Building a more inclusive platform at Twitter
Building a more inclusive platform at Twitter
As a designer, Lara Mendonça passionately believes in the power of design to change our relationship to technology. And in her career, she has done just that, having been lauded for her work as Bumble’s Head of Product Design in the leadup to the company's blockbuster IPO. In this episode, Lara shares how she’s bringing her philosophy of designing for inclusivity and safety to her role at Twitter.
Heather: Today I’m speaking with Lara Mendonça, a design leader, educator and ethicist born in Brazil. Now based in London, she works for Twitter as a senior manager of product design. Lara believes design has the power to change our relationship to technology for the better and has built a career that belies her age. Before Twitter, Lara was at Bumble as head of product design, where she played an instrumental role in the company’s blockbuster IPO. She’s a star in her own right, having been featured as one of Adweek‘s 2021 Pride Stars and on Fast Company‘s Queer 50 list. She’s bold and brave and always brings a dose of humor. I am so excited to welcome her here today. Hey, Lara.
Lara: Hi. I’m really excited to be here.
Heather: All right. Getting down to business. So, you joined Twitter just a few months ago and referred to it as your dream job. What excited you about the role, and how has it been going?
Lara: I think I got really excited because it’s one of the few social media that I’ve used religiously for, like, 10 years. Instagram, I don’t really check that much; Facebook, I don’t even have an account anymore; but Twitter has been in my life consistently and is how I made friends when I moved to the UK. I didn’t know anyone, and following people from the design industry in the UK allowed me to build this network that, now, I don’t think I would be where I am without it. So, Twitter has a lot of sentimental value for me. And then there’s also the side of what I’m doing at Twitter, which I think is really exciting. I am really passionate about social media and the role social media has in our society and in our friendships and relationships. And being on one of those teams that is responsible for improving things and changing things and challenging things is really exciting for me. I’m just really, really happy to be here.
Heather: You’re a part of the creation and conversations team, which is the coolest name for a team. And one of the announcements talked about how excited the company was that you’d be bringing a philosophy of designing for inclusion and safety to a platform, like many, that has been known for bullying. Tell me what that looks like and how you’re bringing that sentiment of safety and inclusion to the work that you’re doing.
Lara: I think there were two facets to it. One is within the team culture. Twitter has really changed the makeup of the teams to really be diverse. This is probably the most diverse team that I’ve ever worked with. There are a lot of different identities and people from all over the world, as well. So that’s one side; I think they really wanted someone who believes in building a culture that kind of follows that philosophy.
And then on the other side, I do think that Twitter is one of the few companies that is facing the challenges of social media—and everything that has happened—head-on. It’s not hiding behind changing a name or saying that we’re doing things but not actually showing it. So, Twitter is creating this idea of designing in the open. You might have seen some threads on Twitter from designers who work at the company, showing concepts that are not even live yet—like, what do you guys think about this—and getting feedback. So that’s something that is happening internally and that is reflecting a lot of the things that we put forward recently—giving more control to users and thinking about how do we respect people’s freedom on Twitter but still create a kind, positive environment.
Those are the things that I’m focusing on. I’m really excited about working on helping people build deep relationships at Twitter. I think Twitter is a great source of knowledge. But if you think about how many friendships started at Twitter, I think we could be doing a much better job fostering those friendships and helping people find their tribe or their own people.
So that’s what I’m really excited about at the moment. Everything I do is through a lens of helping users who are vulnerable—or who might need a bit more help getting there or a bit more protection getting there—to kind of have a great experience
Heather: It feels like a shift to me, as far as the role that Twitter can play in actually building meaningful relationships. You talk a lot about your own background and how that’s influenced how you think about design. Tell me about how your upbringing has impacted what you do and how you do it and how you’re bringing that to the work today.
Lara: I think for me coming from a different continent to the UK, one that is considered poor or underdeveloped, I faced a lot of things. I came from a background that not many people at the top of the industry, who are making those decisions, have seen. And I’m seeing more and more people like me get there—like working class people from other countries. And I love that. I think that’s super important. And it formed who I am as a designer.
When I came to the UK, I saw an industry that was basically responsible for how people deal with everyday things, important things; for example, food delivery. I know a lot of people who work at Uber, but my dad used to deliver food in London through those apps. And when I told them what the reality of the job is, they were kind of shocked and did use the research. So, there’s a disconnect there. And I think that what I always saw was that—me, as a user; me, as a person; and me, as a designer—there’s a divide, because people expect me to have the same understanding of other people as they do. But I have my personal side, you know, the fact that I have ADHD. Some things, for me, are just hard to do; and I have to find my own ways of doing them. All those things, all that reality seeps into the job. And there’s no way to not do that. So that has helped me challenge some things that I didn’t agree with. It has helped me empathize. But I think, above all, it’s something that is needed. People who are not what you expect when you think of a designer, they bring a lot to the table that I think is missing in this industry—especially when we’re making decisions that impact everyone.
Heather: It’s a topic I think that has been front and center for a while, and it’s continued to grow. And the notion that it isn’t goodwill, it’s actually good business sense to bring on individuals with different backgrounds, who were born in different places, who had different struggles. And it’s really exciting. Even through this podcast, the people that I’ve been talking to, there isn’t this mold that we’re all trying to now shape ourselves into. And in fact, there’s a celebration of that. When I read some of the things that you’ve talked about and that you’ve been an advocate for, I’m inspired by you being open. Have you always had that in you?
Lara: I’m not going to say it was easy to get where I am, and I think that there are still miles for me to go in being more unapologetic; but when I was a teenager, I was constantly trying to fit a mold: pretend that I was straight, pretend that I was like everyone else. I was also always overweight, and I was constantly unhappy with my body, with my life, with the clothes that I could buy…all this stuff. So, I was really unhappy as a teenager. And when I became an adult, I looked at that and was, like, I don’t want another 10, 20, 40, 50 years of that life. I kind of have to accept who I am. And that’s kind of what I started doing.
It took years to undo some of those things and be, like, the stuff that I like is interesting, the person that I am is enough. I don’t have to pretend to be anything else. But I will definitely say that, to bring that into work, it took me getting stability. So, I tell people that you are not obligated to bring yourself to work if you don’t feel confident that that’s a good business decision. Carve a place for yourself where you’re, like, “Okay, I found a company that will understand who I am” or “I am senior enough that people will respect me.” And then you start to kind of challenge the status quo. I won’t say that I was always like that. Personally, I was always very vocal about stuff; but at work, it took me being senior and being, like, “Okay, if they fire me, I can get another job. I can tell them who I actually am and what I’m unhappy about and what accommodations I need, and they either listen or I walk.” The confidence can be there, but you also need to protect yourself. So that’s my advice.
Heather: At a very young age, you’ve been able to really understand and value your worth and what you’re bringing to the table. And recognizing that requires you to be open and honest. So, it is amazing that you’ve been able to find roles that have embraced that.
So, let’s talk about Bumble a little bit. The design work that you did at Bumble was preparing for its really successful IPO. Tell me what it was like to work with Bumble during that time.
Lara: Bumble was a very transformative experience for me for a few reasons. First of all, Bumble was the first time I went into a room with leadership, and it was more women than men. So that was shocking to me. I felt like, is this real? Is this happening? All the leaders that I work with immediately—the head of product, the head of research—they were all women. So, while everyone was saying we need to be neutral—because, you know, we might have conservatives and liberal consumers—Bumble was, like, no, we have a point of view. And the point of view is that you need to respect people. So, if you are racist toward another user, we’re not going to excuse that just because you’re free to do that legally. We have our own point of view—what is good and bad in this product that we own. That to me was kind of a wakeup call that it doesn’t have to be the way we were taught.
And then the other thing, I think, that was really good for me personally and professionally was, when I joined, Bumble had a really underdeveloped—kind of immature—design team. Well, it had one designer working on a huge product…very famous at the time. And I was really shocked by that. But Bumble was also very eager to grow it and change it. They gave me a lot of freedom to hire a bunch of people, to build this team, to work with product to do it…whatever process you think makes sense. So, I was able to help build a process that makes sense. I was able to hire a team that I really believed in. I wish I could take them everywhere with me, because they’re amazing.
So those things are really valuable to me. And I think that’s what was so successful about Bumble. The whole company was shifting together at the same time.
Heather: It sounds like a thrilling time and to work for a brand that very much aligns with your values, right. What was the most challenging part when you look back at that time so fondly and having grown, I’m sure, so much from it. What was tough about it?
Lara: The kind of hypergrowth thing…just that things move really fast, and they are not all organized…I feel overwhelmed easily. I got my ADHD diagnosis in the middle of that process, and I got burned out many times. And one of the reasons I decided to leave was that I need to learn from other people instead of building everything. That’s what kind of motivated me to even leave, because I was really happy with the work. But, definitely, the biggest challenge was just that everything was so urgent, everything was kind of messy…but you cannot keep doing this forever. It was quite intense.
Heather: It sounds like it was the perfect time when this opportunity came to you. Tell me about the backgrounds and skillsets of some of the team—about, ultimately, to whom you’re reporting in terms of where you sit within the broader organization.
Lara: So, I report to a design director. His name is Joshua Harris; and he is, honestly, everything that I was looking for when I was almost at the top of the design chain of Bumble. So, he’s amazing. He’s the design director for creation and conversations. Then, within that team, I lead a couple of teams. One is called relationships, and it’s what I mentioned about people building relationships. And the other one is called profiles and identity, and that one is all about how your profile works—like accounts and all of that stuff,
Heather: What was the thing that finally made you think, okay, this is the right move for me.
Lara: When I was approached, I was still very happy with my job with Bumble. At the same time, Twitter was the dream job. So I was, like, sure, I will talk to someone. I thought they were going to put me through to a talent acquisition person; but they booked a chat with Dantley, the chief design officer, whom I’ve known, exchanged messages on Twitter a few times, and whom I think is one of the most influential people in design in the world right now. So I was like… oh, okay, that is a high-stakes conversation. Actually, he just wanted to answer all my questions, because he knows how passionate I am about social media. Talking to him really made the decision for me. I was, like, I want this job. I still had to go through the whole interview process, but I was, like, now I really want it—because, when you talk to a leader, you get one of two things. You either get someone in whom you see the values, and you understand what they really are pushing for; or you see someone who is kind of a “yes” man and just does whatever the people around him are trying to do. Dantley is someone who I know has been trying to push the envelope and make sure that design is an asset within Twitter. So, it was just a great conversation and really made the decision for me.
Heather: That’s amazing. You’ve been working in the tech space for a while, and things are changing so fast. How do you stay on top of everything that’s happening and what the new behaviors and expectations are of the users?
Lara: Designers have to be very curious about the world. I think if a designer is just a craft person, they will really struggle to survive as a designer, because the craft is 10% of the job. Many people would disagree with me, but I come from a kind of classic graphic-design education. And a lot of what I learned, I still use. But when I think about what designing is to me, a lot of it is just decision-making, just understanding the world around you, experimenting, going out there and really understanding what’s going on. So, an interest in things like politics, technology, philosophy, science—or anything that you’re interested in outside of design—will help inform what you create. That’s what I always tell people. If you are a designer and your only interest is design, well, that’s not going to really take you very far toward being a successful designer with the right values. A lot of people won’t really challenge the status quo or build anything outside of what’s now. They are content to build what’s already being built everywhere; but if you want to innovate, you need to kind of think outside of the box. So I started to really get into things are not designed-related.
I always try to understand, politically what’s happening, because I think that informs us—especially for dealing with things like policy. With a lot of social media, you have to be great at understanding public policy. I would just say, you know, get out of the field, get out of the craft, or the design system, or Figma, or all that stuff that we see a lot of online; and instead of honing those skills which you can on the job naturally, try to be a person who is very knowledgeable around things that will influence your job but are not directly related.
I’ve been really interested in ethics recently. When people talk about ethical design, what they are talking about most of the time is design that doesn’t harm anyone. And that doesn’t exist, right? One of the principles of ethics, as a field, is that there are different ways to think about ethical decisions; and, in all of them, there is a negative consequence. So, for example, we have the trolley problem. That’s a classic one, right? You have a trolley, and you need to choose whether it’s going to kill one person that you love or five innocent people. And the answer is that, none of them are wrong but all of them have a consequence. This is a great way to think about design, because every design decision will affect someone. There’s no agnostic, no apolitical design. What I want is to have my own ethical framework. I’ve been looking at different ethical frameworks, like virtue ethics, and just understanding them a bit more. That’s my personal secret.
Heather: Well, it shows a level of commitment and passion for not just surface-level understanding. So, you have two rules that you kind of live by at work. What are they?
Lara: I’ve always tried to expect that people are coming from an optimistic, positive mindset. It doesn’t matter their point of view. So, assuming positive intent is something that I always do and think it’s so necessary when you’re dealing with colleagues, especially from other teams. If you’re in a room with cross-functional partners, and you are trying to decide something—if you assume that someone is doing something for a bad reason, just so they can be promoted or they want to be more important than other people—then the conversation is doomed. You’re not going to trust their opinion, they’re not going to trust yours, nothing’s going to move forward. So, the first thing that I do is trust the team and trust people in general.
Then, the other one it’s called disagree and commit. That basically means that you need to be vocal about what you disagree with and not just accept or compromise with everything. So, if you’re designing something and you see that as going to a bad place, say something. Be the person who disagrees. Don’t be afraid to disagree. At the same time, if you are the only voice that is disagreeing, and there are 10 people who are, like, I don’t think you’re right, I think you’re wrong, let’s try this out…at some point, you need to trust the team and commit to what the team is deciding to do. If everyone is excited about a feature and they’re, like, “oh, I don’t know if that’s going to work out,” commit with them. And once you commit, the most important thing is that you are not bitter or negative about it.
The thing is, once you commit, be excited about it, like it was your idea. If it fails, you all fail together. You will learn, things will move forward, but you need to really be, like, okay, I love this idea; otherwise, you’re not going to do a good job. You’re not going to be committed, and collaborating and giving your input. So, it will be worse for everyone.
Heather: Those are great ideas. I think that’s harder to do, but we’ll be more successful in the end. We win together, we lose together, we’re a team.
I see you as a thought leader, one that is unapologetic about what you believe in. And things are changing so fast. As you look to 2022, any predictions or trends that you think we’re going to be seeing a lot of related to social media, technology design…all of the above?
Lara: There are two things that I think are very much trending right now that I think will survive and mature. One of them is crypto. I am a big critic of crypto, as it is like the kind of zeitgeist get-rich-quickly schemes and the NFTs and all of that. But the underlying technology is really interesting, and I think there will be a big discussion around how that will actually be used now that everyone knows what it is. Before I worked with Ethereum a few years ago, no one knew or understood why we were doing it. Now I see that, okay, it’s becoming something that everyone kind of understands at the basic level. And the idea is that that means that more people whom I think should be involved will get involved versus Silicon Valley…so people who actually want to use it for good, interesting things versus just making money will start using it.
And the second thing, which I think will be very tied to that because of the gas and environmental impact of crypto, is climate change and climate emergency. I do see, in the next 10 years, a lot of designers turning to that and a lot of resources turning to those problems. I think there’ll be a government push; there’ll be a society push. I’m hoping, at least, that we start to look at some of those things and start using design and technology to help solve those problems.
Heather: This podcast is all about icons, both brands and people, and showcasing—as we talked about earlier in the conversation—a different kind of icon that, maybe, people didn’t think of as the leaders who are really working to make a better future. I consider you one, and I’m so happy that you’ve joined me today. I’m curious. Do you have an icon?
Lara: I have an icon in my life and then an icon that is more of a famous person, kind of parasocial relationship. In my life, my icon has always been my mother; and I know that’s a very cliché kind of cop-out response, but I think that’s definitely the case for me. Like I said, I was very poor growing up; and my mother was always someone who was way more ambitious than was expected from her. She decided to apply to become a teacher and got into a public job. It was really hard to get into it, and she got it. And that really changed our lives for the best. Since then, she’s been doing a lot of things that I never thought she would be able to do. She got a bachelor’s degree in pedagogy, which I think is so amazing; and she’s been really pushing herself. Then she retired…but then she was, like, I don’t like not doing anything. So, she started studying genealogies and now works as a genealogist for Jewish families who had to flee Portugal. She helps them get the citizenship, helps them understand their family tree. Yeah, it’s just amazing how she’s always been so curious. So, for me, the willingness to learn comes from her. She’s always been that way, and she kind of taught me to be that way.
And then, if I think about someone who I think is doing a good job and is not close to me—although another kind of cliché answer—I would say Emma Watson. I grew up with her. I loved her as an actress. Never thought she would become an activist first, actress second. And I think people like her—with her reach doing good stuff—it’s so rare that people care enough to just make the whole brand, their whole social presence, about that. And she became an ambassador for the UN. She’s been talking about climate change, feminism online. It was really cool to see, because I always think that with the rise of influencers and celebrities being online, there’s trends of looking to their lives as aspirational. Everyone wants to be a millionaire. Now, everyone wants to live in an amazingly decorated house. And when you’re a celebrity and you decide to make your whole personality about changing the world and improving, I think that is a big commitment. I don’t think I could have been doing that myself—just not say anything about me and, instead, give my account to an NGO to manage and only share books that I read.
Heather: Those are both great answers. And, I’m sure that you’ve learned so much from your mom but that she’s learning from you, too, and how you’re going forth in the world.
Lara, thank you so much for spending time and sharing your authentic and important lessons and ideas and the path that got you to where you are. I am very, very excited to see how things will evolve for you and also feeling pretty grateful that there is a designer like you behind such an important platform, who is working to do something that is good and honest and ethical and spreads more love than anything else.
Lara: Thank you, I’m really happy that we did this.
Everything I do is through a lens of helping users who are vulnerable.