Sheryl Cababa is VP of Strategy at Substantial, a Seattle-based digital design and development studio. Her background is in UX design and research, and she has previously worked for companies such as Artefact, frog, and Microsoft. She lectures at the University of Washington’s HCDE program and is currently a board member for Design in Public.

She recently spoke at a Product That Count hosted webinar and discussed principles for how designers and product managers can align design with societal outcomes, the importance of systems thinking, and the ability to anticipate and respond to change.

Substantial VP of Strategy, Sheryl Cababa, shared some incredible insights on designing products for uncertainty and systems thinking. She offered a few key principles for what we can do moving forward. It was an inspiring, helpful presentation on what we can accomplish with product design when we’re mindful of what we’re doing and trying to accomplish. You can watch the full presentation above. Otherwise, the highlights are detailed below.

On this being a moment in time to refocus what we’re doing

In the midst of a global pandemic and civil rights protests, now is a time to define the new normal.

“We can think of this as an opportunity to think about our work through a new lens. How might we better equip ourselves as technologists? And how can we get comfortable with not knowing? Create a foundation of systems, products, and organizations that can stand up to crisis.”

Design for Resilience

It’s important that the products we’re building today can stand up to the challenges of tomorrow.

“We’re really learning now because of the crisis we’re in that many of our systems are fragile. The way our jobs are structured. And the way our companies are structured. It’s just not creating that sort of safety and certainty that we need in these moments of chaos. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about chaos engineering. It’s basically the discipline of experimenting on a system in order to build confidence in the system’s capability to withstand turbulent conditions and production. If we applied the concept of chaos engineering to the rest of what we’re designing that we can contribute to creating a robust society.”

Design for Equity

When we’re designing products for uncertainty, It’s important for everyone to ask themselves how they may be complicit in systems of inequity.

“I love this quote from Haruki Murakami, where he says, ‘If there is a hard, high wall and an egg that breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg.’ And I’ve been thinking a lot about this just in terms of equity. How can we as creators, stand on the side of the egg and recognize who that is? Who’s the most vulnerable? And how do we make life better for them?”

Design for Long-Term Change

The only certainty, when we’re designing products for uncertainty, is change. This is a fact all great product managers must accept.

“One of my rules of thumb as a practitioner, and those who work with me know this because it can be really irritating, is I’ll always question the framing. So, I won’t make any assumptions about the status quo. I always wonder if every single assumption we’re making about things can be changed.

We can ask ourselves if our products are contributing to a set of values that is antithetical to how we want citizens to be treated. I’ve seen this because I work in the space of unintended consequences. Of analyzing them and setting consequences of technology and design decisions.” 

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About the Speaker
Substantial VP of Strategy
Sheryl Cababa is VP of Strategy at Substantial, a Seattle-based digital design and development studio. Her background is in UX design and research, and she has previously worked for companies such as Artefact, frog, and Microsoft. She lectures at the University of Washington’s HCDE program and is currently a board member for Design in Public.
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