, I will re-prioritize my goals for the day.

What time do you head out of the office?

Depending on when I head in, I usually aim for between 5-6 PM.

Do you log back in at night or do you shut it down completely?  

I am a huge advocate for a healthy work-life balance; so I avoid doing additional work after the workday unless I have high priority tasks that absolutely need to get done for the next day.

That being said, I am absolutely guilty of checking slack at night to make sure I’m not missing anything! (FOMO with work?)

Any productivity hacks?

The biggest challenge to my productivity is boredom. I get bored easily when I do not feel challenged or when I am not making progress. Therefore, I am most productive when I diversity my workload in a structured way. I tackle specific types of work at different times of the day. For example, any tasks that require heavy mental focus I address early in the morning, when I am refreshed and well-rested. Any “quick win” tasks (like emails), I aim to do in between these focused time chunks. This approach to structuring my work keeps me engaged.

I also set small deadlines and “wins” for myself each day so I feel like I am making incremental progress towards my larger goals. This helps keep me feeling happy, motivated, and productive!

What are the 3 apps that you can’t live without?

Weather Underground (I am in the outdoors year-round), Relax Melodies (for meditation and sleep), and Spotify.

Alice Chiang Outside

What professional accomplishment are you proudest of?

I am honestly incredibly happy with where I am today. I’ve successfully transitioned careers from architecture to user experience design and strategy. That alone was a huge personal and professional milestone for me. Now I get to work with a fantastic company that gives me a breadth of experience in diverse industries. Building strong relationships with clients and helping them grow their practice has been an incredibly humbling and rewarding experience.

Who do you admire or call upon for professional advice?

I really admire the tech and design community in Boston. It is diverse, talented, and collaborative. I am very fortunate to work with an exceptional team of people at Cantina.

I am also grateful for my immediate support network. I am surrounded with incredible friends, a loving partner, and a strong family. These people are my foundation.

Keith Cline is the Founder of VentureFizz.  Follow him on Twitter: @kcline6.

Images courtesy of Alice Chiang and Cantina