Relocated to Los Angeles and became Snap’s design director: Interview with Lidiya Bogdanovich

Lidiya Bogdanovich worked as a lead designer at Looksery, an Odesa-based startup that developed AR Lens technology for photos and videos. After Looksery acquired Snap Inc., Lidiya moved to Los Angeles and is now responsible for Lenses, a product developed by Snap based on the Ukrainian startup’s technology. In the interview with AIN.UA, Lidiya talked about relocating and her work at Snap.

Photo courtesy of the interviewee

How did you join the Loooksery team?

In 2014, a friend of mine shared great news: he’s leaving the company that we were working at the time together for a new and promising startup. I remember telling him it was the most stupid idea ever possible. We all know, and it’s statistically proven that 99% of startups fail. He still reminds me of this every day. 

But I was still curious why he was leaving our stable job for a startup. And he showed me the tech, and at that moment, I knew I wanted to work on this product. It was never about the money or the career or relocation opportunity. It was the most innovative thing that I’ve seen at that time. 

So, I joined Looksery as UI/UX-designer.

What was your responsibility there? 

At that point it was a startup, and each team member was actually a one man band. I did basically everything, that includes Photoshop: design of the technology, design of the app, design of the product itself, of all our promo materials.

That’s the beauty of a startup culture: you are your own recruiter, copywriter, legal, finance, marketing team and hence you learn a lot. The other thing that I liked at the time: the whole AR essence is about design meeting technology in the most organic way. In Augmented Reality design and technology are tightly intertwined and don’t exist separately.

What were the technological and other challenges you faced at Looksery? 

It sounds so weird in 2021, but we had to teach people how to hold their phones to take a selfie. In the app, we did a lot of hints to make people understand how to use it.

We did lots of user testing all over the world: we asked people to take a selfie. They used to hold their phones horizontally and told us the app was not working. So we added a hint saying that you have to raise your hand to make the app work. But users still didn’t get it: they held a phone in one hand and raised another.

Basically, what we’ve been doing — we taught people how to take selfies. Those were baby steps. That was the most challenging one. Now, if I give my phone to my 3-year-old daughter, she knows how to hold it correctly.

You know, my grandparents, my sister, my mother-in-law, my niece don’t even know what the word “AR” stands for or how complicated is the tech behind it, with years of research and development. They just call it the “funny faces” and use it as a fun and creative way to communicate with their loved ones.

And that’s the point. You don’t need to have special skills or knowledge to be a part of this technical revolution. And when I see how people of all generations use AR to have fun and to communicate, it makes me so excited to be a part of this tech revolution.

What changed for the Looksery team after the deal was announced? 

It’s all a blur, but I still remember that a guy who was the creator of Looksery came to me and asked whether I knew about the app Snapchat and whether I’d like to work with it, and winked 🙂

The main change after the announcement was to gradually switch your mindset from a startup to a big company. One day you’re a one-man band, and the other — you have to switch to more focused responsibilities, build processes, create and follow policies, build cross-team relationships, and operate globally.

What didn’t change for us: we still move very fast. And we keep this startup spark. We have to create something that has never been done before. I wake up every day, and my to-do list is: to do something that has never been done before. Nothing changed for me in that regard.

What changed dramatically for my team: now we are learning more about the world. Our product is global, so you have to learn more about other countries and cultures and how they perceive the world.

Was it difficult to relocate and adapt to new life? Did the company help with it? 

For the first time, I visited Los Angeles in 2012. My friends and I were just exploring the US and visited so many places and cities — New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Denver. And Los Angeles was the only one I hated from first sight. We made a poor choice with the motel, and the very first night in Los Angeles, we had to call the police because a person was trying to break into our rooms. 

So imagine my emotions when I learned that, in a few months, I would have to move to LA. I was so upset.

But when we visited the LA office for the first time, we got some free time and decided to travel. We traveled to so many places. I traveled back and forth between Ukrainian offices and Los Angeles so often I collected 80,000 miles in one year – it’s a three-and-a-half-time journey around the world. Sometimes I didn’t even have time to unpack my bag.

And I fell in love with California. It appeared that LA has so much to offer than that single experience in a horrible motel. I rediscovered LA. It is so very bright and diverse, and I’m still in love with it.

And when the time came to relocate, it all came very naturally. It was not stressful at all, and Snap helped us tremendously. It was, of course, a lot of paperwork — I was applying for a more complicated visa (I’ve got O-1). Aside from that, Snap arranged everything. And my team members were already here — so I didn’t feel alone.

Did the Ukrainian team receive any bonuses, options after the deal?

We cannot disclose that.

How is the work of your department organized at Snap? 

Firstly we don’t have one single design team or design department at Snap. It is more a product-based cross-collaboration. 

I can tell how the AR Lenses design team operates. But other teams’ experience can vary. Each team at Snap decides what’s best for them, and there is no universal structure for everybody.

So we work and operate in a very dynamic environment, whatever we do, we make sure that our structure is flexible so that it matches our current needs. Currently, we work in a matrix-based cross-functional collaboration mode. We need to be flexible, scalable, and adjustable.

And this is my advice to anyone: do not ever try to build something from business books — it never works. Our team is not just a structure and org chart. It’s a group of the most talented people in the industry with the most diverse backgrounds. So whatever I do, as a director, whatever org chart I build, I want to make sure that these structures support my team’s talents and utilize their top skills in the most effective way possible, keeping them happy and giving them opportunities to express themselves through their creative work.

How do you get new ideas for the lenses? 

It’s dramatically different all the time. Some people prefer data analysis. Once, one of my colleagues stormed into the room and said that he did some analysis and discovered that people don’t like orange. He analyzed over a thousand lenses and decided that if we ever were going to do, for example, cute cat ears lenses, they could not, in any case, be orange. It is needless to say that orange lenses actually turned out well 🙂

A lot of our decisions are, in fact, data-driven. But most of the time, it’s just a spark. We don’t have a recipe for a successful lens. Ideas emerge differently — they can be data-driven or a result of brainstorm. An idea can appear as simple as a team member saying: “Hey, I wanna have a T-rex drinking coffee on my table.”

But it is also a rather complicated process. We design the lenses for users all over the world. Something that is considered beautiful or fun in one culture can be considered offensive in another. For example, the 8th of March in our culture for the last few decades has shifted towards celebrating spring, femininity, and motherhood. Here in the US, it kept its original idea: fighting for women’s rights, gender equality, and reproductive rights. So both Ukrainian and US teams were surprised when we worked on ideas for the 8th of March. This is a cultural difference between the two countries, and we are operating globally.

That’s why my team and I are constantly learning about other countries and cultures.

What is your responsibility at the AR Lenses department? 

Once, I asked my mom what I do at work, and she gave it some thought and said: You are in charge of that AR thing and stuff. And it is a perfect description of my work. I printed her answer and put it on my office wall.

While my team is having fun creating the lenses, I make sure they execute strategies that support high-level company goals. One of such goals is to lead the way in augmented reality. 

How did your team get an idea of a Dog Lens that became popular?

It’s funny you mention the Dog Lens. It’s been over six years, and I’m so excited that it keeps inspiring people. For six years, we’ve built so many complex things, and developed so many technologically advanced products, but somehow, the dog always pops up 🙂

Can you tell what are the basic interests of your audience: which lenses they love and hate?

The cool thing about the lenses is that we try to create as personalized content as possible. If you personally would like to be a princess, you are getting more princess lenses. And there is a dramatic difference around the world in what people like in AR and what they are using it for. People prefer different things based on their geography and culture, and we try to explore that as much as we can. Now we are trying to learn more about local cultures.  

For example, we know that Ukrainians like funny memes in AR. And I really like two special lenses that we made for Ukraine: a Christmas Lens and a Lens for Ivan Kupala, with a luxurious traditional wreath. I am definitely proud that I am Ukrainian and can represent our culture in Snap.

But our team also has a lot of talented people from other countries and cultures, and everyone brings ideas and a piece of their personal experience to our product. We collect ideas for our lenses from the whole world.

What are other products your team is currently working on? 

Many of those things were discussed at Snap Partner Summit 2021. 

I am very excited that we created our first AR spectacles and that we were able to announce this product. It’s a completely new journey for my team — to build the lenses for a completely new platform.

The lenses were popular; some companies tried to copy that. How do you and your company feel about that? 

I do proud that Snapchat has become an industry standard. I’m really happy that we are leading the way to set up those standards and to inspire other industry leaders. 

Could you compare working as a designer and a team leader in Ukraine and the US? What does it feel like to work at Snap?

I don’t think it ever is about geography — it is more about the people you work with. Snap feels like home, and I have the best team in the world, and I’m super proud of them. 

What I really love about Snap is that the creativity is not limited here in any way. And as a team leader, I’m trying to make sure that amazing people I work with have all the tools and processes to express themselves and make their creativity shine.