Harvard in Tech Spotlight: Yuhki Yamashita, VP of Product at Figma

Author: Jessica Li

Earlier this year, I had the chance to speak with Yuhki Yamashita ’11 and VP of Product at Figma (the collaborative interface design tool), about a number of topics including leadership, creativity, and design.

First, could you share how you came to design and Figma? Design has always been near and dear to my heart. In particular, I’ve loved publication design since I was young, whether it was designing greeting cards for my family, or working on school newspapers and yearbooks. When I arrived at Harvard, I immediately applied to be a design editor for the Crimson, and some of my most vivid memories from college are from the many late nights I spent wrestling with the layout of our printed publication or coming up with the perfect infographic once all the stories were written.

After taking CS50 my freshman fall, I decided to concentrate in Computer Science, and I was excited to discover it to be a field where I could easily apply my interests in design by focusing on building great user interfaces and experiences. This is also what led me to the path of product management in my professional career, where I had the opportunity to work on designing consumer experiences for products like YouTube and Uber.

It was at Uber where I encountered Figma. The team at Uber was getting bigger, and the products we were building, more complex; it was hard to keep track of what the latest designs were or know how and where to give feedback. Figma was the best solution we found — marketers, writers, and even lawyers were able to open up designs and participate in the product process because everything was just a URL. I was able to witness how Figma fundamentally changed our product development process and democratize design, so by the time Figma reached out about an opportunity to work there, I was already 100% sold.

What was the biggest transition you had to make from studying CS to working in product management? I think the biggest change was going from being the person solving the problem to being the person who creates the environment for others to solve the problem. When you’re working on a problem set or a side project in college, you need to do everything from identifying the problem to figuring out the solution to implementing it. When you’re working with amazing designers and engineers, it’s far more likely that they come up with a better solution than you individually can, so your job first and foremost is to equip everyone with a deep understanding of the problem and the motivation for solving it. That level of indirection can be a bit uncomfortable, especially in the beginning.

What is the most underrated skill that all great designers should have or strive for? Without a doubt, it’s storytelling. Great storytelling truly sets the amazing designers apart from the rest. These are the designers who are always thinking about what story their design needs to tell their users. What do my users need, and how can I make it immediately self-evident that my design will fulfill that need? How do I make my users feel a certain way as they interact with the product?

The best designers I’ve worked with come from storytelling backgrounds like film, where you have to invent a story out of thin air and convince your viewer to stay and watch. Too often designers take their viewer’s attention for granted, and a great storyteller knows they’re not afforded that luxury.

A simple exercise I like to do with designers is to get them to articulate how a given screen or interface might be read out by a screen reader for the visually impaired. A screen reader has to describe what’s on the screen in an easy-to-understand way and also convey the most important things first. If the design isn’t allowing for either of these things to happen, it’s usually a sign that its storytelling needs work.

How do you understand user needs beyond what users articulate or demonstrate? It’s first important to meet the right users in the right environment. Too often it’s easy to resort to listening to the vocal minority; you have to go out of your way to find the users who aren’t taking the time to submit a support ticket or tweet at you. The right environment is important too — for example, when we were trying to better understand the experience of drivers on Uber, it was important that we could hear their feedback while they were actually using our product. The glitches or moments of confusion that happen during the ride are often the very things drivers forget about — or have difficulty describing — after hours on the road.

In addition, when you’re talking to users about their needs and desires, think to ask “why” one more time than you think necessary. Users may ask for a feature, but it’s important to ask “why” to understand the underlying problem motivating that request. And it’s even worth asking “why” the problem is so important to them, as there may be yet another issue or assumption about “how things work” that lead them to place importance — sometimes undue — on the given problem.

How do you exercise your own creativity and improve on it proactively? For me, it’s about finding creativity in the most mundane. Take, for example, company processes. Those very words can cause anyone’s eyes to glaze over. But what if you think about it as a product? A product seeking to disrupt the boring and disliked incumbent and maybe even sparking some joy for its customers? If you’re interested, here’s an example of a company process I redesigned at Figma.

How did your time at Harvard shape your perspective on tech and leadership? I think that Harvard taught me a certain kind of humility, to become comfortable with the idea that I was rarely the one to have the best answers, and to learn to assume there’s always more to learn than I think. This taught me to be incredibly open-minded, and it forced me to learn how to add value when I wasn’t the smartest in the room. And this is exactly how I think about my job today — cultivating the environment and facilitating the discussion that leads to the discovery of the best ideas.

I also think that many of my humanities classes have had an unexpected impact on my day-to-day job. Whether you’re writing a paper about Chinese literati or on a Keats poem, there is this skill you have to learn of wrestling with the material and digging up all the evidence you can to string together a thesis that declares an opinionated interpretation. There’s something incredibly similar in the product world about the process of deciding what to build. You’re using whatever signal you may have at that given moment — insights from research or data, certain intuitions or learnings — and weaving these into a believable thesis (a “motive” to use Expos 20 terms…) that the company can rally around.

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About The Author:

Jessica Li - Harvard Grad | Head of Content @ Elpha (YC S19) & Harvard in Tech | Marketing @ ZAGENO | https://linktr.ee/jessicali