Jeff Zych

Jeff Zych — Gladly

Jeff is a humane designer and technologist based in San Francisco. He’s currently a Product Designer Manager at Gladly, helping designers produce their best work.

What led you into design?

In some ways, I feel like I’ve always been designing, and in other ways, I feel like I stumbled into it without realizing it. I've been into art and drawing since I could hold a pencil, taking art classes and doodling throughout my childhood. Then in high school, I signed up for a web design class. The summer before the class even started I was so excited that I bought a book on web development — "Learn HTML in 24 hours" — and taught myself how to build web pages. By the time the school year started, I had already put a website online. Being able to create something that anyone, anywhere in the world could immediately see was completely intoxicating to me.

From there, I went down a rabbit hole of learning Photoshop, Illustrator, 3D modeling, Flash, and any creative technologies even vaguely related to web design. That led me to get a degree in Graphic Communication at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, with a concentration in new media. Back then (early 2000s), there weren't many web design programs, and the ones that existed were shoe-horned into graphic design and art programs. Cal Poly's graphic communication program was the most technical of the bunch.

As part of my degree at Cal Poly, I took a computer science class and learned C and Java. I found programming to be super fun, too and went deeper down the stack into backend technologies and database development. Basically, anything tangentially related to web development interested me, so I took every class I could.

After college, I went down the programming path and got a job as a data warehouse developer. I went technical because the analytical nature of it meant you know if your work is good — it either works, or it doesn’t. I found design to be very subjective and didn’t feel confident that my web design work was “good” (however that might be measured).

I joined a small company, so I was doing database design, ETLs, backend programming, frontend programming, and UI design. Over time I discovered that updating the interface, even minor updates, elicited strong positive reactions and gratitude from customers, whereas re-factoring a database to cut query times in half rarely did. I realized I wanted to work closer to the customer.

I started spending more time designing user interfaces and studying usability testing. I discovered it married the analytical, scientific part of my brain (which drew me to programming in the first place) to the subjective, intuitive part. This was the tool I needed to “prove” my designs were “right” (which I now know isn’t exactly true, but it felt this way back then).

This made me want to formally study design, so I got my master's degree at UC Berkeley's School of Information. The program is the study of technology, broadly speaking — how technology impacts society, how it changes people and their lives, and how to build technology with the needs of people at the center of it. The program was great. It only had a few required classes, then you could take basically whatever you wanted. So I took classes that sounded the most fun and interesting — design, programming, psychology, research, product development, business, and more. I learned a ton about product development and user-centered design while I was there.

One of my favorite classes was behavioral economics for the web class, in which we explored how to apply behavioral economics principles to web sites and use A/B testing to measure their impact. That led me to join Optimizely after grad school, which at the time (2012) was just a simple A/B testing product for the web. I started out doing UI engineering, then switched into product design as the company grew. When I officially became a product designer I felt like I fell into it by accident. It was a result of what the company needed as it grew, not my specific career goal. But when I looked back over what led me there I realized I had always been designing in one way or another.

The company was growing fast, so I was presented the opportunity to move into management. I was resistant at first, but when I realized I could have a bigger impact in that position, I jumped on it. Eventually, my boss left, and I became the Head of Design, leading a team of product designers, user researchers, and UI engineers.

After 5 and a half years at Optimizely, I was ready for a break and new challenges, so I left and took some time off. I realized I wanted to be hands-on again and ended up joining Casetext as a product designer. They’re building legal research tools for lawyers, which pushed me to be a better designer because I was designing for people with expertise I don’t have and can’t acquire.

After a few months, it wasn’t the right fit, so now I’m at Gladly managing their product design team. It feels great to be in management again, working cross-functionally to deliver great experiences to our customers, while growing and nurturing the talents of my team.

What does a typical day look like?

A typical day for me starts with having some breakfast and reading that day's Sidebar articles or blogs (I still use RSS and am a longtime fan of the app Reeder). Then I'll get to the office around 9:30 or 10, make a cup of coffee and see what’s happening on Slack. Then I review my calendar and to-do list (which is written in a paper notebook that I also use to take notes in meetings), and form a rough mental plan for what I’ll accomplish that day.

Since my role is to enable people and teams to do their best work, my day is scattershot of meetings – 1:1s, project & team meetings, strategy & planning meetings, and so on. I try to carve out an hour or two to do some of my heads-down work, which is mostly writing stuff down.

What’s your setup?

This is my desk, which I sometimes use but I’m mostly scuttling between conference rooms.

I don’t go too nuts with my dock — these are the apps I use most often.

I’ve had my homepage like this for years now. Some of them I basically never use, like “Games” and “Utilities”. Instagram obviously belongs in the “Social” folder, but I use it way too often so it deserves a spot front and center.

Where do you go to get inspired?

I'm not a very typical designer in that I don't go out looking for inspiration on pattern libraries or sites like Dribbble very often. I try to pay attention to the world around me and the products I use to keep my eye for design sharp.

I’ve also found that if you understand the problem deeply enough, the solution is usually obvious. I keep my focus on what the problem is and who I’m solving it for rather than what other people have done. I also try to find real-world experiences that are similar to what I’m trying to provide online and use that to inspire my digital solutions.

One of the reasons I developed these habits is that while I was at Optimizely we were solving some really tough challenges that hadn't been solved before. So I would try to find how other people had solved these problems, only to learn again and again that no one else had. I couldn't look up solutions in pattern libraries or other products or Dribbble or anything. So I focus on the problem at hand and the users first, which has proven to be a successful method for me.

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

I've always thought my Sonicare electric toothbrush is well designed. When I first used it I didn't expect it to be, but it surprised me. It's just one button to turn it on and off. As you brush your teeth, it pulses every 30 seconds to indicate it's time to switch which teeth to brush. This keeps you honest with the amount of brushing you do every day. If the battery is low, it buzzes a few times and blinks amber. The industrial design is great – it's easy to hold and feels solid. When the bristles turn white it’s time to switch brush heads. The battery lasts forever. And, most importantly, it's fantastic at cleaning your teeth. It’s the only toothbrush I’ve used that prompted my dentist to comment on how much cleaner my teeth were.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

I'm most proud of my work at Optimizely on our product development process. While I was there, I designed a process to integrate UX design and research with the engineers' Agile development process, which I called Discovery Kanban. This project isn't a product or a visual solution to a problem, but it is design work since it started with understanding the needs of the team, then prototyping potential solutions, and iterating and refining the solution. It was great for the whole product and eng org but was especially great for the design team. It doubled the team's productivity, increased product quality, and improved team happiness. I wrote a blog post about it here if you want to learn more.

The full physical board Optimizely uses to track work, from idea to launch.

Folks using the board to track and prioritize work.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

The biggest design challenge at Gladly is we have a hard time talking directly to our primary end users, who are support agents responding to customer calls and emails. Their time is precious, and their supervisors want to make sure they’re maximizing the time they spend responding to customer requests.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

For all you ambitious designers out there, I advise you to stay curious. I've always been curious to understand how things work, including people, and that’s served me well throughout my career. It's driven me to learn lots of skills (coding, design, research, psychology, writing, lettering, and more), kept me engaged in my career, and makes me open and empathetic to the people for whom I'm designing. All of this has made me a stronger designer.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

I blog about design and creativity and books I’m reading on my personal website, jlzych.com. I’d also like to give a shoutout to my old design team at Optimizely, all of whom are fantastic — @tommygiglio, @ryanhasabeard, Anshu, @katierink, @hiSilv, @thisiszach, @danoc, @TimothyScanlin, @julesforrest, @lindalikes, @olgavyoung, @jsaq, Aurelia, @nehasaigal, @atomeye, and @davrau. And to my new team at Gladly — we just started working together, but I can already tell we’re going to do great things together. Most importantly, I wouldn’t be here without the love and support of my wonderful partner, Becca.

Share this interview

Related Interviews

Joanna Ngai — Microsoft

Seattle based designer, building stuff for the cloud. Freelance illustrator, sporadic painter and tea drinker. She frequently writes about design on Medium.

Sacha Greif — Sidebar

A master of shipping products and doing things on his own terms. Designer, developer, and entrepreneur. Living in Osaka, Japan.

Bill Kenney — Focus Lab

A natural, lively, and charismatic people person, Bill focuses on the value of surrounding himself with great people, whether mentoring his team or facilitating collaboration with awesome clientele.

Simon Pan — Google

Simon is a Bay Area-based Designer working to transform how people consume and comprehend the news. He is passionate about the intersections of technology, humanity, meaning, and ethics.