This week, we interviewed someone who scored a very cool job right out of undergrad. Asiya Yakhina is a Product Designer at The New York Times who uses technology and data to help readers. In her job, she supports the parts of The Times we don’t necessarily think about everyday – the digital infrastructure that creates the best possible experience for subscribers. Read on to learn about designing products digitally, working at a huge company, and how she uses technology to create thoughtful experiences.
Let’s start with the basics. What’s your official title?
I’m a product designer at The New York Times.
You’d interact with the messages that I touched in one way or the other, either when you first subscribed or when you visit your account page on the NYT website. The stuff we work on probably isn’t first to come to mind when you think about The Times. My team is kind of like a backstage crew in a theater. We’re not performing in front of the audience, but we’re lighting the show, we’re selling the tickets, we suggest what other shows you might like, and we listen to you if you’re not happy with the play.
2. Have you always had an interest in design? Where does it stem from?
I’ve enjoyed drawing and painting since I was a kid so I’ve always wanted to make visual things. Though my day-to-day work is less visual than I expected :) So I just try to sketch in my free time or on my commutes.
Can you tell me a bit about what you were doing before this?
I was studying at Wellesley College, taking classes in art and computer science. During my junior and senior years - also working on a couple of research and design projects at the Design Lab at MIT.
What was the process like to be hired at the NYT?
It was quite seamless. After I sent in my application, there was a phone call. It was exactly two years ago but, from what I remember, we talked about my background, the work that I’ve done and my interest in the role. After that I came into the office to talk to the people who I would be working with. I applied for several open roles, so I was talking to people from multiple teams. I shared two of my previous projects for the portfolio review, talked a lot about my interest in validating ideas with real users and, as a result, got an offer for a position focused on designing experiences for tests and experiments.
What are your main responsibilities in this role?
I’m on the new subscriber on-boarding team. My main responsibility is to help design a strategy and, later, an actual experience that will help our new subscribers get as much value from their subscription as they hoped to get, or maybe even more. Since we’re in the earlier strategy stage as a new team, in practice that means having a lot of meetings, conversations, and brainstorming sessions to come up with ideas we’d like to test out with our users.
What’s the environment at your office like? Is it corporate, and is there a dress code?
Corporate - probably? The dress code is something like “business casual”. Though I also see people comfortably stepping outside of those boundaries without being judged or excluded. Work days are usually 8 hours, they can be from 9 to 5, or 10 to 6. It just depends on your meeting schedule and personal habits. As for bigger culture things, there are definitely certain patterns in how people talk and navigate work/social situations; it’s usually done with a level of thoughtfulness, respect, and perhaps a bit of distance. Though those kinds of patterns vary from team to team. As people get to know each other better, they’re generally more comfortable to open up. I often see examples of how in smaller groups the individual personality has the real power to transform the culture within the team, while also challenging certain rules or ways of thinking. That’s what I’ve seen happening in my new team, at least.
What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on at The Times?
Last fall I worked on an email series aimed for readers who have cancelled their subscription. The email experience that was already in place didn't come from a very thoughtful place and was essentially bombarding people who unsubscribed with discounted offers to get them back. It’s tricky to challenge a practice that someone else designed and implemented. Firstly, it can get personal. Secondly, in this particular case, an argument could be made that enough people click on the subscription offers and come back. But we found a pretty fun and helpful metaphor that could challenge the old approach. The metaphor compares our relationship with a reader to a romantic relationship. Would you find it strange if your ex texted you a couple of days after you broke up, asking if you’d like to hang out, as if nothing happened? Probably not. That metaphor helped us a lot in navigating the political implications and soon it became pretty to clear to everyone that talking to our readers after a cancellation needed a more thoughtful touch.
What’s it like to work in a big company as a designer?
The Times has a strong design community which means that I’m surrounded by really smart and experienced designers who are there to guide me when needed. Critique is a huge part of the process and I really appreciate the opportunity to get my work reviewed. I found both of these things pretty valuable, particularly because this is my first full-time job out of college.
What are your least and most favorite parts of the job?
Working in a big company sometimes feels like working on a really big ship. For that ship to stay on an optimal course, a bunch of little parts and mechanisms have to be in sync and agreement. Thinking about it this way leaves me in awe of the scale of the mission that I’m contributing to. So that’s one of the favorite parts. The least favorite part is just a flip side of what I just described. We can’t always move fast, things take a while, and sometimes that’s the only way.
Are there certain design programs that you use on a daily basis?
Sketch, Figma - for mocking up static designs. InVision - for making prototypes and sometimes Principle for motion prototyping.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
Illustrating children’ books. Or making video games.
Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you’re explaining to your ten-year-old self!
Thank you so much, Asiya! We loved learning about your role and what digital design entails. Readers, after renewing your subscription to the NYT (or signing up for the first time), come back next week to learn more about how Asiya balances work and her personal projects. (Photos provided by Asiya Yakhina).