Interview with Product Design Manager Martin “MJ” Jancik
Previously we talked to Žany from the UX team who gave a speech at Figma’s Config and this time we invited Martin Jancik or MJ for a talk. He is our Product Design Manager who has been with the company for almost five years. Experimenting with design at a young age, he went from playing with his mother’s copy of Photoshop to touring around eastern Europe with musicians, doing everything from marketing content to website design, and later on building the skills required to land a position at an EdTech startup. He eventually came to Kiwi.com, where he has led multiple projects such as the help desk (formerly smartFAQ), a software platform that helps users solve their problems through points of contact. He added the first ancillary features to the booking flow and was a founding member of an annual UX (User Experience) hackathon called the Global Travel Jam.
In this interview, MJ shares his story of transitioning from freelancing to the corporate world, his struggles with imposter syndrome, and advice for those who want to break into the UX design field.
Hey MJ, tell us a bit about your background and journey.
I come from a super small village in the mountains of Slovakia – 500 people live there, so everyone knows everyone. Even the name of the village, Mestečko, when translated to English, means “a very small town.” I got into design growing up and later studied it in Copenhagen and Amsterdam. I eventually arrived in Brno, Czech Republic where Kiwi.com is headquartered.
What was it like growing up in such a small town?
It was really different than it’s nowadays. In my childhood, there was not much to do back then, so I got into running and trail running in the mountains. At that time it was not typical to run just for fun so the older people in the village were looking from their houses thinking that there was a fire or something… I remember that even dogs would chase me as they are sort of wild there.
When did you get started in UX design?
I started as a freelancer around 9 years ago and learned through doing different clients’ work, although my first encounter with design, in general, was when I was around 12. My mom has a fashion background and one day she brought home Photoshop CDs as she needed to learn how to use them for work. It was a Photoshop CS 2, a very old version and you had to install something like 14 or 18 CDs, one by one.
She told me, “I have no idea how to use this. You’re younger, you can figure it out and teach me.” That was my first encounter with design. Eventually, I bought my first DSLR, started doing photo manipulations, and moved into more graphics & filmmaking. I shot some short movies, and I actually won a film festival with the crew. I learned Adobe Premiere, Illustrator, and all these tools, and in high school, continued to build a team around me who were interested in similar things and we started doing some projects. Eventually, I found out about UX & web design, and then I started doing more serious client work.
In what areas of UX have you worked so far?
I did a lot of client work with musicians, I traveled on music tours with DJs and did sort of everything for them – shooting photos and videos at the concert, doing clips and music videos, the websites and the logos. I even got a gig in politics, which showed me that I never want to go into politics. Eventually, all the work became super draining and I wanted to fully focus on finishing school but since I needed money to survive, I was still freelancing as a designer. After doing lots of smaller projects, I realized that if I want to learn, I need to go to a proper company.
I went to an educational startup called Edookit and was the first designer there. We built a system that teachers and school providers use to run their institutions. There was also a separate system for parents to connect with the schools. That was a pretty big learning for me. Then the company was acquired, and a lot of the cultural things changed and that’s when I started interviewing and ended up at Kiwi.com.
Can you describe a typical day in the life of a Product designer during projects?
I think it’s important to mention that I try to stay away from hands-on work and focus more on providing direction and looking at our work more strategically. Our consumer product requires a lot of alignment and setting up the vision. Throughout the week, I use Notion as my primary tool for notes and managing myself. I set up the biggest topics we’re focusing on at that particular moment, based on the objectives of the company and the challenges we’re addressing.
There is so much stuff I can focus on, so I have to really choose my battles correctly. Some weeks it’s a lot of community work and other weeks it’s about performance management. It’s also about the product and bringing ideas to the table. I’m not telling people what to do, I’m just trying to explain what direction we need to go. Usually, on a quarterly basis, I review the objectives we have as a company and plan my calendar meetings according to them.
There are a lot of meetings, communication, and documents. As designers, we are storytellers, as we need to constantly explain our ideas. When you are a leader, and you can really tell an exciting story, people try to do their best to follow it. I think that’s one of the things where being a designer helps me a lot as a manager.
What is your opinion on UX boot camps?
I think they are important but to be honest, finishing one doesn’t necessarily make you a designer who would be able to deliver in a corporate or professional environment. The stakes are quite high because UX boot camps are usually structured in an ideal world. I studied design, so I can really compare the academic world of design to both UX boot camps and the real world. They are very different challenges, and both of them are important to build your experience as a designer. You need to get practical experience, but also it’s good to get the academic periodical one because they support each other.
The industry is more difficult to enter now because every junior position requires some years of experience. It’s a “chicken or the egg” problem where juniors cannot get experience because they cannot go to any position. Here’s an example from Kiwi.com: We have started our own internships, and last year we had two interns who actually became our junior designers after finishing the internships. We accept interns who know how to design, those who have a portfolio either from school, or they did a boot camp but lack real-world experience.
In our internship, we put you on a real product, with a working team, where you get the real nitty gritty. When you’re an intern our company treats you as a fully-fledged employee, as a UX designer; people actually have no idea that you are an intern. This makes your experience real.
What were the biggest challenges and hurdles on your path?
There are so many challenges. If you want to really grow as a professional, you always have to face challenges. I have imposter syndrome and I’ve spent a bunch of time with my coaches and mentors talking about this. I think it came from various sides. I got into the design at a young age and I feel I was very lucky that I found what I wanted to do super early in my life. When I look at the projects I’ve done, I’ve gotten a lot of recognition. I also met with the president for an award, for example.
At the end of the day, I’m fighting these thoughts that there was so much luck involved. It’s very hard if you don’t trust yourself fully and if you take too long to make a decision. I try to involve everyone and do this democratic way of deciding on stuff, which people like. You need to find a balance in the dichotomy between being a dictatorship and a democracy. What helped me a lot is talking to other leaders. I have breakfast every week with design managers from different companies and what I learned is that many people don’t always know what to do and they are sort of lost too. Everyone feels like an imposter at some point, especially a leader. That boosted my confidence a little bit.
What are some of your favorite projects you have worked on so far at Kiwi.com?
My favorite project has to be my team at Kiwi.com. There are a lot of really cool projects, for example, the first Help Center. I did it with Dino Trojak, our head of the Zagreb office in Croatia, and with one product manager who isn’t in the company anymore, and together we had a lot of work cleaning up the previous chatbot. Another project I really enjoyed is the first seat selection in airplanes.
I really consider myself an expert on seat selection for airplanes because I did so much research about it. I had to ask myself what behavioral patterns people have in their minds when they’re choosing a seat. Do they want to sit next to the toilet, next to the window? With their family, or do they want to avoid them? What kind of people want to sit in the front or in the back? How do business people travel, where they want to be seated, and so on?
What are your favorite resources to keep up to date and learn more about the field of UX?
I read a lot of books, but ultimately for me, I’m a lot about people. Getting in touch with people who are in similar situations, discussing and sharing the struggles together, and also building long-term relationships with mentors. I had three different mentors and each of them has a very different relationship with my position. One is a startup founder, engineer, and entrepreneur who is a board member of different companies. My other mentor is also my manager and the third one is a design leader from a completely different company who doesn’t understand our industry but can share knowledge from their company.
What kind of events do you organize as a UX team and how do those help your community?
One of the first things I did at Kiwi.com organized a UX hackathon around travel industry topics. It was a weekend event where, for 24 hours, we were designing from research to the final prototype, basically from scratch. It was a lot of fun and we received a lot of positive feedback. I saw potential, and then we did it in other cities as well and it became an annual event. This year is our fifth anniversary, and I’m pretty proud of that. We call it the Global Travel Jam.
On top of that, we try to do at least one or two meet-ups in different locations over the year leading up to this big finale. We did a Design Reunion at the end of April where we gathered managers from other companies and it was a huge success, especially as it was after the Covid-19 pandemic. It really was like a reunion. People were saying “Oh my gosh, we haven’t seen each other for two years. Over 100 people attended the event and traveled to Prague only to be there in person. It really brought the design community together.
What is your outlook on the future of UX as an industry?
I want to illustrate that UX is everywhere and is constantly evolving. People developed glasses that don’t spill, and chairs that are comfortable, all based on user feedback. It’s definitely going to be here forever. Some people think that if UI eventually disappears, if screens disappear, UX will disappear. It’s not really true. At the end of the day, those are just the tools. The designers will evolve, but the mindset stays the same. The empathy, the innovation, it will still be there.
As I look into the future, I think it will be much more AR. We will get away from screens and focus on the real world or the metaverse. I don’t know what will happen with that, but for the metaverse to be successful, it needs to be convenient. People need to see the value and the experience needs to be good. That will be a huge opportunity for designers to figure out: what is the meta verse actually? I think there will need to be a lot of designers figuring out how it should operate, how it should work, and how to really make it a transition for people to naturally use it.
Design is about helping people, doing something more conveniently, and solving problems. We will always be here, no matter if we are on Mars or something, we’ll have to figure out how to make it convenient to travel there.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a UX designer?
I think that the key trait of any designer is empathy. You really need to care much more about others than yourself and your growth, to live for building or improving something for others.
- Hard skills
You should start learning the actual hard skills and if designing is something for you, to see if you want to be in front of a computer or in front of a whiteboard drawing concepts. The hard part, usually, is stakeholder management, because the design is not a solo discipline. An artist can do whatever they feel is good, but for designers, it’s much more about building something that other people will benefit from, something functional. This requires a lot of feedback, not only from peers, but also from experts, from different types of people, from different departments, but also from the users themselves. Design is about helping and doing a service for others. I think it’s really important to mention that you have to distance yourself from the work and really be very good at receiving and giving feedback.
- Business orientation
Designers need to be business people, it’s a lot of thinking about how to scale, and how to build a business. You cannot design something which will bankrupt the company because nobody will benefit from it.
Interested in boosting your career at Kiwi.com and working with MJ? Hurry up and check out our open positions!