One of the most impactful seasons of my life was a several weeks-long trip to Europe to study
Yep, you read that right. Twelve other landscape design students and I, along
with two practicing landscape architects and professors, travelled from Amsterdam to Munich,
exploring the hidden pockets of other cultures, looking for the intentionally designed and
thoughtfully placed spaces throughout the continent.
One of the many highlights of the trip was actually the only assignment we had been given to
complete during our time abroad - a daily journal and sketchbook.
As an aspiring artist (at best) and self-proclaimed busy-body at the time, the idea of
arriving at a garden around 8 a.m. and having the entire day to simply wander, draw, and sit in
solitude in a space we were visiting that day seemed like it would push me in new ways - and
for the first few days, this was true. I would struggle to settle into the time I had with my
thoughts - always feeling the urge to move to the next bench or spark a broken conversation
with a local - just trying to pass the time.
All of that changed about a week into the trip. We were visiting an especially unique garden
exhibit, and as I began to find my way around the space (thanks to the Dutch maps and
signs, it took me about an hour to realize what I was standing in the middle of), I realized I was
in a garden showroom of some kind. Like a furniture store with staged bedrooms and
kitchens, this garden had roughly 10 square meter spaces enclosed with 5-meter-tall
hedges on three sides lined up as far as you could see. It was like a parking lot for architects
and designers to store their ideas. Each contained a completely new experience. You
could be staring at a natural, free-flowing garden with wandering walkways and a rustic swing
one minute. And then the next step reveals a modern, structured design that somehow blurs
the edge between man-made and natural with its rusty steel outdoor dining spaces and water
features. I found myself completely losing track of time sitting on benches in front of each
space and simply sketching the people interacting with it.
With complete surprise, a classmate sat down next to me on the bench.
“Time to head out. We’ve got dinner in an hour.”
I had wandered throughout this living Ikea for an entire day! Not once did I consider how much
time we had left until dinner or how busy I needed to stay until we had to head back to our
This day was the beginning of one of the most impactful experiences of my life - several
weeks of new cultures, out-of-this-world designs, and vision on display in the most beautiful
places I have ever seen. And I finally had the right lens to look through.
It was as if I had been to the eye doctor and answered all the “A or B” questions correctly,
walking out with completely new clarity toward the world.
But why? Why was this one day so impactful? How was it different from the previous days of
staying busy with my head down?
As I reflect on these questions, I believe I have answers. And the wonderful thing about them
is - they’re not exclusive to sitting in Europe staring at hollyhocks and pelargoniums. What
I learned on that day in Amsterdam is something I now take with me every day in my role as a
digital product manager.
Those benches in that garden taught me that experiences are what I’m passionate about.
Those hedge-lined boxes represented ideas that someone had that were made into
experiences people could interact with, and they made those people’s
lives better. Without fore-thought, those spaces would be, at worst, empty boxes and at
best, confusing spaces people would naturally avoid and pass without consideration.
But instead, people stopped, stared, and wandered into each little world as if each had a
gravitational pull. And they left inspired and impacted. Why?
Because each was intentionally designed for people to interact with in specific ways.
Why were the stepping stones placed at uneven distances from one another? Because the
designer wanted to draw attention down towards the ground to force us to ignore the views
around us for that moment.
Why put a small boulder on this pathway? Because the side-step each person takes moves
them closer to the aroma of the blooming flowers on the wall.
Why was the hole in the hedge cut at this specific place? Because people naturally stare
through it with curiosity only to be surprised by the perfectly framed hummingbird garden on
the other side.
Joy. Delight. A true journey created and designed to work for every single person
that wanders past. It was like each space had a puppet master hovering above, controlling
the experience each person had with their vision.
I believe I have a similar role as a digital product manager. Sure, I’m not choosing between pea
gravel or pavers, but I am choosing when the best time to ask for personal information may be,
or deciding when to introduce a new feature to an excited user.
Like hummingbird gardens, each moment in our products needs to be intentionally thought
through. When do we show it to the user? Do we let them wander or should we guide their
views and steps?
Where can we connect the interactions of our product so they create a joyful experience
people want to take a seat in or return to?
And most importantly, how is our product going to transform the people who interact with it?
This is our job - to think about the people we’re serving with our products, and to
sometimes simply take a seat on the bench out front and watch how they experience them.