Zachary Hinton — a product designer at Hulu — will be one of the fantastic speakers at AfroTech 2019. We had a great chat with him about his work, ambitions, and the future of product design.
What is a Product Designer?
Hinton explains that at their core, product designers are problem-solvers. He says product designers use their design tools coupled with user research to determine customer needs and build products that are both functional and intuitive.
Inclusive Product Design
“Inclusive design should be at the core of every design process,” Hinton said. “It’s the process of learning who the users are, how they are using the product now, and how they will use it in the future.”
Hinton says during the design cycle, the team decides if a product needs to adapt to each user or provide a universal experience. He also points out that while Hulu’s platform is designed to be universally appealing, features like the Black Stories Hub offer a more curated cultural experience. They also have similar hubs for LGBTQ, Latinx, Asian-American, and Pacific-Islander content, all designed by a corresponding Employee Research Group.
Born and raised in Raleigh, NC, Hinton remembers a vibrant and creative childhood. His dad was a computer scientist, and his mom was a literacy trainer who dabbled in several side hustles and hobbies. He remembers his mom meticulously painting and decorating each bedroom according to specific themes. He credits this as his first exposure to the visual aspects of design and the spark that led him to learn about different styles.
He attributes his early interest in computers to observing his dad, always coding or reading coding books.
About Necessity and Invention
Hinton’s first foray into product design was born out of necessity. He was a bright student but found himself as a frequent target of bullies. To help himself out at school, he started brainstorming how he could deter the attackers. This was the era of MySpace, and realizing that everyone wanted a fresh layout — he offered to redesign bullies’ layouts for free. Much to his relief, it worked! The bullies picked on him less frequently, and he became his school’s resident expert in MySpace page design. His lunch hours would be spent “consulting” with his “clients” about the colors, layouts, and typographies they wanted on their pages.
The College Life
Eventually, the Raleigh native would end up at Hampton University in Virginia, where he studied human-computer interaction and broadcast journalism. He admits this double-major was unusual, but for him, it was all a part of a bigger picture. The communications department at his university had a lab equipped of brand-new Mac computers with the latest Adobe software, something the HCI department didn’t have.
During his undergraduate years, he completed several internships, including a couple at Silicon Valley powerhouses Adobe and Google. The projects he completed during these internships served as cornerstones of his professional portfolio, which would later help him get into a graduate program at the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University.
In his senior year of undergraduate studies, he toured the university’s human-computer interaction department and fell in love. He eventually turned down a post-graduation job offer so he could go straight to grad school at CMU.
Getting That First Job After Grad School
After turning down a job offer once he completed undergrad, Hinton later found out that getting a job offer post-grad school was not easy.
“I applied for every job I could find just to see what would stick,” he said. “I think people don’t realize how many rejections I got before I even got one interview. For me, the interview process was very similar to the design process. After every failed interview, I would go back to the drawing board to refine my personal presentation and try again.”
Diversity and Inclusion in Technology
It’s no secret that there are diversity and inclusion issues in the technology industry. However, Hinton believes there has been an improvement in some areas but, in others, there’s still work to be done.
“Silicon Valley is becoming more accountable concerning its hiring practices, and companies are incorporating inclusionary practices in the hiring and retention processes. These include more unconscious bias training, blind interviews, and evaluating resumes without names,” Hinton said.
While the product designer says Silicon Valley is becoming more accountable when it comes to its hiring practices, there’s still a major issue.
“It seems like a lot of people have different definitions for the term ‘inclusive.’ Some people believe inclusivity simply means accessibility. Others think about it solely in terms of gender. I think there should be better industry alignment with a formal definition of inclusivity. I think progress is slow because when we talk about inclusivity, we’re all talking about different things,” he said.
Living His Dream
At this point in the interview, we asked Zachary if he’s living his dream. He responded with a definite,”Yes!” He also adds that he didn’t always know that his current reality existed. While his dad has always been his biggest role model, he acknowledges that not everyone has the benefit of the same kind of exposure.
“Representation matters. I don’t think I would have been interested in computer science if I hadn’t gotten the exposure through my dad. I’m also so happy that I know a few Black product designers. It’s nice having people to share ideas and interests with,” Hinton said.
How to Become a Product Designer
Hinton is passionate about helping other Black STEM professionals see a future in product design for themselves. He encourages anyone with an interest in the field to start small and build a portfolio by reimagining applications and products they use frequently. He also reminds newcomers that any professional product design experience can be valuable, not just at the Big Tech companies.
“What I love about product design is that you don’t need a formal education to do it. All you need to do is identify a product that isn’t meeting your needs and design a new one. While I got a formal education in this field, I encourage anyone with ideas to give it a shot,” Hinton said.