Farheen Malik: Teacher and Community Organizer, Turned Interaction Designer
I feel like I've been doing UX strategy my whole life. Once I started doing it more I was like, 'Wow, I've been doing this since I was 16'—thinking about software and how to make it better, how to plan better, how to make technology better for peoples' lives. —Farheen Malik, Senior Interaction Designer at Huge
Farheen Malik is an activist at heart. The former educator, community organizer, and part-time web developer uses design thinking to make an impact on human and social issues.
When Malik, a former science and technology teacher in the Bronx, was working as a professional developer for teachers, she was part of an initiative that helped pay out an additional $1 billion in funding for state schools.
In 2006, the New York State Court of Appeals had ruled that the state was failing to provide students with the classroom resources necessary to receive the “sound basic education,” but after the recession hit in 2008, the state froze funding for the Foundation Aid formula, ending the commitment to a four-year phase-in of the campaign for fiscal equity (CFE). During the recession, $2.7 billion was cut from school aid, including over $2.1 billion in the classroom.
Malik found herself in the same room with advocacy groups who were going to release an Excel spreadsheet report in 2015 that broke down the amounts that schools, districts and students were owed. Looking at the spreadsheet, she immediately recognized that this wasn't the right way to go about it.
All I thought was, 'this Excel sheet is not very user-friendly, it is not something that people are going to digest very easily.' They might not even open it, they might not understand it. This is personal and could help people to get really excited, organized, and really activated if we made it much easier to access this information.
Malik told the group to give her a week and she'd put something together. She did just that. Malik created a one-page website which mirrored the Google interface, where anyone could easily search a school to find out how much money it was owed. Parents were also able to engage their peers by sharing their findings via social media.
"I wanted to make it really clean and really familiar," Malik said.
With the help of Malik's initiative, schools received additional funding, but it still didn’t equal the amount owed. So, the following year, they launched a second version, adding more information to make it more actionable, including information to help users contact their elected officials at the state level and sign a petition via the platform. Malik also re-branded it with the slogan from Schools deserve x amount of money, to Your child has been robbed, which riled up the community. That year, the state added $1 billion to the education budget.
"One of my core values is fairness and justice," Malik said. "I knew the funding was a problem for a few years. But until that time, I had never been in the room when they were making a decision about a campaign to get parents to engage with elected officials."
Malik found teaching challenging, but she was passionate about inciting impact. Soon, she realized that she could personally maximize her impact by helping other teachers and public school communities.
Teaching itself is very difficult. You have to live in the prevalent moment of every second for the safety of the students let alone their learning, You have to be assured that they are gaining skills, knowledge and personally developing. I didn’t feel like it was sustainable for me, which is why I got myself more involved in teaching teachers and becoming a community organizer while I learned web development … I liked the impact that I made, but I never felt like it was how I could make the most impact on the world.
After diving into web development, Malik still felt like something was amiss.
"I realized that I did not like web development because there was not enough human in the work," she explained. "I didn't like the coding part, I liked the planning, designing and measuring the impact and then iterating. Once I figured out that those parts could be defined as UX design, I started learning design on my own."
Malik realized that she learns best by reading and learning with others. Once she was confident that she could safely quit her job with a comfortable financial runway, she started looking into spaces where she could learn with other people. That’s when she kicked off her search for the right design bootcamp.
She stumbled upon Startup Institute on Switchup—a bootcamp research platform.
"It was kind of a personal journey," Malik said. "Why I chose (Startup Institute) wasn't because of the technical side, I chose it because of the soft skills and I learned about those soft skills through the interview process."
Malik recently started a new role as Senior Interactive Designer at her dream company—Huge Inc.—which is a digital agency based in Brooklyn. There, she’s part of a design team working with various clients—one project at a time—each, for several months.
Malik interviewed for the interactive designer position, and was excited to, instead, be offered the senior role. She credited her experience at Techstars—a startup accelerator she worked for after graduating Startup Institute.
There was personal development, portfolio development, understanding of how to start a company, how design works in the beginning stages of a company and learning from others about the work that they do. Everyday was incredibly valuable.
What makes Malik a strong UX designer is she never makes assumptions about her users and always knows how to explain her thought process as to why something is designed a certain way. For example, why a certain icon in an app was placed in the bottom right-hand corner opposed to the top left. And, she hasn't abandoned her love of teaching. Malik shares her love of development and design by leading a web development class every summer at Barnard College—teaching high school girls to code—and kicking off the UX curriculum as an instructor in Startup Institute's web design course.