Smashing Spotlight: Lulu Xiao, Senior Strategist

Wonder what makes Smashing Ideas so smashing? Our people! We sat down with Lulu Xiao, Senior Strategist, to talk shop, how she’s a champion of user research and critical thinking, and how discomfort and the feeling of vulnerability lead to the greatest growth during the strategic process.


You’re one of the newest additions to Smashing. First off, welcome(!), second, what attracted you to our digital product design and development agency?

Thanks for the welcome! I came across Smashing when I was researching UX-related companies in Seattle (I was living in D.C. at the time) and was immediately attracted to the promise of scooters in the office.

…Just joshing, although it has been super cool to see people scootering across the office and valuing time for play!

Actually, I was intrigued for three main reasons:

  1. The strategy team/role. My background is in business and management consulting – with a focus on digital experiences – and I am a strong proponent of using user research to drive design solutions. I wanted to be in a role that incorporated all of those aspects, which is exactly what the strategy team does. I also love working with clients, so the agency-model was especially appealing too.
  2. The opportunity to build physical, tangible products. I love apps, websites, software, and such, but there’s something special about building a product you can touch.
  3. The people! I strongly believe that a team makes or breaks it, and the people at Smashing seemed incredibly talented and high-performing, but also fun. Since my time here, I can confirm that the people are indeed awesome! They challenge me and make me laugh constantly.


Aside from playing chess all day and staring at a 10×10 map plotting world domination, what does the role of Senior Strategist entail?

That’s a tough question. On a high-level, it’s what I previously described. It about championing user research and critical thinking to help clients develop digital solutions and experiences that drive their business forward. I know it’s a bit of a mouthful and sounds a little vague, but it’s because the core of the role is about making sense of ambiguity. There are always moving pieces, unknowns, and problems to be solved before the team can reach the final goal of a project, and it’s my job to help solve for those uncertainties and problems. It’s often a nonlinear and amorphous process though, which makes it very difficult to describe precisely what the role entails!


What is your favorite part within the overall Strategy process?

I am being challenged all the time. It’s nerdy, but the constant problem solving is invigorating and inspiring. I’ll admit that I often feel uncomfortable not knowing all the answers. Constantly trying to make sense of ambiguity can be tiring at times too. However, it’s also exciting to explore different possibilities and to be constantly learning. Moreover, the discomfort and feeling of vulnerability tells me that I am growing, and that’s what I care about most.


What piece of technology can’t you live without?

My phone. It just does so much!


You’ve worked for pretty innovative companies around the world, like IBM, as a strategic consultant. Is there a common theme amongst large-scale companies that push innovation forward?

If I had to choose one thing, it’d be “buy-in from senior leadership”. Innovation doesn’t happen overnight. It is hard work that requires dedication, passion, and resources, so leadership support is incredibly important. I don’t mean to say that it is impossible for innovation to prosper without a top-down approach, but, based on what I’ve seen, it’s really difficult. At IBM, for example, it was direction from Ginni (Rometty, Chairwoman, President and CEO of IBM) and the senior executive team that truly made “design thinking” catch on in the company.

That’s something that I have appreciated about Smashing. Everyone, especially the leaders, are bought in to the idea of innovation. They encourage and promote creative thinking and open-mindedness, which creates a safe environment for innovative ideas to flourish. Often it takes lots of bad or mediocre ideas to get to a really great idea, and it’s important that the company gives people freedom and trust in that process.


Now for a very sensitive question we’ve had other SI Strategists weigh in on…think very carefully about this one…Star Wars or Star Trek?

Star Wars, hands-down.


As a strategist, how do you see your role factor into the overall business strategy of a project?

I am frequently drawing on my business education and thinking about how insights or decisions will impact a client’s business. Although there is certainly value in making a really cool product, that’s not enough. A cool product needs to be impactful for a client as well.


And last but not least, a hard-hitting strategy question….the grid goes down! Who knows…maybe a zombie apocalypse is occurring, perhaps a comet struck Earth and you’re lucky enough to have survived, or the folks on Ancient Aliens were correct this whole time and the little green men made a return appearance. What one item would you want to have with you?

Hmm, how is “item” defined and what are the parameters for this scenario?

Would “people” count as an item, for instance? If I am going to be fighting for survival, I’d want to have my amazing friends and family with me, because I know that we would be able to work together to conquer anything.

Similarly, would my “emergency backpack” count? It contains five days of food and water, first aid supplies, a tent, and various other items, but you could argue that the “backpack” is one item.

Or, could I have magic wand that would let me cast spells? Is that out of the realm of possibility? If there are zombies and Ancient Aliens around, having a magic wand sounds pretty reasonable to me.

I have lots of questions before I can give a final answer!


Editor’s note: spoken like a true strategist!

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