#22 - Martha Magsombol - Connecting the Dots: from Animation to Product Design Processes

21 min read • Dianne Eberhardt

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Dianne: Hello everyone. Welcome to the Pixelated Perfect podcast. Today we have Martha super excited to chat a little bit more with her. She is a senior product designer from San Francisco and she kind of transitioned from a story artist into a product designer. So I'm really excited to have her on here and we get to kind of pick her brain on how she kind of made that transition all the way until where she is today. So thank you so much for being

Martha: Here. Thanks for having me. This is exciting.

Dianne: Yay. I love it. Of course. Okay, so let's get into it. So kind of my, my prompt that I use is when did the design come into your life?

Martha: As soon as I can hold a crayon.

Dianne: Love it.

Martha: I mean, that was, I guess more of just like mechanical drawing, but I remember growing up that I liked designing characters when I was like a little grade schooler and I would just be found drawing a lot, like designing things like that. So it's kind of, you know, how I got into story art. As I kind of went through school, I really ended up, I honestly went into animation. I studied animation in college. Went into it thinking like, oh, I like drawing and I like, wanna make things that make people happy. But I also want like a job

Dianne: Right? So

Martha: Let's do animation maybe, because at the time, like my knowledge of like the different fields of where you could really take creative jobs was very limited. I just couldn't see myself in like a graphic designer role because I was very much like, oh, I like drawing characters and things and people, whereas like, to me, graphic design felt a little bit more refined and polished where I've, I'm very much like a woo But yeah, so from there I studied story art in college, and it's quite of a large breadth of what I covered. I did everything from like concept art where I'm designing characters, people environment props and like creative, like world building, I guess. As well as like sequential story. So before a film gets made, it's in these little like panels and UX we use like storyboards.

Martha: It's very similar except it's a little bit more granular in film to kind of direct camera and emotion and story and things like that. Mm-Hmm. . So I did like everything from that to actual, like, frame-by-frame story animating as well as as 2D and 3D platform. So you dip my toes into a little bit of everything as well as like even game design. But after college I was just like, okay, I learned all these things, but I don't know if I really wanna work in animation. that's the question. Yeah, like, I loved doing the work. I loved making things that made people happy. And like, I love being helpful and, but there was like a piece of it where like, it, there was something in my brain. I was like, I wanna do something that's kind of problem solving and like a little bit more collaborative because, you know, making a film and video games is collaborative, but you're also like kind of sat at your desk for hours trying to get, you know, that full render out.

Martha: And so I was, I live in the Bay Area and I was like, well, everyone is going into coding boot camps. Maybe I should just learn how to code Yes. It didn't work out. I had Bobo with a friend who was a software engineer and he I told him about like, my plan to like not draw anymore. And he was like, Martha, don't do that. there's definitely a lot of like really, you know, really good and stable and interesting jobs in the design space. And so, you know, that conversation just kind of led me to get into that rabbit hole of doing some research on design. And at first it was very like surface level still of like mm-hmm. , okay, like, this just sounds like graphic design, but for websites, I don't know if I can right. Do that.

Martha: And then like the deeper that I went, that's when I started seeing like UX as like a bigger umbrella inclusive of that UI aspect. So that got me a little bit more interested and eventually I was like, okay, I think I just need like structure and so let me just hop into a design bootcamp. After doing some research and meeting like instructors mm-hmm. , I got a really good impression from Julia Debar. She's all over LinkedIn's great design mentor. I met her in person and I decided to do the bootcamp because I had met her mm-hmm. . and so yeah, it's kind of history from there. Like yeah, I remember, but I think even then I was like, I don't know what I got myself into because right, like, UX is such an ambiguous concept and I was like, I studied cartoons in college, like, what is this I remember the first assignment we had was like a competitive analysis and I'm like, what am I don't even have a thing that I've designed, designed, what am my comp? Like what is my competitors?

Dianne: That's interesting. Yeah. Okay. So I have a lot of questions totally about what you said. Cause all that was fascinating and I liked hearing kind of the progression of it.

Martha: Very much like.

Dianne:  Yes, yes, yes. And I think like, so many people go through that, right? Like mm-hmm. , that's, that's definitely a common pattern. It's like people are like, I mean, I think what's what's great is like you wanted to be creative. You've always been creative. There's always been that thing inside of you. Okay, wait, before I go into my question there, my first question is, what did you used to draw when you were a kid? What was like that one thing that continued?

Martha: Ju Oh, just pencil and paper.

Dianne: Pencil and paper. Did you draw, like you drew a lot of characters or what was like your favorite thing to draw?

Martha: Yeah, I mean, I was like a little nerd, right? So I like to draw anime when I was a kid. And then eventually I just started like adapting different styles, especially when I went into like like animation school or like art school I guess. Yeah. And you know, as part of the job you need to like adapt to whatever show or TV or like whatever art direction is. So I've gotten really good at, you know, kind of just not copying, but like adapting to the existing style. But I could go on into it a little bit more, but like a lot of animation and storytelling is really embedded in observation, which is kind of how I marry what, which is why UX is so fascinating to me. I think a lot of people are like, oh, you have an art background so you must be really good at like UIs and Mox. And I'm like I'd like there to be a design system so that I can just

Put it together. And I'm like interested on all the like, intricacies of like UX research and like observation. Just cuz that's kind of where my brain is at in terms of like story. I think it's just fascinating.

Dianne: Yeah. And I mean something that right before we, we started recording is I asked you like are you an animation artist or are you a story artist? Cuz that's what you wrote to me and you said, no, I'm a story artist. And so maybe you can speak to that a little bit more because I think that is kind of where that line is from story artists into product design.

Martha: Yeah. Yeah. So like, it's a, I generally will used to say like, I'm an animator turned product design just because most people don't know the, like, intricacies of like the different roles that it takes to put like a film together. And I do certainly have experience in animating and motion graphics and like to understand the technical side of things, but story art is usually more closely integrated with storyboarding. So you know, when you put a film together, you, you know, get your team together and everything, but before the film becomes a film or even like animation or even live action, they start off with a script. And if you, so like, let's just think in parallel of like product lifecycle, not to get really nerdy. If we think about it in parallel, so a script of a movie, it's very much similar to like a product brief. You're understanding like the requirements and like how it's going to play out, how it's going to be released. And essentially very similarly in a script, you know, that's the outline of the story, all the different beats and how it's gonna be released. And the way that I kind of think of it is like, your user is like your user is just one of the many characters of a story. And that's why I get so interested in like, what I call like multiplayer story multiplayer journeys because it's like, okay, how do we get user from their problem to the climax of the story, which is the solution and then the falling action and the resolution is, you know, happiness or like, my job has been completed.

Martha: Yes. So that's kind of like how I think in these things. But in the story aspect and like a lot of the times in the UX space, the problems can feel super ambiguous and how I like to use my story background, especially with like these really complex workflows or processes. I like to use a mixture of storyboarding to communicate kind of what's happening in the physical and real world of a custom customer or user person journey. And then link it to like wireframes because you know, software is really just one piece of a solution. Many times solutions you need to marry it to the real world cuz who's using it, right? Yes. Like you're, it's really just a vehicle to do like to solve a problem. So yeah, I don't know.

Dianne: No, I love it. No, keep going. It's like I love it and, and I totally agree and I, I've never heard someone explain it in the terms of like storyboarding and animating in that sense. So I think it's really fascinating.

Martha: Yeah. So it was actually something that I got to do a lot at my role at a startup called first base where there's like definitely a physical world aspect to it because we did a lot of like hardware logistics and like warehouse management and things like that. And I needed to figure out, okay, so this is our customer, this is what they need, but in order to deliver what they need, we need to do, we need this team to do this, we need this team to do that. Yeah. And this other team to do this and they're all using different software, but then also in between they're like moving physical boxes around, right?

Right. Like I would create flows where, you know, some of these screens are wire frames and that's where software is needed. And then some of the scenarios are like literal pictures of what is happening in the real world. Cuz you wanna tie that all together. And just kind of on the topic of that too is like when you're communicating these solutions, it's much easier to tell that story in that kind of linear timeline when you can connect all the pieces together as opposed to like, okay, we need to add this feature to this software and add this feature to this software and somehow they're all gonna talk to each other right. And it's gonna solve all of our problems

Dianne: So Right.

Martha: Kind of helps link some of that missing piece in between.

Dianne: I think that's great. I think like what Julie speaking to me about, you're saying is there's a lot of business.

Martha: Oh yeah.

Dianne: Involved in product design and a lot of people don't know that when they get into it. And maybe you didn't know that when you were like, oh, I wanna make this switch. Cuz it's definitely, I mean, I I'm sure like being a story artist and being an animator, there's a lot of things you have to know outside of just that like actually drawing or animating. But I think what's really interesting, what you said is there are so many different stakeholders, so many people involved, and there's so many, so many business terms that also kind of are included in this. And so I like how you're turning it into like a visual way to show to everyone on the team what you're building. Because I think like a lot of people are constantly writing PRDs and documentation and like, that's great, but then if you can't visualize and put all the pieces together, it's really confusing. So it sounds like you're really merging kind of both of these worlds and making sure that there's a visual representation of everything that you're putting together.

Martha: Yeah. Yeah. And that's really like how I love partnering with product because I'm like, okay, you can figure out all of like the nitty gritty details of everything, like all the, those exact requirements and then work with me to figure out, okay, how are we gonna make this so that it's all encompassing but also digestible at the end of the day. People don't wanna be sitting in like hour long zoom calls. Yes. Looking at like a word dog.

Dianne: Right, exactly.

Martha: Try to ingest, you know, on top of making it approachable and like understandable and accessible, kind of also using that time to make it a little bit entertaining Yeah. And you know, so I just, I try to inject humor in my storyboards where it's like, okay, yeah, we know that like something is going wrong at this touch point where like, okay, for example, a laptop is broken, how do we communicate that? You could just show a broken laptop or you could show that the laptop is on fire. So just a little yes. Just inject a few things here and there. I, I like to think of my teammates and stakeholders very similarly to how I think of users of like, you know, approach them with the same empathy that you approach users and try to delight them with the same, you know, effort that you would try to delight a user just because it builds such much better rapport and it's much easier to work with everyone who like is feeling aligned and also motivated because they understand what you're building towards and what you're really solving.

Dianne: I love that. That's beautiful. Beautifully said. I think that a lot of the times us as product designers, we are constantly thinking about the work we're doing in terms of like who those users are, the end users. But I think sometimes, like, we all just wanna be, we're, we're in jobs most of our days, right? Yeah. So it should be enjoyable and it should be where you're setting up your internal team in a way that's structured well, that's bringing fun into the environment. That's such a big part of what we do. And so I love that it's also you're spending that time to build processes and visuals to also be able to work better internally too. That's great. Mm-Hmm. , that's amazing. I feel like people don't talk about that enough, but that's like, as a designer, like, we can do that. We can come up with these ideas, we can make it fun. So I Exactly. I think that's amazing.

Martha: I've actually had like recruiters before like reach out to me, I'm like, oh, this is a B2B role. But like, they look at my portfolio and there's like cartoons everywhere and they're like, your cartoon, your like portfolio just seems so fun. Like, I feel like you'd be really into like consumer roles. I'm like, if you read my case studies, they're all B2B right, right. Yes. They're all b2b and I'm just like, I mean like, just because, you know, it's like suited up and like seriously you

Dianne: Can have fun in b2b.

Martha: Exactly. That's what I'm saying.

Dianne: Yes. I love that. That's like, you also can have fun in b2b. I think that's so true. And that there's, in B2B it's also like, it's usually pretty complex. There's a lot of moving parts. And it's also fun to think about, like, I think of b2b, like a lot of people I think think of dashboards or pulling data for instance, and it's like, wa while that feels boring, but there's so much potential to make it exciting. Like how can you make a table or a graph that's like pulling people's attention in and helping them like actually come up with actionable insights versus just seeing something Exactly like there's so much potential in b2b.

Martha: Exactly. Exactly. That's kind of my fascination with it. And like ultimately I like doing both B2B and consumer work. It's just like, okay, what is an interesting problem to solve? And it's just kind of how I approach it. Yes. Like, okay, this is because even in consumer software, right? Like it might seem more straightforward, but like in order to, you know, fulfill on that consumer need or consumer goal, there's a whole bunch of other factors that you just might not see on the screen. So I love thinking about the like offline experience and just the interaction happens on the screen, but there's just so many considerations that can go into it. Yeah. Find it fascinating.

Dianne: Yes, me too. No, I love that. Okay, so I, we kind of went down a rabbit hole, which was wonderful. I loved that rabbit hole. But I kinda wanna get back to mm-hmm. where we are in the story. So you basically went to school for animation and you graduated and you were like, wait, I don't think this is for me. And so you were thinking of doing coding, so you talked to friends about that, but obviously knowing you and knowing how creative you are and drawing, I feel like I'm glad your friend was like no...

Martha: Don't go there. I mean yeah, because I was the both of my, so I live in the Bay area, so everyone, so many tech jobs here. And my older bro brother is a backend engineer. My younger brother is a front end engineer. So like they kind of are like, okay, here's the things you could do. And my older brother was like, just learn python. And so I sat down and tried to like learn from a YouTube video and I'm like, I can't, I like problem solving, but I don't know if this is it for me.

Dianne: Right, right. I also, I kind of love, I guess from the beginning when you were like, graphic design isn't interesting to me. I kind of liked how you phrased that in like that it's like the Polish side of it and there's, I think that's very true. You know, I started as a graphic designer. I've mentioned this on the podcast before before like product design was a thing and that was something where it was like, I always wanted to know more. I wanted to know why I was doing the things I was doing. And so I think that's like, having that research and wanting to understand is definitely missing from some of the graphic design world. And so I can totally see why you would want to do something where you were problem solving. So sometimes graphic design feels like, oh, I'm making it pretty

Martha: Like Yeah. And I, I have so much appreciation for the craft. Like it's so like, and that's part of the reason why I'm like, I can't do this because it's just, it's so polished and I, as a person, I'm just kind of rough and ambiguous and I love being in that space that like, okay. But I also just, I think going, doing end-to-end product design is just so interesting cuz you are going from like this ball of chaos and then you go into refinement and it's just like, look at these wireframes, look at this actual solution that's like elegant. Yeah. And like, it solves all these things. It, I, I love knowing that there is like the reasoning behind these design decisions. Admittedly like, I wish that, and, and that's one of my goals is to get much better at like my visual skills. Because it's just, it's such a, it's a hard craft that is like definitely takes a lot of training and like I to really polish that, that I'm, I'm currently working on myself. So...

Dianne: Yes, it's a fun time. Yeah. I mean I think like full end product design, the UX and UI side, they are like two different parts of the brain in a way. And like, I definitely think that, I mean, there are people that are stronger in UX and stronger than in ui. I think that's definitely like every designer has mm-hmm. a part that's probably they feel more comfortable doing. Yeah. And it's, it's hard. It's, there's a lot, like you've gotta like totally the visual design. Like it's, it's its own it's skillsets.

Martha: It's its own skillset. It's its own like thing to master. Yes.

Dianne: Yes. Okay. So you you started a bootcamp

Martha: Mm-Hmm.

Dianne: was it a, was it a product design bootcamp, UIUX bootcamp? What

Martha: Was, yeah, so at the time I don't think they have the course like this anymore. Actually. I have a funny story about the bootcamp, but at the time I, it was, you choose a route between UX or ui mm-hmm. I honestly had no idea what UX was and I was like, I kind of have an idea of what UI is because like, you know, I've had to take some graphic design courses in school and I've seen websites but I'm like, I have no idea what UX is. So if I'm paying this much for a bootcamp, I may as well go into like what I don't know and then just teach myself ui Yes. While I'm at it. Thankfully my instructor there at the time I had met Julia and then there was another instructor there named Robin. They were very encouraging of me kind of dipping into both.

Martha: But like I said, I had no idea what UX was or just like, even working in tech in general, I remember sitting in a room for our first project where we like, were able to work with some bootcamp engineers and my instructor was like, oh yeah, like, you know, list your questions that you're supposed to ask an engineer, like if there's any APIs they gotta use or anything like that. And I'm looking around and I'm like, am I the only one that doesn't know what an API is? So there's been a lot of things that I've learned since bootcamp and even past it as well. And even today.

Dianne: It's, it's the terminology, right? It's like, it's like you have to be like in the tech world to know those terms and they definitely use them in a way where it's like, if you don't know them, you feel like an outsider.

Martha: Exactly. So yeah, I've had, I've had to do a lot of work to not be an outsider, but I think having that outsider lens is also what helps me just kind of bring it back to like, okay, we're, you know, we're designing software, they're pixels on the screen, they're just rectangles but we're really trying to design them for people, so let's understand the people/

Dianne: So what was, what do you think was the easiest, or I guess not easy, sorry, the most rewarding part about bootcamp and what do you think was like the most difficult part about bootcamp?

Martha: So I did my bootcamp at the beginning of the pandemic And then I specifically chose the one where I could come in in person to like learn with people. And then we had to switch to online. And it was a bit of a learning curve, but, you know, really big kudos to my instructors who were really there for us and to this day are still there for us. I think I, anytime there's any sort of like career update or even questions that I have, I'm like, I just messaged them on LinkedIn or even one of them, I have them on discordant Instagram, So, you know, they're like amazing people. And I think, you know, that's one of the reasons why I'm super thankful that I went to a bootcamp. As well as like a lot of my early design friends are from that bootcamp as well. And because we're all career transitioning, it's very interesting how like different of a mix we were, but we still, you know have, you know, product design jobs now two years later. So like there's a friend who was like a psychology major doing HR stuff, a friend who was in nonprofit, a friend who was a hairdresser

Dianne: Interesting.

Martha: 10 years. So, you know, we were like a pretty mixed bunch. And learning, learning from each other was very helpful. And I think, you know, there's a lot of things that you don't learn at a bootcamp because there's only so much time that you have and it's like structured and scaled and designed in the way that like, you need to learn all these technical skills. But I think what I learned more was coming out of it and having that community and learning with that community as well. And again, bringing it back to like people, right? so yeah, I don't know, like boot camps are kind of a hit or miss. I feel like it's very much similar to like any sort of like school that you have to pay for, you put in what you get out and a lot of the times you're gonna have to do work and research outside of the curriculum to really apply it to the real world or real world as opposed to school work. Right. So yeah, it's a, it's an interesting, you know, balance. I feel like

Dianne: I, I think what you said at the end there is, is great advice to anyone that's listening that's thinking of doing a bootcamp is like mm-hmm. , it's tructure, like it's structured quickly. Like you're gonna learn the skills, but if you don't put in the extra work and do stuff outside of it and try make the most of that situation, like, if you don't put in as much as you wanna get, you're not gonna get out of it what your expectations are like.

Martha: Yeah.

Dianne: Yeah. I I think that's so true. And I think a lot of people just go into it thinking, oh, I'm gonna go into it. I'm gonna do these couple of projects for school and then I'm gonna get a job that pays me a hundred thousand dollars a year. as a product designer.

Martha: Oh,

Dianne: That's a junior product designer.

Martha: How nice that would be though. Right, right. Right. on the top of it all, I graduated into the pandemic when nobody was hiring juniors So

Dianne: Yeah. Continue. Tell us what happened after you graduated bootcamp.

Martha: after I graduated bootcamp I, so you know, I did a bunch of like applications just try to, to one, get my foot in the door and then two practice interviewing. So I took as much as I could from school in terms of like building my relationship with my instructor, building my relationship with the other designers because even though we're all technically competing for the same jobs, it's much easier to job hunt as like a community where you could practice with each other. I remember being in the same pipeline as one of my friends and exchanging notes afterwards. I'm like, how did it go for you? Oh, I think I could have done better here and there. So it's like, it's not, I don't necessarily see it really as like, you know, we're on the job market, we're like competing against each.

Martha: It's more like, Hey, how can we help each other like find jobs because we want the best for each other. Yeah. But yeah, so after like while I was doing that because nobody really was hiring juniors, I would, I spent more time just building up my experience so that I wasn't so junior anymore. And like work with as many types of people as I could. Because at boot camp, again, you're only really some boot camps. You're not even really working with anybody. At my boot camp you work with other designers and like a fake project with a client and even they don't really know what's happening Right. So. Right. I just like, you know, would attend event, like virtual events. I would just keep eye an eye out for opportunities for projects and things. I remember having a coffee chat with someone on this, like women in tech network and she was like a pre-seed co-founder for an idea for like the wedding industry. And she was explaining her problem to me and I'm like, I think it sounds like you could use some UX help.

Martha: And I landed a gig that way, I love it. Portfolio piece. Right. Not only was it a portfolio piece, it was, you know, a little bit more chaotic than what you would get at a bootcamp because work is never really that structured. Right. and yeah, so I remember doing like three projects at once and I was basically full-time designing, just not getting paid for it, but it was, you know, it was like really valuable experience because some of them were like, you know, for clients, some of them were with like literally just other bootcamp engineers my first time. Oh, cool. Working with engineers, I like would, you know, see how they would prioritize, I would see how they would do sprint planning and spikes. Yeah. And just understand how to work, you know, how they work so that I can figure out how to best, you know, help solve, like help hand off items, deliverables to them.

Martha: And I learned how to like build a design system from scratch and understand the different, you know, technologies there. And then I had another project where it was like a passion project of someone who, whose day job was being a pm so I learned how PMs think. Yes. Yeah. And then, you know, eventually 2020 ended 2021 happened, people started hiring again, and I was finally starting to get interviews and at the, at that time I'd built up so much like experience from all these different projects that I had not just, you know, portfolio pieces and resume lines. I also had interview-like answers. Yes. They

Dianne: Weren't just

Martha: Theoretical, like, what would you do? Well, I haven't done this yet, but this is what like, I have actually worked with a difficult client or I've actually worked with an engineer. Yeah. So like essentially creating those, you know, opportunities for myself. And one of the things that I did was I actually did a hackathon, like a design hackathon with Figma where I hit it off with one of the other designers who later referred me to The role that I eventually took that got me to my most recent position at first base and it was just full circle.

Dianne: That's amazing. I love that.

Martha: A little bit of kindness goes a long way. is Yes.

Dianne: A little bit of kindness. A lot of hard work and connections.

Martha: Yeah. Good connections. I had no connections. I was just like, I'm just someone who used to draw cartoons,

Dianne: But you built those connections through all your I'm just someone that

Martha: Used to, I used someone who used to draw.

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