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Today’s Faces of Algolia story features Sasha Prokhorova, our Product Design Team Lead, whose passion and background in Geography opened some unconventional doors to a world of product and user experience (UX) design. From San Francisco to Paris; new parenthood to design bootcamp; and everything in between — hear her story!
What is your role here at Algolia?
I am the team lead for our Product Design practice. This means that I am looking after the team while still contributing to projects. We’re a small team, so it’s all-hands-on-deck.
On the team side, I focus on helping our team scale: hiring and onboarding new team members (we’re hiring!), creating and defining processes to ensure design quality, coaching and mentoring, shepherding career growth, setting goals and objectives for the team, ensuring we’re focusing on the user, and so much more. I also spend a good chunk of my time educating other groups on design thinking and its value. I collaborate with other teams to understand where product design can support them and vice versa.
On the project side, I try to bring our users’ voices to what we do. The product design function is quite new to Algolia and many people here have never worked with product designers before, so a large part of what I do is showing and guiding teams through the design thinking process and how listening to our users brings value.
How did you get into product design?
Like many in my field, I found my way to UX and product design by chance. A geographer by education, I’ve always been fascinated by human-culture-environment interactions. Geography is an incredibly diverse discipline and my favorite parts of it were spatial statistics (Geographic Information Science), data visualization and qualitative research (talking to people, ethnography). Those three balance out my analytical and creative sides, and satisfy my curiosity about social matters, how humans work. This was a great foundation for UX design, which I didn’t know existed as a field at the time.
Prior to design, I worked in consulting, client management and operations. When I was an account manager at a cleantech startup, I loved understanding my client’s needs, but I didn’t love being the middleman between them and the solution-makers. I wanted to be the solution-maker. That’s when I started talking to UX designers at my company about what skills I’d need to acquire to make the leap. Those conversations helped me decide between going into a Master’s Program, a design bootcamp, or trying to self-teach. In the end, I chose a design bootcamp, because I felt my academic and professional experience gave me a solid foundation, and the bootcamp would help me acquire basics of visual and interface design.
New parenthood, design bootcamp, and a new career are big life changes – what inspired you take these big leaps?
The only complicated part of my decision to make a career transition was the fact that my husband and I decided to start a family at the same time. When I quit my job, I was three months pregnant. It was a “now or never” type of situation, and I don’t regret taking the risk one bit. I made my decision after significant reflection on what matters most to me, which strengths of mine I would like to harness, and what type of impact wanted to make. I also asked myself: “What is the worst that could happen?” If design didn’t work out, I could go back to my previous path. My husband’s unconditional support also made me feel more comfortable. With a baby on the way, I knew I needed to sort out the career side of things and find my place in the professional world, which would help me be a better mom.
Why Paris, why now?
I always had an unexplained love affair with France. Maybe it’s simply because, as a Russian girl, I always learned about France’s profound cultural impact on my homeland. No one in my family was crazy about France, and I’ve never been to Paris. For some reason, though, at 13 years old, I just had to learn French. I self-taught for a year, because my middle school didn’t allow me to join the class a quarter late for fear of being too far behind. Next year in high school, I started Beginner French. I was quickly taken under the wing of Madame Clarke, a tiny French woman in her 70’s with a lot of punch. She transferred me to her Advanced French class for which I was completely unprepared, and I stayed with her all 4 years of high school.
I continued French in college and studied abroad in Paris. Living with a host family in the City of Lights gave me a deeper appreciation for French culture and people. I didn’t want to leave. It was not a surprise to anyone that 7 years later, I married a French man.
We moved here, because we wanted to live closer to my husband’s family and my relatives in Russia and Kazakhstan. We also felt like France’s family-oriented policies and culture would better support us. One year in, I see the pluses and minuses of life here, but am still completely in love with this place.
What’s the most exciting part about being in product design today?
Just like with anything in tech, Product Design is constantly in flux. There are new technologies disrupting the way we do things, so we can never get comfortable. We have to keep learning and re-adjusting our processes and approaches. The move away from interfaces is a great example of this. The way you design for a voice-only product is completely different than how you design an experience for a interface. I love that I continue to learn every day and that this field challenges me to have a growth-oriented mindset.
On the other hand, in a market like Paris, the understanding of product design is relatively immature, which means I have the opportunity to educate others on the value it can bring. It isn’t always easy, but extremely rewarding when I see a skeptic turn into an advocate.
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