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May 7-10, 2019

Blog Post

Q&A with Aaron Irizarry, Director of UX at Nasdaq

By Ilise Benun, Founder of and HOW Design Live Programming Partner

irizarryaaron_headshot_2017hdl… Don’t forget to register by Nov. 30 with the HOW Design Live ‘Friends’ Promo Code and save up to $200!

Aaron Irizarry got his start as a designer by designing stickers and posters and t-shirts for his underground band, and then for other bands when he noticed that they also needed “merch.”

Who knew that 15+ years later he would be Director of UX at Nasdaq and a speaker at HOW Design Live in Chicago in May 2017, where his topic will be, Discussing Design: Improving Team Communication and Collaboration Through Critique, based on a book of the same name which he co-authored.

In our recent podcast interview, Aaron told me about his journey from band member to merch designer, from professional designer to design manager, “designing the way others design,” as he describes it.

Here’s an abridged excerpt in which we talked about how designers are taking a more and more active role on the business side.

Ilise Benun: What is a “design-led” company?

Aaron Irizarry: Being design-led doesn’t mean you walk in with a mandate as a designer and beat people over the head with the principles of what you think makes great design until they finally agree with you.

I think it’s understanding the context of the company and what the needs are. Designers do really well for themselves when they can understand the business side of how a company works. I believe that while we often separate them, design and business actually have a lot in common and that designers are usually great at thinking through problems from a different point of view.

“How can I enable the business? How can I partner with the business to better get out there and talk to our customers and meet their needs in a way that the business possibly wouldn’t have thought of before?”

I think we have a great opportunity to sit, not only with our customers—which is great because we always preach user research and usability testing—but with the business heads too, and ask questions like:

  • What are the problems you’re trying to solve as a business?
  • How can our approach as designers, and the way we think about things and our lens on the products we’re making, impact that and how can we support you?
  • And how can you give us context into the people we’re designing for?

I think once you start to cultivate that relationship, then companies can start to open up to being design-led, which means that you don’t need to have a Chief Design Officer. It’s not a problem if you do, but you don’t need to.

Then the next thing you know, whether you’re trying to do it or not, you’re becoming a design-led organization. I think it is a result of teams coming together and building a shared understanding of what we all want to accomplish and understanding how our roles fit together like puzzle pieces. That’s how companies become design-led organizations.

Ilise Benun: Do you think that it’s the responsibility of the designers within the organizations to sneak their design thinking in and not feel intimidated because they don’t have an MBA or an MFA? I see a lot of designers making that distinction you refer to between the business side and the creative side and not wanting to walk over the line, and I think that does a disservice to everyone.

Aaron Irizarry: Absolutely. I think the more we silo ourselves, the more we put roadblocks in our own path. We do ourselves a disservice. I don’t have an MBA or an MFA or any of these degrees and again, like I said, it’s not a disservice to those who do. I think that’s a great accomplishment, but it’s design thinking and how we approach the idea that matters.

We talk so much, at least in user experience, about how we want to have empathy from the customer, for our users. But I don’t see a ton of people talking about empathy for our business partners and who we work with. I think what’s really cool is that we often talk about design like, “Oh, we’re solving problems, we visually communicating ideas and concepts.” What would be a better asset and partner to the business than someone with a different lens who can solve a problem or help them communicate their vision visually and in the product?

Our team at NASDAQ is very research led and so we’re constantly talking to customers. But if we’d partner with the business more, we’d have that ear of the customer all the time.

Design could become not just, “Hey, this is what the interface looks like.” It would impact how we train customers on a new product when the interface changes. How we present content to them. How we engage them in research. That’s why I think it’s kind of cool that design becomes a much larger, more encompassing skill set with different variations. You have content strategy, research, interaction design, visual design, creative direction, many different aspects of the design process and making things for customers.

Then we start to take that to the business and talk to them about it. It’s all about waiting for the moment and being a part of those conversations. If you can get to be a part of those conversations and start to say, “Well have you thought of it from this angle?” or, “We’d love to do this, if that’s okay with you guys.”

We don’t go in saying, “Design has to be this way,” and beating people over the head with it. We’re just offering suggestions and choosing those moments where we can say, “In our process, we do this. Would that be helpful to you?”

We don’t have to be so bold that we irritate people, but we don’t have to be so reserved that we miss our chance. It’s about finding that sweet spot in the middle where we’re in those meetings where we can hear the moment and think, “This would be a great time if I could speak up and say, I have an idea if you want to hear it” and see how people respond to it.

Ilise Benun: What else?

Aaron Irizarry: We do so much research about our customers. How much research do we do towards the people we work with? I really encourage people to be observers. Observe how the people in your company work. Observe how they communicate. Observe how they approach things. The more you know about the inner workings, you’re going to start to find the right moments to speak up, to engage.

You find those moments where you can start to figure out how to inject the ideas, the concepts that you appreciate as a designer, that you feel would be beneficial to the business, and you can start to build those conversations and those relationships which then will ultimately help you spread to the rest of the organization.

More resources and links to Aaron’s work:

Discussing Design: Improving Team Communication and Collaboration Through Critique


Hold Fast: Managing Design Teams When Projects Go Sideways


 … Planning on attending Aaron’s session at HOW Design Live in Chicago May 2-6, 2017? Don’t forget to register by Nov. 30 with the HOW Design Live ‘Friends’ Promo Code and save up to $200!