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Chelsea Wilkinson: Product Designer At Coles

4th January, 2024 | 31 mins, 30 sec

Join us as we chat with Chelsea Wilkinson about her lifelong passion for building and creating. She studied user experience design in university and landed internships that allowed her to combine her interests in tech and design. Chelsea shares her experiences working at major companies like ANZ and Coles Group, the challenges of juggling music and career, and her recent ADHD diagnosis. She talks about how she used the pandemic as a time for self-improvement and dove into hobbies like building mechanical keyboards. Chelsea also provides some wise advice to her younger self about focusing on short term goals. Tune in for an inspiring conversation about following your passions through the ups and downs of life.

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Please note: this transcript has been auto-generated and may contain some errors.

Thank you for joining us for another episode of Digitally Diverse, where we take a deep dive into the movers and shakers in the australian design industry. Today, we are lucky enough to have the wonderful Chelsea Wilkinson joining us, who is a product designer specializing in design systems at Kohl’s. Thank you so much for joining us, Chelsea, thank you very much.

Thanks for having me. First of all, I would love to hear a little bit of an overview of you and your career so far. Can you talk us through it? Yeah.

Where do I begin? So back as far as I can remember, I’ve been someone who likes to build things, so build cool stuff to further my own life, to be more productive. But then I also had a creative side, too. So I was in a music, in a band, and those two were kind of almost at ods with each other.

They never really crossed paths that much. But after high school, I figured, is there a way I can channel the creative side but also the technical side? Originally, I thought that was it. And marketing, so being able to program but have a say in how the product looks, but that’s because I didn’t have the vocabulary of what UX design was.

And so second year uni, I got instantly hooked. And I said, this is exactly what I want to do. And since then, I was laser focused in trying to land that UX designer role.

So I found myself doing a major in user experience design at UQ. I did a exchange semester over in the US to get some skills that you might not find in Australia. And I found a lot of internships and other things throughout uni, trying to get that big company experience.

So before I was with a suncorp in an internship, and then I found myself in a graduate program at a Z where I got to figure out how things work in a large scale. And right now I’m in Cole’s group or Cole’s supermarkets. But I’m starting to specialize more in design systems.

And it’s a bit of a strange turn of things. But as soon as I launched into it, I realized that this is exactly what I want to do even more than product design. So I love to chat about design systems and all other stuff, too.

Amazing. And quick side note, what was the band? What kind of music? Seas of Titan. Titan being the moon of Saturn.

Cool. It’s kind of somewhere between rock and metal. We can’t really pinpoint ourselves.

Amazing. We’ve got a couple of gigs coming up also. You guys are still together? We are, but trying to move out of it to focus more on my career and other life commitments.

It’s hard to balance all of it once it’s like a full time job. Adulting has gotten in the way. Yeah, that’s a pedalistic way to put it.

Thanks for giving me an overview of how you’ve gotten to where you’re at at the moment. What was it about the design system side of things while you’re at the Coles group that got you hooked? Yeah. So I enjoy a little bit of development side, too.

Front end development here and there and in my internships, I couldn’t find myself at the time a pure UX role. What it ended up being was a hybrid of ux and front end development. So I ended up building a bit of development skills, too.

I tried to break out of that and just go into pure UX, but I realized that in this role in design systems, I get to utilize all those dev skills that I picked up before design systems, you have to know a little bit about everything. A little bit of dev, a bit of design, a bit of marketing, testing. And the more broad knowledge you have, the better off you’d be with design systems.

So I found myself accidentally in the perfect spot for me. Yeah. I mean, you could probably draw upon so many different things while you’re in the one role, so.

Yeah, sounds perfect for you. Yeah. It’s a very new field.

If you look at LinkedIn, most people haven’t done it for more than a year or two. It’s actually very hard for us to find a design systems designer who had more than three years experience. Yeah.

Feels like this fresh and just starting to evolve field, and that makes it all the more exciting for me. I feel like there’s a bit of a trend. Not so much a trend, but like a realization from a lot of the bigger companies at the moment, that design systems are such an incredible way to not only make sure that everything is cohesive, but also make the building of new products so much more efficient and so much more user friendly because there’s less bugs and all that fun stuff.

So was there a particular problem that you were brought on to the design system team to fix, or what’s the main thing that you’re doing with them? That’s right. So Coles group, it’s not just Cole’s supermarkets. They also own liquor land, vintage sellers, a couple of other brands, too.

But there’s a lot of mismatch between the app, the website, other brands as well. And they were looking for someone who wanted to, who can go in and sort of tie the things up into something cohesive, so that if we want to change the Coles red to some other red, normally that would be a huge undertaking. You have to tell the designers to change their hex codes, the developers to change the hex codes, the testers, but you can make it so that if you have a variable called Coles red and that’s just set everywhere, all you do is flip a switch, change the value, and it ripples out everywhere.

So lots of changes can happen in such a small period of time. Exciting thing. Awesome.

I love that. So much more efficient. And, yeah, it seems like you would be able to have multiple touch points throughout the whole group, so, yeah, super exciting position to be in.

Yeah. And I will add that it’s quite a fresh department if you look around, most people are quite new there. It’s just starting to build out.

So I wish I could show you the public facing website, but there’s still a lot of work to do. So hopefully one day we can show our stuff to the world and be toe to toe with other great design systems, like realestate.com or maybe Atlassian.

Amazing. How exciting. So, Chelsea, what kind of projects are you guys working on at the Coles group? Is there anything in particular coming up that’s exciting for you? So there is an existing design system, but it’s primarily web only.

And the whole idea right now is to start expanding into other areas and you’ve got to take other people into consideration. It’s a lot of sort of internal user interviews and things like that. Yeah.

One big thing about design systems that’s starting to really develop now is the idea of design tokens. So instead of having stylings for web, a stylings for app, we can have a centralized, platform independent style list of colors, fonts, and those can sort of feed in into web and app, and there’s no mismatch between each of those, so you can be guaranteed that you’ve got some consistency between everything. Yeah, cool.

But that really requires a lot of reshuffling of things. Where does web have to align with web app, or vice versa? But once we’ve set those up, I call it connecting the cables, then you can easily just send new style updates just instantly. Yeah.

I mean, from someone who’s been very much out of that realm myself, of course you would need something to bridge the gap because. Yeah, you’re right. Now that I’m thinking about it, the difference sometimes between a mobile experience and a web experience is completely different.

Yeah. What amazed me about design systems is how little answers people have right now. I talk to some design system designers from big companies.

I won’t name and shame, but I ask questions like, what’s your contribution process? How do you best do that? And he goes, oh, we’re not quite sure. If you have any ideas, you can tell me. So it feels like we’re all in the same boat together of the same problems for each of us, which is so interesting.

It’s like we’re, dare I say, pioneers or showing where design systems can go. I mean, yeah, you’re is. What’s the term? The Greenfield projects.

It is a greenfield project for so many different big enterprise companies, such as Colts Group. So, yeah, that’s super exciting to be able to be able to pioneer the way that people create these whole big design systems and those design tokens, because potentially what you’re doing right now could be paving the way for how it could be done for the next 510 50 years. And what’s another great thing about design systems for those who may be considering a career in that, is that you sort of have your feelers in every kind of area within the company.

So Coles, I’m looking at other brands cross platform. If you’re a designer, usually, maybe you’re just looking at a certain area, maybe just the checkout screen or something. But as a designer, you start to get really broad knowledge of all across the field, and you really start to get to know all the designers, and they always start to get to know you.

Really? Yeah. Oh, that’s great. I feel like a really great opportunity for someone who doesn’t necessarily want to get into a very super detailed part of a business, but really take advantage of those generalist mean.

It sounds like Coles group sounds very collaborative based on what you’ve told us so far, and you get to collaborate with a bunch of different people within the company. Is there anything that you can share about the culture at the Coles group and how you found working with them? I can’t speak too much for Cole’s group, the entire company, because, after all, there’s about 100,000 of us. I can speak for the design department.

Everyone is so friendly and considerate, and they’ll make space for you whenever you need some help. And that’s something I really enjoy. And everyone’s quite fresh, so they’re not tied into their own preconceived ideas too much.

They’re still open to new things. And that’s quite a unicorn that you have this massive scale, but you’re nimble and flexible. That’s something that people really seek out for and I feel like I’ve struck gold with coals.

I love that. Yes. And something that you mentioned with everyone being fresh as well.

Everyone would then, I assume be really on board and there’s probably going to be a really great energy going towards a lot of the projects that everyone’s working on because, yeah, it’s going to be fast moving and everyone’s wanting to put some numbers on the board, so to speak. So have you found that everyone’s morale and enthusiasm is quite high? I think so, yeah. And I guess with design systems I can see everyone’s work because I have to be in the know of what everyone’s doing.

I can see that morale here and there. There’s a huge drive to get great things done. Amazing.

And I guess I’d be curious to hear a little bit more about your time at the University of Queensland. What did you study and would you recommend that to anyone else thinking about going down this path? Yeah, I lived in Brisbane and it’s just that UK was the closest university. That was the only thing I had in mind.

It ended up being quite a good program for me because they didn’t have the full design curriculum. It was half tech, half design. Right.

It ended up being really good for figuring out what I wanted to do. I know University of Sydney might have a full design curriculum, but you may not get that dabbling here or there into different topics. So I found that was really helpful.

I did a major in UX design, but I was one of the first cohorts to do UX design. So I didn’t expect many other people to have that same major or degree. I find a lot of people in Ux come from things like anthropology, psychology, things like that, and that’s lovely because you get knowledge brought in that no one else has thought of before.

Yeah, I think that’s one of the best things about Ux, is if you’re a designer but you’ve been in the industry for longer than, say, 1015 years, you’re 99% certain to have come from another discipline like marketing or. You’re right, psychology is a big one, traditional design. So, yeah, that’s great to hear.

And did you find that because it was a new course or a new major for them, it was like, who was able to teach it? Where did that knowledge come from? It was part of the curriculum. I suppose the lecturers would have been touched with what’s in the industry around and I did appreciate it. There’s a lot of practical knowledge, practical courses as well, which I really enjoyed because I say UX is a bit like plumbing.

You can read up about plumbing, you can go to plumbing school, but nothing’s going to prepare you for actually doing it. That’s where the most of the learning happens. Yeah, definitely that hands on stuff.

I know when I speak with lots of people who are wanting to get more into UX, but they’re wondering what kind of education route to go down. Would you recommend your university degree? For people thinking about getting into UX and product, it can be helpful if maybe you’re young and starting out or your degree was completely different. But one thing might be surprising to hear is that I regret focusing too hard on the education.

At AZ, I met someone who was the same age as me, but what their approach was is that they just barely passed their university courses and then did part time work on the side. They ended up having much more wins on the board and experience than I did. So if I had to do it all again, I think what I’d do is I wouldn’t spend so much time on the reading up and the education trying to get the highest GPA.

I think what’s more important is getting to work experience as quick as you can. So building up that portfolio, getting that first foot in the door, no matter how small it might seem, that’s how people are going to judge you. It’s kind of like being an actor.

Things are much easier once you get that breakout movie role. If you just go to acting school, it’s hard to glean how well you do in the industry, but if you go into that industry as quick as you can, that’s going to be the most thing to value for people. Yeah, I totally get that.

Yeah. You’re not going to win an Oscar straight out of acting school, so you’re going to have to put in some. Yeah, it just takes time.

Right. You’re so right. Once you do get that momentum, I feel like once that first gig is on your cv, then it’s just so much easier from there to figure out where you want to be heading next as well.

The first job is the hardest. Exactly. Yeah.

That’s some really great advice for perhaps students who are wanting to get into technology. Would you give any other potential students any other advice around getting into Ux? Perhaps? Another thing I’d say is that some people are quite laser focused on just their career and they might push aside their life issues or life aside and just focus on work. And I thought I could do that and separate those, but they’re very much tied together.

If you’re in a bad mood in home, that’s going to go down to your work as well. So don’t think that if you’re not focusing on Ux podcasts or reading UX books that you’re wasting your time. It’s all tied together.

Yeah, I totally agree with that. There’s so many people who that work life balance line is very blurred and it’s all well and good to have things bleeding into one another because that’s just life. Right.

But yeah, once it starts to impact negatively on either or. Yeah, no, I totally get that. Like, there’s work and life.

Work, work is life. Yeah. It’s part of your life, so you may as well set yourself up for doing it.

Well, in light of that, is there anything that you do outside of work that really motivates you and keeps you productive? I think what motivates me in general is knowing that my work is in the hands of everyday people, that I’m solving those needs. I try not to forget that. What motivates me is knowing how it’s going to impact people.

That’s the sets of purpose in life and that’s a huge fire that you can put under yourself with motivation. I think in uni I focused too much on long term goals, but I didn’t have the steps to get there. It was quite overwhelming to get there and whenever there was a setback I’d get really grumpy with myself.

But what it should really be is just thinking about the week to week, are you better than you were a week ago? What improvements are you making? And it was more of a better, shorter feedback loop of work to reward. And if you do it that way, then I think the long term goals come in afterwards. Yeah, I love that.

I think a lot of people are guilty of that. It’s so easy. Especially I’m eldest daughter type a personality, right.

Where you just have to always make sure that all the t’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted. Perfectionism can be crippling. Yes.

Right. Like, I was exactly the same during uni. I was just like, I need to be getting that GPA and those distinctions.

And then, yeah, you’re right. When it just doesn’t pan out, it’s like, what am I doing? I got a 95 instead of 100. Once you look at it in more of a small day to day chunk by chunk lens, it’s a lot easier to just not put so much pressure on it.

Yeah. Instead of saying, I’m going to build a house. You can say, I’m going to lay this brick as best as I can.

You do that once a day. Yeah. The earlier that you can adopt that mentality, the better your relationship with work and school will be, because it’s so easy to fall into.

Like, you’ve just got to check all these boxes, and you’ve got to do well at school, and you’ve got to do this and go, go. But if you can just break it down into, okay, what can I do today? And you might find you get better results that way. Exactly.

Yeah, I know I do. Anyway, I’ve really leaned into recently embracing learning over creating a finished product. So it’s something that I struggle with, and I think a lot of people do, but, yeah, if you just break it down a little bit, it all figures itself out.

Absolutely. So, Chelsea, as we kind of mentioned before, with uni days, lots of pressure. So I’m curious to hear if there’s been any other speed bumps that you’ve faced so far in your career and how have they shaped your career? There’s been speed bumps, to say the least.

When I was in high school and uni, I lived with my parents because that was free rent. That was very nice, of course, but it wasn’t much time to figure out who you are as a person. Sometimes you really have to go somewhere else to figure that out.

So when I landed Anz, this was in February 2020. So you can imagine the life I had. So it wasn’t just lockdowns and everything.

It was also learning about myself and who I am. And this was pre my gender transition. So as time went on, I realized that I wanted to live my life as a woman.

And that’s what I’ve been working towards for a couple of years now. I know for those listening, my voice is a little low, but I’ve got my hair grown out and earrings and everything, and I’m really loving life on that respect. And another thing was that I discovered that I have ADHD.

So that’s the idea of not being able to control your attention span. And it was such a light bulb moment that I’m not a strange person in the way I think. I’m not just someone who doesn’t listen.

It’s something in the brain. And once I got that medication, that was absolutely life changing because I realized that I explain it like noise canceling headphones for the brain. You take it and you realize, oh, I can think of nothing I didn’t know I could think of nothing.

It must be so nice and quiet. Yeah. So think about this.

Living by myself, new city, changing gender in a global pandemic with ADHD. So I had a huge setback, to say the least, with my career and going back to the idea of long term goals. If I just had I want to get the best ux job in the world in mind, all of this would just kind of look like speed bumps in the way or hurdles that I have to jump through, and they’d be very frustrating.

But if you see them as, okay, I’m looking to improve myself. Week by week, I’ll transition a little more to get more female. I’ll get to know how my brain works with ADHD.

And those funnel into your career. So I don’t want people to get so laser focused on their career, like I might have, that they push aside everything else. Feelings, thoughts, issues.

I think it’s best to tackle those head on if you’ve got any kind of inkling that it’s something that should be addressed. Yeah, 100% agree. I think that plenty of other people who might have been in a similar situation during COVID where we had so much time to just sit and be with our own thoughts.

Yeah, we had nothing but time. And for you to use that as a way of bettering yourself and really coming back to who you are, I think that’s fantastic. And, yeah, kudos to you for being able to be like, hey, there’s actually something that I’d like to change.

And just because it might get in the way of some other things in life, it doesn’t matter because as long as you’re improving on yourself, it’ll all fall into play. Something that has to be done. If you push it aside, it’s just going to blow up in your face later to tackle that head on.

Yeah. And I think a lot of people did notice that over the lockdown as well because plenty of people with their marriages and actually having to spend time with their spouse. Oh, yes.

It just gave us lots of time to really focus on outside of work, what does our life look like? And thank you so much for sharing. I really appreciate that. With that, is there anything that you do now with your self care, your motivation, just like in general, that makes you feel good? I’d say there’s weeknights and then there’s weekends.

So weeknights is all about prepping for that next day. So cleaning up, setting myself up, but also relaxing enough. I’ve realized that the breaks are seriously important because your brain is like a muscle.

If you’re just lifting shopping bags all day without dropping them, your arms are going to get tired. But if you drop it for five minutes, pick it back up, you’ll be much better suited. Don’t think breaks are wastes of time.

They actually even help you be more productive. Definitely. But with spare time, I like to explore different hobies.

So I’m going through the phase where I like to build things, and I’ve gotten really into keyboards. I’ll show you something here. For those of you who are listening on Spotify, just picture the cutest little mechanical keyboard ever.

Yeah. So these are 3d printed keycaps. Oh, amazing.

This is made of solid bronze, this case. So cool. It’s already handmade, but it’s set to.

However, just as I like it. There’s really little computer parts that you can customize so much like this. They’re almost timeless pieces, too.

People are using keyboards from the 70s, things like that, I really enjoyed. So using the technical knowledge, learning about how circuits and voltages work to build something really cool. I love that.

That is so cool. You should do, like, custom keyboards. I think people would pay good money for a bronze keyboard.

Competitive field. You have to be much better than all the other nerds. Yeah, true.

Oh, that’s so cool. That probably would take up a lot of your spare time, I guess. But is there anything in particular that you like to do on the weekends? Like, what do you usually get up to? Yeah, so I also play bass guitar and been playing for 2009, so that’d be 14 years.

My goodness. It’s been less about bass playing now, and it’s more about songwriting. Being in a band, it’s like running a business, and it’s quite a tricky thing.

People think it’s just about playing instrument, but that’s maybe about 10% of it. The rest is really putting yourself out there, networking and everything. That’s been very fun, too, but I’m taking a step back from that now just to really evaluate what I want to do with all this time.

Where do I want to channel things into? So sort of roughly a few things I do in my spare time. No, that’s fantastic, I think. Yeah.

People don’t realize how much time being in a band and going to gigs actually takes. It’s pretty much a full time job. It really is.

And I always had the dream of world tours and things like that, and I think I gave it a good crack. And now I know that how much of a commitment it is, but now I can take a step back and go, I won’t be sitting on my deathbed going, what if I was a musician instead? I gave it a good shot and now I can rest that and try something else. Exactly.

No, I love that. Is there any great podcasts or any content that you consume that you have on rotation? I love the Auntie Donna podcast comedy one. Yeah, I love them very much.

And the only bigger fan than me is my sister. She’s just absolutely, really deep into the Auntie Donna universe. Most of my podcasts are quite fun ones, but there are, in terms of Ux podcasts, not really.

But I do admire some Ux thought leaders, like Don Norman. Of course, the design of everyday things is quite a. I call it the Old Testament of Ux.

That’s where ground zero is, the holy book. The UX mentors or leaders, the ones I like are the ones who aren’t just following trends. They kind of have their own opinions and stick to them.

So, like Don Norman, there’s one called Mike Montero who doesn’t really like the word ux. He just says designer, which I really like. It’s very rounded in reality, because I think ux people get carried away with, oh, what is ux? What isn’t ux? And we should name this to that.

And it feels like they’re just talking about things rather than actually doing things. Yeah, at the end of the day, it’s all semantics. So just get in there.

I don’t care what you call me. I want to do these things. Let me do those.

Yeah, no, that’s great. I think there’s been a bit of a trend with people who I’ve spoken to for the podcast is that either they really love to consume lots of design related content. So that’s camp a or you’re in camp b, where it’s absolutely none.

So there’s no right or wrong answer. It’s just like, yeah, you’re obviously still super passionate about your craft, but you’re right. As you said before, sometimes you do need to take a break.

And some people just don’t like listening to work stuff when they’re not at work. And these things come in waves. Sometimes I’ll have a phase where I listen to one UX designer for a lot.

Sometimes I just want to focus on life. Perhaps I’m more interested in the conversations rather than just the soaking in from medium articles or books. I like the back and forth to ask questions and get them back.

So there’s a website called adplist.com where you can book a mentor and you can get to ask them questions about their thing. And that’s been really helpful to me to have people within Australia who I can really share ideas with.

Yeah. How long have you been involved with ADP list for? It’s been about six months, maybe twelve. Yeah.

Nice. I’ve done about 42 sessions, so I’m a mentor on adplist.com, but I have it paused.

Right now I’m just taking a break. But I recommend anyone look up adplist.com and check out all the cool people that I will be open for a chat because reaching out is a hard part, but this website can do it for you.

Yeah, it basically just facilitates those conversations and yeah, it does the hard part for you. It’s such a great initiative. There’s lots of really amazing people on there, such as yourself, Chelsea.

So definitely also recommend anyone really to have a look and see if there’s anyone relevant to you that you’d like to have a chat with. Yeah, maybe I’ll unpause it now after this. Yeah, maybe I’ll open it up if you want to have a chat.

I can see if you can find my profile. Yeah, I guess that’s a really great segue into this is a question that I like to end the podcast with and it’s one of my favorite questions. If you could give your younger self some career advice, what would that be? Yeah, I was very motivated.

I mean, no question about that. But I was a bit of a nervous wreck. I thought, just, I have to get this job or else I’m going to have a boring job for the rest of my life.

It was all very catastrophic thinking and anything that got in the way of that was a setback. But I would say to myself, just slow down. Think of the day to day, week to week improvement.

You can have those long term goals, but they’re not a daily motivator. You’ll find times where if you don’t have those short term goals, that’ll just get overwhelming and you just won’t be able to start. So I recommend you might be able to keep those long term goals, but think about the small steps that you can do to get there and pat yourself on the back every time you hit those small goals.

And that’s a much more healthy way to work your way up to whatever you dream of. I love that. Thank you so much, Chelsea.

I feel like I’ve learned so much during this conversation and you’ve got so many nuggets of wisdom that you’ve shared with us, so. Yeah. Thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you so much. I felt like we could have gone for two more hours. Thanks for having me.

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