Geek of the Week: Could we? Should we? Sheryl Cababa asks the right design questions at Artefact

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Sheryl Cababa bikes through the Artefact studio in Seattle. (Artefact Photo)

Dr. Ian Malcom would get a kick out of Sheryl Cababa.

“I jokingly compare myself to the Jeff Goldblum character in the original ‘Jurassic Park,’” said Cababa, the executive creative director at Seattle-based design consultancy Artefact. “As his colleagues rush to clone dinosaurs for the sake of it without regard for the consequences, he famously cautioned them to consider not only whether or not they could, but whether or not they should. That’s how I feel about technology. In the face of tech optimism, we need to remember that for every advancement, there is a potential unintended impact.”

It’s a theme Cababa has been visiting in her talks at conferences, most recently at Seattle Interactive. Our latest Geek of the Week said she’s interested in introducing designers to “new methods for surfacing the right questions about what we create and connecting it to their design work in a meaningful way.”

Cababa has worked at consultancies such as frog and Adaptive Path. She spent more than six years as a designer at Microsoft and did a stint at Getty Images. She also worked at Philips during the 10 years she lived in The Netherlands.

At Artefact, she was one of the masterminds behind a tool called The Tarot Cards of Tech to help designers and technologists think through outcomes and ask tough questions of the products they design.

Lean more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Sheryl Cababa:

What do you do, and why do you do it? As a user experience (UX) designer, I help make products, services and experiences more user-friendly, accessible and engaging. When done well, UX design basically makes our day-to-day experiences less frustrating and allows us to focus on the things that matter.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? There’s still a pervasive misconception that design is about the expression of beauty. It’s fundamentally about problem solving, and the elegance of the solution is where the beauty lies.

In terms of the broader tech industry, it’s important to recognize that technology is not neutral. There are decisions made throughout the design process that influence the usage and outcomes of tech products and services. The tech industry’s lack of foresight has brought the world fake news, huge biases in machine learning, abusive platforms, and terrible business models that serve advertisers rather than users. We as designers and technologists need to shift our focus to the intended outcomes of our work, essentially what happens after our design solutions have left our control.

Where do you find your inspiration? I moved to Seattle three years ago from The Netherlands. I think I took for granted how well-designed experiences generally are over there — from transportation, to banking, to urban infrastructure. I carry those experiences with me because I’ve found we make a lot of assumptions about what constitutes the default in the U.S., and often fail to make large-scale, better-designed choices.

The other place I draw inspiration from is my family’s home country of The Philippines. People have such a creative mindset there. When an object — any object — is broken, they go to inventive lengths to fix it. Life is chaotic in the Philippines and there are a lot of systemic challenges, but people are savvy about what they can and can’t control and how to make shrewd decisions for their lives. It’s a real testament to human resilience.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? Books. I love ideas, and books are the most influential and progress-inducing technology in human history.

An image of actor Jeff Goldblum is nestled among other items on Sheryl Cababa’s desk. (Photo courtesy of Sheryl Cababa)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I am messy, but there are some things I keep close by. The “Because capitalism” sticker always reminds me of root cause. Jeff Goldblum because he’s my fave. And I’m the host of the Beyonce window shrine that we have at work.

A shrine to Beyonce on the window near Sherly Cababa’s workspace at Artefact. (Photo courtesy of Sheryl Cababa)

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.): Eat real food, get real sleep. Always under-promise and overdeliver. You’ll thank yourself later.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? I drink Earl Grey every day, so I guess Picard?

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Apparition, for sure.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Fund a young woman of color’s startup. Someone out there has better ideas than I do.

I once waited in line for … What is apparently the best tonkatsu in Tokyo, on a freezing winter day, for an hour. It did not disappoint.

Your role models (And why?): My parents, who seem to have infinite curiosity and were always learning how to do new things when I was growing up. I think they instilled this spirit of experimentation in me.

Greatest game in history: Super Mario Kart forever.

Best gadget ever: Old gadgets are always better than new ones, so I’d have to say my ancient single speed bike that I use to take me everywhere. Also, it’s analogue.

First computer: A Commodore 64! Hey kids!

Current phone: An iPhone SE because I can’t get on the gigantic phone bandwagon. Phones that fit in women’s pockets please!

Favorite app: Social media is kind of a dumpster fire right now, but for me, Instagram is still a source of joy. It’s where I keep up with my friends and family, and who doesn’t love pictures of puppies and babies? Cultivate your feeds!

Favorite cause: The Technology Access Foundation. Anything that encourages more students of color to achieve success in technology is a great cause in my book. If there’s one thing our field needs more of, it’s diversity.

Most important technology of 2018: Social media (and how it’s spreading misinformation)

Most important technology of 2020: Social media (and how it’s spreading disinformation)

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Put down your phone and look around.

Website: Artefact Group

Twitter: @sherylcababa

LinkedIn: Sheryl Cababa

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