Unbreakable Series #1: Sonya Seddarasan, Tokopedia

10 Feb 2021

Rhino Ventures Asia Careers Details

We had the pleasure of interviewing Sonya Seddarasan, Principal Product Design at Indonesian e-Commerce powerhouse Tokopedia. Though young she may be, her experience is vast, as she tells us about her journey to where she is now. Throughout our hour-long video call, we delved into life as a designer, design principles and upcoming trends, and importantly, how they’re applied to the industry as a whole, and specifically at Tokopedia. And yes, we did also ask about the potential Gojek merger!


Hi Sonya, so you’re principal product designer at Tokopedia - that’s an incredible achievement! How have you found your first year there?

Well, I came from a smart city background and transitioned into e-commerce at Tokopedia. Although the design principles are the same, e-commerce’s focus is on people and is based on their behaviour. It also has its own business side of it, like a different product strategy, so the first 3 months there was a good transition time for me to understand how it worked and then on with it.

What does your role entail at Tokopedia?

I guess, anywhere that you say like “Principal Product Design” our role is not assigned to, like, one project. In one quarter I can be working on many different products together; once I'm done with one product I move to another, then another, while juggling different one's based on priority. So... Let's put it this way, when there's a problem, they put me there! [Laughing]

So you could also call yourself chief problem solver huh! You must manage quite a big team there to tackle these problems. How many are we talking, and do you have any tips on keeping them engaged?

So when I joined they didn’t really have a position like mine before, so there were like, about almost 30 designers, and about like 40 product managers, and the tech team is like hundreds and hundreds. And I was the only like design lead then… [Laughing] So, I'm not sure if I'm the best person to give you advice on it actually! In like 8 months we stabilised the team and let’s say, some of them have graduated well so they’ve been helping me manage some of the team too. So today I have like 20 to 30 people like that and not all of them are reporting to me; some of them are reporting to the people that are reporting to me so, yeah, we’re very well organised now.

OK, sounds like you organised the teams very quickly, well done! How do you ensure good communication and effective collaboration between everyone working together?

So what we do here is that we try to do co-design. Every time we want to create, we come together in a room, and everybody can say their idea without having to worry about their title or their pay or anything like that. Since COVID started we were able to do this remotely as well, through a programme called Miro. Since we started doing this the product got much better because everyone feels like their ideas are heard and have more confidence, even as a design associate or something like that.

You’ve mentioned some adaptations you had to make for COVID-related remote work. Can you tell us a little bit more about your experience dealing with it overall?

Well, initially I think we were all struggling a little, especially last March, until about May; there's no way to cover that up, it affected everyone. A lot of the people, especially our developers, the one's that work a lot, found themselves not being able to differentiate between working hours and off-hours, which meant that they were working all the time. So at the end of June, we were all so burnt out, but we pulled through and our collaboration has been better than ever.

Probably our biggest challenge was with some team members that are more introverted, and they don't feel they need to reach out if they don't have any issue or nothing. As designers we are more like this, and so sometimes I’d notice like 3 weeks had passed and projects were going well but then I’d have not seen them or there’d been no appearance. I introduced a weekly session called “Design Critic” where each member has to play a different role. We use the six hat thinking method, so for example one week you’ll be an emotional person, another week a positive one, and so it helps you improve communication and understanding.

Would you say that COVID-19 posed the biggest challenges for you in 2020?

In terms of the business, no it wasn’t too challenging but I would say we are lucky, as in e-commerce we faced a great advantage with a lot of people buying online. But we had to adapt to working from home, and improving our communication, yes, and in terms of our empathy towards one another - we needed to adjust that quite a lot.

So we’ve been hearing a lot about this possible merger between Gojek and Tokopedia. Can you comment on this at all?

So, yes there is news out here that there's maybe a merger going on. We have not gotten a confirmation ourselves yet, but I think it does make a lot of sense. One of the biggest advantages for e-commerce is getting logistics right. If we could get the products as soon as possible, and as convenient as possible, and as far as possible, it would give Tokopedia a huge advantage. And today I think Gojek’s biggest revenue, I would say, doesn't come from their logistics service, but it's more like from their food deliveries, but their drivers are basically not doing anything and they're being paid. So I'm not sure what agreement they’re coming up with at the end, but the most possible thing is that we might be looking into working together with Gojek in terms of the logistics, in order to get things faster to our clients.

Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to where you are now? Did you want to be a designer since you were little?

I’ve always loved art since I was small and I entered a lot of drawing competitions. I won some and lost some [laughing]. My parents didn’t think there was a future in design, I mean no one knew about product design jobs then. Anyway, I kept drawing and taking side design projects, but my parents wanted me to go enrol at a business and marketing college. I dropped out after a week because it just wasn’t my passion!

I then started studying art and design, while working as a junior graphic designer at an advertising agency. There I happened to meet the most wonderful person, my super first mentor. He was so lovely and he taught me a lot of stuff so by the time I finished college I had a good amount of portfolio in my hand. I then got a job as a creative graphic designer at another agency and was lead for two to three years until I moved to an entertainment company.

My first startup was in 2014, for a grocery app called Happy Fresh. I was there for two and half years and got really lucky with a really nice CPO. She was the one who asked me if I want to transfer from creative design to complete product design. She said she will put me through school for it, but then I’d need to take over the job [laughing]. So I did that for two and half years!

After this I took some time off and would go to Upwork to think about product design projects, and the advantage was that I met a lot of different people with different ideas, and each of their design is like, complex in their own way. Once the isolation of working alone started killing me at home, I applied for the Smart City company. This is where I developed my technical skills. I’d never had technical skills, in fact, I was really bad at maths growing up. But because they were building like IoT products, everything had to be calculated. It's pretty technical. And I learned a lot from the designers and from their developers because I had to work very closely with them on a daily basis.

A year and a half later I met the CPO of Tokopedia at a conference in Indonesia where I was a speaker, and he saw me, and he added me on LinkedIn and was like “hey, you wanna work at Tokopedia” and I was like, “oh my god, of course!”

So if there was one key takeaway from your journey to pass on to young designers, what would it be?

Well, a lot of things that I did would be, like, considered such a disadvantage, such as working while doing college, taking off a year from work… But actually, all of these helped me a lot with my portfolio and added value to my experience.

So, I've met a lot of young designers and I always tell them that no matter how busy they are at their job, to always try to create like one hour, or two hours to take a side project, because it would be really valuable to their portfolio.

When you’re hiring for designers to join your team what qualities do you look for?

Well, I guess, not only for designers but also for like a product manager or like a developer, I think our competencies come in two different ways. First is like, obviously soft skill and the second one is sort of functional skill. All the way I would say soft skill is very important. Because sometimes you might have good functional skills but without good soft skills you won’t know how to collaborate with other people or know how to communicate well. At Tokopedia and Indonesia, we value people persons, so soft skills come first.

Second, once the soft skill is back then only the functional competencies come into the picture for designers, obviously, design strategy, I would say design principle, and problem-solving. Functional skills are something that can be learned once you're in the job especially since you're around the people who have that certain knowledge. Then the final third part of the interview is cultural fit, this is super important.

How is success measured in terms of product design at Tokopedia?

So I would say that, obviously, because this is an end-user product success means, like, that we're getting traction. Yeah, you want users to be hypnotised by it whether it’s a promo or just like a gimmick that makes people feel like “oh my god, I’m gonna miss these goods I must buy now”.

But if you’re asking about our productivity within the company, we are actually measuring them based on the delivery of the product, based on the product backlog, that we create quarterly. But with needing to catch up with new features as well, we’re constantly playing catch-up with the backlog.

What tools would you say are vital for product designers? Are they being used at Tokopedia?

I guess today, considering the situation we’re in, for me the best product would be Miro. We use Miro for almost everything! Such as collaboration, like remote live collaboration, our performance appraisal, for brain-storming, to present... And on top, we could present our mockups like in Figma. So it’s kind of like a virtual office, like a, like a very 2D office [laughing] so I’d say “Go Miro!”

Are there any design frameworks that you live by and can recommend to other budding designers?

I would say, do co-design. This is the best way, the easiest way, the most convenient, and I would say today, it's almost the cheapest way to get insight from different people. Particularly when you actually use the right co-design complex, and you get a bunch of people in the room, and people just start showing their ideas based on those templates.

We found out that we saved a lot of time in developing because the designers now don’t have to think alone in terms of experience, everybody's thinking of them. And even in terms of our product manager, who used to have to come up with the requirements by themselves, today, everybody is doing this too. So once we're done with the session, everyone suddenly knows that their next job tasks are. This has really cut down like month’s of our thinking process.

How do you balance qualitative vs quantitative data when designing at Tokopedia?

So we have in-house researchers who help us in two ways. One is in market research, which is like a qualitative method and the second one is helping us in usability testing; getting the product to the user. Then we have our data engineers. These are the people that are there to take out the data that are being requested.

But, to answer the question, I would say that it depends. It depends on the product itself. So today I happen to be working on “campaigns”, which has a lot to do with human psychological behaviour. Whereas before that I was dealing with something product-specific, where we created a static pic for our merchants; now these were completely quantitative.

I think today though young designers are being, like, brainwashed in some ways about how data-driven design must be. They come up to me like “I can't get my data engineer to query this for me” and they're obsessing on getting the quantitative data. My advice is always, always, do not focus on the data. Like at the end of the day, experience is experience and you’ll know… UX is all about logic.

At the moment Tokopedia focuses on Indonesia, would the approach to product design change if it were marketed to other countries?

I actually don't believe in like a product to one-market fit. I don't think there's actually such things, no matter how big the product is. Last December I was in this one conference, as a panel guest, for an e-commerce discussion, and my two other panellists were a CPO from Korea, and one from Lazada. So all e-commerce in Asia, but when we talk about our process and how we create our products, it's different. We have a different buyer, we have a different target market, and those people have different behaviours. The people in Indonesia love lower prices, but probably not in some areas in Korea, where they prefer quality products, you know, things like that or vice versa.

So we need to approach the product in a completely different way. For us, we are serving an Indonesian market and we know what it looks like. But if tomorrow, Tokopedia needs to expand its wings to, say, Thailand, Vietnam or anywhere else, we’ll need to get their local people involved because they're the ones who understand it.

What sort of trends within digital product design and UX will we see over the following years, particularly in Asia?

I’m not sure exactly how it will evolve now, especially post, COVID, but I've been, I've been seeing a lot of trends that are leaning more towards 3D design. I think in the next, like three to five years, someone with a 3D design background, would have a better job. Because especially with VR and AR coming into the picture, there will be a lot of people needing that expertise.

So I do like a bi-weekly mentorship; a workshop and mentorship. I host it on AltspaceVR, which is like Eventbrite but in VR. So we can come into this space and create our own world, our own material, whatever. I see a lot of people transitioning to 3D design...

Looking further into the future, where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I guess I have my main, long term goal. Though, I hope that it's shorter [laughing] but my main goal is to be an entrepreneur. I've been in the design world for like 13 years now, and most of the companies I’ve worked with have given me good experiences. I feel like it's time for me to give back to the community but in a different way. This is actually why I started a community in VR for people who are transitioning from 2D to 3D. I started learning this about a year ago and then started making the workshop, and I began thinking about more mentorship programmes for young people. So, I think my goal this year is to expand the space; whether using technology or finding designers who are interested in the same things. I do see myself as a community designer, someday.

Do you think the extra support and great encouragement you received along your product design journey has been one of the biggest drivers for your desire to give back?

Yes, I did get really lucky. I mean I didn't go to like a super good school, it was decent, but I met really great people along my career. Up to this point, most of my bosses they’re very sweet people who said like “you know what, do whatever you want, as long as you get the result.” They were results-oriented kind of people, rather than micro-managers, and gave that space to grow, so I feel like I'm really grateful for that.

I also have like a life coach, a professional coach, and he helped me a lot. For the past two or three years he helped me a lot in my business and how to build the right team. As well as soft skills and working on insecurities. You know, all those guides have helped me a lot. One thing I’ve learnt, for example, is I can now be asked something on the spot and say that I don’t know the answer. And I’m ok with that. Of course, there’s the concern of your credibility on the line, but the more you mature in your profession, the more you realise that most the time at your jobs, people don’t know everything, they can’t!

Like my CEO needs to ask my CPO, my CPO needs to ask me, I need to ask my teammates to ask other people… Everybody needs to ask everybody... We just have to say, “I don't know the answer, but I will get you the answer”, and that's okay.

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today! You’ve given us such valuable advice and insights, and you’ve shown your approach to design is honest, humble and adaptable, which we both agree are key in this day and age. We look forward to following the developments at Tokopedia, as well as where your own career takes you!

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