Mike Rapp, Design Lead at Walmart Health. Previously at Google/Verily, HCA Healthcare


What is your relationship to visual design?

I am a career designer, having grown up in the music business in Nashville. I worked with and around visual designers all day, people who created record covers, photo shoots and songs/records.

This initial start in physical design directly impacts and shapes my attitude toward the craft of design.

Can you tell me more about the type of design you did early on?

Sure! As a kid, I moved to Nashville to work in the music business (just like everyone else). The label I was at, Word Records, was small at the time, maybe a dozen people, but when I left it was over 200. Word discovered Amy Grant and hundreds of other amazing artists. During my eight years there, Word became the largest Christian music company in the world, and almost all of the most well known artists were either recording with us, or wanted to record with us.

As a kid at Word, I got to hang around all these world renowned designers, who were creating things that showed up in record stores and in many cases the Grammys. People like Buddy Jackson, Jeff and Lisa Franke, the late Bill Brunt, Mark Tucker, Patrick Pollei, Kent Hunter. Record producers like Keith Thomas. I would find excuses to sneak out the door and hang around at their studios, so I could see what they were working on and how they were approaching the design process.

I tell people I got to work at Disney when Walt was there. It was a magic act. We were creating the genre of contemporary Christian music in real time. It was the golden era of design in Nashville. I was very fortunate, very blessed, to be in the kitchens where the best chefs in the world were cooking.

How do you think your career path affects how you see visual design in digital products?

Being connected to the physical process of design was very powerful for me at a very early age. I remember watching Buddy Jackson explain how a record cover would look by shining a light on a hand-made paper collage. That really made me realize how much emotional risk great designers take, and how much commitment it takes to see great ideas through the gauntlet of critique and marketing push and pull. I was very fortunate to have had leaders at Word who intrinsically understood that creativity was not marketing plans, but ideas and risk. We embraced risk. We knew there was no chance of success without making a bet on a big idea.

We were never afraid to fail. We absolutely saw failure as a way of learning what works. We would go all in, and then cut our losses and try again. We were, in retrospect, a very agile company. As a result, we became a hothouse for great design, a place where the most creative people in the world wanted to be.

Because of my experiences, I see design as a tactile, emotional journey as much as a UI click-and-go process. I think I tend to be able to disconnect from execution and imagine a future state that may not exist yet, because everything I worked on early in my career was unknown and undiscovered.

Also, because I grew up in an era where you couldn’t change anything after it was printed, I tend to be much pickier about things—which is now quite hard to manage in real time because in tech you can’t get bogged down in details until you’re at that final stage of design.

What changed the role of the designer, from the role of creator to one focused largely on execution?

Today, the role of the product designer is not common in many big tech companies; the product design process is now a shared collaboration between many different roles. I think this is why certain companies seem to succeed at product design, while others seem to fail over and over again. The companies that succeed seem to elevate the role of the designer to a place of authority in what actually is designed, rather than just running Figma.

I have friends all over the tech world now, at very well known companies. The companies that seem to consistently surprise people with really good thinking seem to see designers as people who can come up with ideas and own that discovery role. Who really do ask why over and over again, and are required think hard about solutions in real time.

Who does this well?

To me the gold standard is @airbnbdesign. I run an Airbnb so I get to see both the guest- and host-facing interfaces. I always say every UX designer should run an Airbnb, because you get to use the best designed experiences in the world, and have real-time user feedback with every guest visit.

As a UXD, it is insanely obvious that Airbnb begins with a problem to solve, and not a predetermined layout that designers are supposed to ideate. But this is a company that was started by two UX designers, and they admit openly that they tend to overcommit to design because it creates a culture that attracts the best designers. I don’t know many companies that committed to user experience. Pixar is one. Apple is another. Meta is a very design-driven company. Certainly Google hires super motivated and thoughtful UXers.

Why is it so hard to be a designer today?

It seems that something shifted in the world of design over the past few years. Somehow we succeeded at convincing people that the double diamond is real, but not that designers should participate in the first half of the double diamond.

I’m not sure how this happened, but I have heard it a lot. From all sorts of companies. Some of my peers say it’s the outgrowth of being too focused on design systems and the amazing power of tooling, and not on thinking and asking questions. We seem to have convinced leaders that we can in fact create usable things with no discovery or research, because we have the ability to run these amazing programs like Figma, and use design systems to create consistency.

Is agile the problem?

No. I am a true believer in collaboration with cross functional teammates. I believe in agile, because I’ve seen it work. My product team at HCA Healthcare was amazing because we were wholeheartedly committed to the actual work of agile. But often agile is being used to describe a process that isn’t agile at all. Agile isn’t the ceremonies of scrum: retrospectives, user stories, kanban. Agile is a team-based mental approach to problem solving that says, the team struggles with the business problem and the team itself, the makers, they decide the user solutions.

Sadly, what I often see is that the PM is put into this position where they feel pressure to release as quickly as possible, which invariably pushes product managers to overcommit to a release schedule. Before any engineer, researcher or designer is even aware of the project, epics and user stories are entered into Jira and deadlines have been set. This creates a waterfall effect where the designer is unknowingly boxed into predetermined expectations, so their role is basically running a design system rather than imagining the future state of a thing.

In this scenario, design can only be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This has led to a misuse of the idea of minimally viable product, or MVP. MVP was never meant to be a belief in mediocre, non-viable products. It was a process that required releasing usable things fast, learning quickly, and iterating almost immediately—and preferably BEFORE you write a single line of code. Today, because of this insane addiction to speed, product leaders often feel railroaded into a release schedule that is not sustainable unless they dictate every epic and every user story and on day 1 go straight into T-shirt sizing. This is not agile by any definition.

People forget how many times Steve Jobs refused to release the first iPhone because it wasn’t good enough. The first iPhone was terrible compared to the third iPhone. But it was also the best phone EVER IMAGINED. Steve believed he couldn’t learn anything by releasing non-viable products.

I believe we are now very close to a Figma update where the program can write viable javascript code straight out of Figma… for every major front end code base. When this happens it will change the role of the design system, and it will drastically change the role of the designer. A designer will be able to actually deploy a single page application straight out of Figma. I believe this is coming really really soon, probably in Figma’s next major release. And when that happens the role of the designer may become a lot less boxed in by what can be executed by the engineers on a too-short schedule.

You said you’re pickier about details and craft. How does that come up when you work with others?

I now try to be very proactive and specific about discovering and defining constraints before I start thinking about a problem. If we have to release a feature in one sprint, then I need to know that before I get to Day 1. If rethinking the layout is off the table, I need to find that out immediately and document that. Otherwise, I will be like the alcoholic who is managing the liquor store, designing something that has no chance of deploying.

How have you succeeded at mitigating this at the places you have worked?

My advice is to have a problem-solving process that you go through with every single thing you have to design. You don’t need permission to have a healthy design process.

Start with the business need, then walk through the users, their pain points, how you will know you solved that pain point, and then present a lot of ways to get there from here. Draw in Figjam, not fancy prototypes with deep interactions, just rough rectangles with words and arrows. Seek out conversation and criticism from your cross-functional team members, put them in the room of design.

This takes tremendous discipline, it’s super hard to do in real time, when the clock is ticking on deadlines. But committing to a process will help you ask more of the right questions, and it should help your engineers understand how to contribute to the design.

My UX team at Verily was really good at the discipline of UX, which likely comes from having people from IDEO like Dana Cho and the culture of research that exists at Google. Some of my UX peers created slide decks for every project, that were created alongside their Figma files. The deck is where they documented the user stories, research, pain points, and their entire process of design. They used these decks as the source of truth for the thinking part of UX, so any engineer, PM or PO could look at that deck and understand why they were doing the design.

That takes a lot of work, a lot of time. But I picked up on a lot of that discipline by working at Alphabet, and I’ve become a much better designer as a result. My hope is I will be better at this as I join my new team at Walmart Health.

Have you seen whether simpler approaches to quality in visual design (e.g. better alignment) affect success metrics in a meaningful way?

This is a tricky question, because success is measured differently based on business goals. If you’re fortunate to be working on consumer-facing work, where real people are determining success and failure, then the details of design are easier to test and measure. But most designers are working on UI that is B-to-B, where the user’s experience isn’t commonly valued or measured. In those cases, visual design is usually seen as a nice-to-have, and not something worth spending money on. Healthcare, for sure, has long been one of those industries, which is (unfortunately for my wife) the main reason I am attracted to it.

I like to say that if you are paying people to use your products, then you probably won’t spend a lot of money on user experience. In healthcare, 99% of the users are nurses, data managers and administrative people who are paid to use whatever products are required to do the job. So UX, in healthcare, is insanely difficult.

That said, the companies that are good at visual design tend to schedule research as a part of every sprint. It’s not a nice to have, or something they do when they have the time. It’s a necessary part of their design process, because the only way you can iterate effectively is if you know what you can improve.

Many companies are really good at being disciplined about measuring outcomes post-deployment, and usually those are the companies that are unusually good at visual design. The FitBit team at Google is really good at understanding user journeys at an insanely granular level. Meta is also extremely good at this.

My former UX Lead at Verily came from Facebook, where he designed what he called the most expensive 12 inches of real estate in the world: The Newsfeed. He explained to me Meta’s process for experimentation with design, and then watching insanely-specific success metrics in real time. Meta is experimenting with ideas literally around the clock, deploying to actual production and watching the results moments later. As a result, Meta product people are comfortable with ambiguity, because they have a clear view of where that ambiguity is impacting success. And, they are wholeheartedly committed to iterating as quickly as possible.

Spotify is also one of the world’s most advanced data companies. The depth of their analytics and AI is off the charts. In these scenarios designers are empowered to solve real problems, and in real time. So when you look at the Spotify UI, you see levels of design detail that require a very deep commitment to user experience. That’s because Spotify defines their brand as a user experience company, not a music company.

Is there anything important about visual design that I haven’t covered and you want to share?

Steve Jobs would say design happens in the brain. It’s how a thing feels in your hand. Be committed to making an emotional connection with your users at every single turn. A designer should be able to support every single decision she makes, every negative space, every button text, every layout decision. If you can’t support your decisions, then you won’t be good at empowering great design decisions.

The other thing: Love your team. You should assume no one on your team has been told they are doing a good job. Recognize when people are succeeding. Embarrass them with love and praise in front of your team. When engineers see that you recognize their work, and truly love the results, their commitment to the concept of good design will become infectious. They will love design because they know you are in it with them.