#SNDSF speaker Katie Zhu on media, tech and connection

To continue our preview of the upcoming SND Annual Workshop & Exhibition in San Francisco, speaker Katie Zhu works for Medium as a Product Manager and Engineer. A design-minded developer, her varied experience includes work on the news application team at NPR, the interactive team at the New York Times and the Northwestern University Knight Lab. Katie is passionate about media and technology’s potential to strengthen connections through storytelling.

From your current position as a Product Manager and Engineer at Medium to your work with NPR and the New York Times, it’s always at the intersection of technology and design. Having graduated from Northwestern with degrees in computer science and journalism, did you know all along that you wanted to work as a developer for digital news projects?

I kind of fell into this mix of media, technology and product. I’ve always been drawn to storytelling and its ability to help us relate to each other and bring people together. Technology has a similar potential, connecting people in new and exciting ways. I actually grew up wanting to become a lawyer — I watched a lot of CSI — but after a stint at a summer nerd camp for law and litigation I realized that was not for me.

Can you tell me about your projects and process at Medium?

I’ve worked on a variety of projects at Medium — from starting up a dedicated Publications team and building tools and features to help publishers be successful on our platform, to shipping our publishing API, to now working on content discovery.

There isn’t really a one-size fits all process, but I try to keep things as dynamic and collaborative as possible. One of the more “process-y” things I’m into right now is something called a “frankenmeeting,” which is basically a combined retro, sprint planning, and tactical meeting — all within an hour. It’s a great time for the team to come together, reflect on the past week, and define the week ahead’s goals together.

What are the biggest design challenges and UX considerations you encounter? Can you share a few lessons learned?

A big design challenge is balancing reading flow with an easily scannable, browsable discovery experience. I think an important lesson in design is to not try to be too clever — if no one can figure out how a thing works, or if the animation for your interaction is super over the top but serving no real user need, it’s probably not the best option.

Where do you look for inspiration? What news sites, apps, etc. do you find most engaging?

I try to look for inspiration outside of my immediate disciplines. I’ve always found something compelling in architecture and urban planning — there’s some fundamental principles of designing spaces for humans that I think are applicable to building products for the web too.

With news specifically, I think BuzzFeed is doing a lot of interesting stuff. I also try to look more at apps that are focused on types of media consumption beyond text — Amazon Video, Netflix, Spotify — as a way to think about the experience of consuming and discovering content at a high level.

What advice do you have for young journalists, designers, developers?

There are so many tools and resources at our disposal today, it can really easily get overwhelming. At the same time, having the power to conceive of and put things out into the world is incredibly powerful. Don’t lose sight of that, and try to focus attention on growing in one area at a time.

Like cool people and great design? We’ll be profiling #SNDSF speakers all month. And follow the hashtag #SNDSF on twitter for more updates. To register for the workshop, which runs April 7-9 in San Francisco, click here. Space will be limited.

About Courtney Kan

is a designer at The Washington Post and the editor of SND.org.

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