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114 / Building Authentic Communities: Gen Z Leads the Way, with Alex Crandall

Hosted by Paul Gebel & Mimi Ace




Alex Crandall


Alex Crandall is a human-centered product designer and creative strategist currently working at Landing, where he leads the product and design teams.

Alex has spent the past 8 years problem-solving and building experiences at the core intersection of product, brand, and service. He has partnered with teams at Nike, sweetgreen salads, Lord Abbett, and beyond to ship a wide variety of transformative tools into the world.

Imagine a world where you can just be yourself. Where you can be safe and be expressive and be just how you want to show up and not be worried about being judged for it. This is the sort of community that Landing product designer Alex Crandall is helping to build. It’s a refreshing world far removed from where many Gen Z users cut their teeth.

In this episode of Product Momentum, Alex joins co-hosts Paul Gebel and Mimi Ace, a Sr. UX Designer at ITX, to explore how Gen Z is embracing new communities that support creative inspiration while rejecting the inauthenticity of the social media platforms they grew up with.

“We don’t need to get into all the statistics of how negatively social media has impacted and has spiked anxieties with younger generations,” Alex says. “But I think many are realizing – having grown up in this toxic culture – that the so-called ‘authenticity’ that people are playing at and presenting on social media is not what they want.”

Today’s mainstream platforms goad their users into to being confrontational and adversarial. “It’s staged. It’s bought. It’s rented,” he explains. “And it’s not true to who anyone actually is.”

Today’s users totally recognize when people aren’t being their most authentic selves. And they’re turning away, demanding to go back to a time when they can simply, safely, be themselves.

Tune in to learn more about the many communities that are sprouting up. Like the one Alex is helping to build and like so many of the insights he shares here, they’re uplifting and hopeful, offering a new direction and a sense of renewal.

Imagine that.

Paul [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to Product Momentum, where we hope to entertain, educate, and celebrate the amazing product people who are helping to shape our community’s way ahead. My name is Paul Gebel and I’m the Director of Product Innovation at ITX. Along with my co-host, Sean Flaherty, and our amazing production team and occasional guest host, we record and release a conversation with a product thought leader, writer, speaker, or maker who has something to share with the community every two weeks.

Paul [00:00:43] Hey, everyone, and welcome to the pod. Today, we are delighted to be joined by Alex Crandall and a very special guest host, Mimi Ace, Senior UX Designer here at ITX. As we get into this conversation with Alex, I was really taken aback by just how authentic their inspiration is from the early days of the Internet and looking back on how authentic and kind of raw, in a way, people were and trying to get a taste of that in a way that respects people’s privacy. It’s a really strategic and really inspirational way to tap into a user base. Mimi, what did you think? What were your takeaways from the conversation that we had with Alex?

Mimi [00:01:21] It was really awesome hearing Alex’s take on UX design in general and also hearing about how they’re building online communities and how to connect and really understand their users.

Paul [00:01:33] Yeah, some great takes on early career decisions for designers and just looking at humanity and inspiration around the concept of innovation in general. So I’m excited to get into this one. So let’s get after it.

Paul [00:01:46] Well, hello and welcome to the pod. Today we’re delighted to be joined by Alex Crandall. Alex is a human-centered product designer and creative strategist currently working at Landing, where he leads across the product and design teams. Alex has spent the past eight years problem-solving and building experiences at the intersections of product, brand, and service. He’s partnered with teams like Nike, sweetgreen salads, Lord Abbett, and beyond to ship a variety of transformative tools into the world. Alex, thanks so much for taking the time to join us today. Appreciate it.

Alex [00:02:15] Thank you. Thank you for having me on.

Paul [00:02:17] Absolutely. So jumping into a bit of your journey, I was really excited to have this conversation because of your kind of unique take on where product and design intersect as well as your experiences in the industry. Can you catch our audience up on just where you’ve been in your journey, maybe starting out by, what has it been like transitioning from your previous role at Two Bulls to where you are at Landing today?

Alex [00:02:38] Yeah, for sure. I think, you know, starting out in my career, I spent about six years between Two Bulls and some other spots in the world consulting and agency but with the majority of that time spent at Two Bulls, which is an Australian-based product agency. They’ve since been acquired by the team Adept. So really awesome just to get that experience across the board of so many different industries and clients, which has really been super informative in coming into Landing and the dedicated start-up space, really just getting to have that well-rounded scope of the world of what product, design, and brand can do. I think one of the great things about spending four years in a place like Two Bulls is that we just got to work in places and with companies and industries that were so past my scope life as like a fresh, you know, younger-twenties product designer and maker. Really, just awesome to have so much experience working in things like finance to shipping to like learning how much bureaucracy there is in just like serving kids lunch every day. So I think really just being able to have that depth of experience in so many different industries has been really core to everything that I’m doing.

Mimi [00:04:00] Could you explain a little bit about what Landing does?

Alex [00:04:03] Yeah, So Landing is a creative commerce platform. So right now we have a web platform and an iOS platform, we’ll be launching Android soon. But really what Landing is all about is celebrating creativity on the Internet. And so right now our main focus is through our content creation studio, where our users make mood boards or vision boards, we just call them boards, where users have access to anything on the Internet. They can bring in any image that they want with clear guidelines about some things that we don’t allow, and they can just kind of create and envision anything that they want, which are some incredibly beautiful, detailed things. But every item in the platform, which we have almost 4 million individual items in the platform now, is able to be linked, users can add titles, descriptions, outbound links to anywhere that they’ve come from, which has been really awesome.

Alex [00:05:03] And the other big element is that now, almost coming up on the one-year anniversary of our community library experience, which means all of our, you know, thousands of users across the globe are able to share all their assets with each other and anybody could create with any other item in the platform and be able to have that rich history and linked experience for users. So really just aiming to have users be able to create and flex that muscle of, you know, quick hit vision and creation and really just explain themselves and what they want to be and how they want to see everything from their living room to their job to their school year ahead, to, you know, their wedding. Everything is up for grabs. And that’s really a platform where if you can envision it, you can come here and make it.

Mimi [00:05:57] That’s awesome. So it sounds like there is a lot of community engagement. And I know Landing has a Discord as well. Could you talk a little bit about how you manage that community engagement in creating a safe space for the users to have these conversations?

Alex [00:06:11] For sure. Yeah. So we have had a discord for a little over a year. We started with a smaller Slack group that just really wasn’t working since we are mostly targeted at, like, young, high-school, Gen Z, early college-age users. So Slack is a little bit buttoned up. So we transitioned over to Discord a little over a year ago. I’ll say from a community management perspective, I will give a massive shout-out to Liz Friedland, who runs community at Landing. She’s like one of the most sheerly brilliant people I’ve ever encountered.

Alex [00:06:44] And I think what makes her so successful at managing our community is that she comes from an education background. So she was a teacher and then worked with recruiting teachers. So she’s very conscious of managing lots of people in very hectic environments. So I’m definitely not going to be able to do justice to all the work that she puts in.

Alex [00:07:02] But I will say from managing our community engagement, it’s really about, and I think what has been so valuable for our community is the fact that our team of like 12 people is there with them. Yes, it is a place for them to talk amongst themselves, but we’re also in there with them. Both from like talking about the product, but like I talking about their weekend, about what they’re watching, what they’re wearing, what the latest scandal is, who’s Taylor Swift dating today? And that’s been really awesome because I think one of the big things Liz has preached and taught us is the concept of being caught looking, which is just like, they see us and they have such respect and appreciation because we build Landing and we give them this community and this space to do that exploration and self-expression, but ultimately it’s being able to appreciate them 100,000 times more than they could ever come to understand.

Alex [00:07:58] It’s all about validating and celebrating them and really being able to support and uplift them. And I think that’s really been the thing where it’s like, because we are so present and so upfront and pushing just like our shared humanity with them as people, like we’re just other humans that we just push pixels and write lines of code and post Instagram posts. And that’s very reductive to like what my team does so I don’t mean to downplay that, but we’re doing our job. We’re not any more special than anyone who’s building other products around the world, but we want them to tell us everything. We want that story of their lives, and we want to know what they’re thinking about and what they’re talking about. And like, a lot of times the casual, like, day-to-day conversation about things is more informative to us than some of their direct product feedback because it’s like tapping into their authentic humanity, which is what we’re trying to foster, and what we’re trying to bring to them.

Alex [00:08:52] I think because of that, it also has grown into a space where a lot of times they manage themselves better than we need to. Like they’re so self-organizing. Right now we have about, like, 40 of them in there organizing our summer writing campaign that kind of no one on the team has any major involvement in other than being like, “Hey, that’s amazing, you guys want to host that event? Go for it. You guys have just like free reign over this space and this community as us.” So it’s like really become this amazing, just like an international community Voltron of young, brilliant people who have found each other because of Landing and are now working together to uplift and celebrate each other. And that’s really what that’s become for us.

Paul [00:09:35] That’s amazing.

Mimi [00:09:36] It also sounds like from a user experience perspective, you’re getting a lot of good qualitative user research from the Discord spaces.

Alex [00:09:45] Absolutely.

Mimi [00:09:45] That you probably couldn’t get otherwise.

Alex [00:09:47] Yeah, I mean, you know, definitely they’ll let us know when there’s a problem before our alerts can let us know there’s a problem with the platform and stuff like that. And yeah, we’re constantly hearing amazing feedback. And I think really one of the powerful things is like the quantity of certain qualitative feedback, right? Which really helps us to understand and prioritize differently because there’s thousands of people on this Discord and so like understanding what more of them want for the others is just like a super powerful way to visualize in the grand scheme of like all the things that we could do any given day.

Paul [00:10:21] I have a specific question. I’m really excited to talk about the start-up space and the decisions that you’re making.

Alex [00:10:27] Yeah.

Paul [00:10:27] And in fact, before I dig into the next question, I just want to recap because you covered so much ground. You know, at the highest level, what you’re doing is building trust, but you’re doing it in really meaningful ways through transparency and vulnerability. You’re kind of putting yourself and your community together in a way where you’re co-creating really, you’re not going out and testing the market in a laboratory clinical environment.

Alex [00:10:49] Right.

Paul [00:10:49] You’re getting real-time feedback and it’s sometimes messy and organic and sometimes unrelated to the topic at hand. But you get a really complete picture of the human on the other end of the experience, which is really cool.

Alex [00:11:02] Yeah.

Paul [00:11:02] Digging into the startup experience and specifically the audience that you’re targeting, I think it wouldn’t be too limiting to say that this is pretty specifically targeted at Gen Z. I know there are others, and I don’t mean to silo your user base so drastically, but can you tell us exactly, you know, maybe not exactly, maybe that’s the point. What generally are some of the observations about working with an audience in this space, making these kinds of decisions, making these kinds of creative choices that’s different than maybe your past projects that might be more, quote-unquote, traditional?

Alex [00:11:34] Yeah, for sure. I think definitely safe to say we are targeted at and primarily used Gen Zs. There’s definitely millennials in there and, you know, we also love all of our parents who are signed up for accounts, too. But I think definitely it has been really interesting to watch it evolve, especially as earlier you were saying my background working with like such legacy industries that like users that I’ve designed for were not digital natives, like, didn’t grow up with a computer in the home very often and now, right, our, my user base that I get to design for and get to design with all the time has like a 24-hour supercomputer in their pockets.

Alex [00:12:15] And I think it’s been so interesting to really spend time with them to understand just how broad and vast of a set of people and a set of humans that has really come out of that because we have really been able to see just how diverse and dichotomous they are. I think so many of the great things are like, we all know and can see every day how activated Gen Z is in the world in really trying to speak truth to power and really trying to take down what are some very radical, and for me, very negative things that are going on in the world. And they’re really, really motivated to do that. And so I think that has been such a powerful learning is just how vocal and how aware they are. And I think that has been super powerful on the very serious end of working with them. And then I think from the more fun and more human lens, it’s definitely been super interesting just to be like working with them and talking about all this pop culture and movies and stuff and like that and in that be able to find like these really brilliant little nuggets of interest that they each bring, which has been so informative to ultimately where Landing has been going and where they have pushed us because I think that is our aim is to be a community first platform and build with them and build for them.

Paul [00:13:46] Love that. So just to recap, I think that there’s a really cool generational intersection here, along with all the other intersections that you’re seeing, which is kind of defining for the platform itself. But Gen Z as a cohort, as a generational sort of monolith, defies the traditional take on, you know, how you build for people and what it is they’re looking for because everyone is coming as an individual. And that’s kind of the, that seems to be kind of the point. Am I getting there right?

Alex [00:14:11] Yeah. I mean, I think that’s kind of the thing, right? Gen Z and these young people have just grown up in pretty much like post the monoculture. And so they’ve also grown up with what has been very clear this like inauthentic world that like Instagram and Twitter has like put forward, which they’re like, everyone is just kind of pulling out only the best parts of themselves and they’re just not being that authentic person. And I think that has been super interesting to learn where it’s like, Yeah, they really need the human connection there more than they want kind of anything else, like, they demand that high level of authenticity from a brand and from people that they’re going to respect.

Alex [00:14:54] The influencer culture is like not about these massive totemic figures like Kim Kardashian anymore. It’s about these smaller niche people who are like your best friend in your firm, right? Maybe you’ve never met them, maybe you’ve never talked to them, but you feel like that is another person and I can see myself reflected in that. I think that ultimately comes to like a bigger theory where it’s like I find something so interesting where Gen Z does not like to be labeled as things, as I label them as Gen Z, but I do think they really do respond to like these branded concepts, right? You know, I think it’s so interesting where it’s like, they don’t want to be shoved into boxes, but they do want to be celebrated for being a Hufflepuff, Swiftie, insert another sort of branded tagline here. I think that’s so interesting. But I think it’s through all of that niche-ess and that branded energy and like definition that has led to, like, them finding each other, which has been the powerful thing of our community, it’s like, we are finding these small pockets of people that can all come through Landing and create and envision and make things together, whether that’s a bunch of boards or that’s just be a small subset community.

Mimi [00:16:07] So with that said, how do you see social media evolving over the next couple of years and how might that have an impact on Landing?

Alex [00:16:15] Yeah, I think the world of social media is obviously in a very uncertain and volatile place and is also ripe for destruction. You know one social media, like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, is all trying to keep up with the world of TikTok and they’ve gone through. And I think it moves really really fast, right? There’s tons of really interesting social platforms that are popping up every day and you’ve got things like BeReal that are having huge moments but they aren’t able to sustain.

Alex [00:16:46] And so I think like really where social media is going is really into these niche communities and niche influencers, slike going toward sub-communities or sub-communities of sub-communities that are super tight-knit, that are all over the place, right? They’re just going to be able to really find the way that they connect with each other. It’s going to continue to evolve and change. And ultimately like the thing that we’ll all need to be pushing for is hyper-authenticity, hyper-transparency and supporting our users in doing that. But also define what it means to be authentic on the Internet then. Like, we don’t know, right, but it doesn’t mean that you are the name and face of you are necessarily, but the soul and the energy behind who you are coming into this community it needs to be like the most true and authentic human that it can be.

Alex [00:17:43] And then I think there’s also just going to be this continued push more of this idea about we have been described like a collective idea, where it’s really just going to be about taking what we’ve all experienced and learned and why all of these companies and start-ups have to be creating what the platforms or committees are making is because they want to reject these toxic algorithms and toxic cultures that we’ve all seen and felt and been sort of demoralized by, you know, like, Gen Z more than any other because they grew up in them and ultimately like are taking the trust that they’re giving us, whether that be just like their time spent or their data and holding each other accountable. For me, you know, we’re doing this in the most human way.

Alex [00:18:32] And from platform to platform, from user base to user base, really be able to celebrate and uplift each other when we find success, but also be able to say what is wrong and not be sensitive to the fact that our users are going to hold us to a count and we want to do right by them. And that’s ultimately the thing that we see is like the humans behind the Landing are what are going to make us the most successful thing in the world and we will never lose that as the nexus and we need to be able to celebrate those that share that belief and hold accountable the people that are abusing and bastardizing that trust to do better. Because that’s ultimately what we’ve all seen and felt over these past like several years as you know, everything has gotten continually shaken up in the social space.

Paul [00:19:22] One hundred percent. You hit on a couple of concepts in there that I want to call out. You talked about sort of the gen one social media, sort of the Facebook, Insta, going back even further, Square, MySpace. And I think that the idea that you hinted at that I want to dig into a little bit more deeply is this idea of both respecting users’ privacy as well as allowing them to show up authentically. And those two things don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. You can be hyperauthentic and hyperpersonal and show up as yourself and not worry about privacy on a platform at the same time. I feel like there’s a callback to those really early days of the Internet when the conventional wisdom was, you don’t use your real name in an email address because somebody might hack you or, you know, there was sort of a superstition in the early Internet days, and everyone tended to just by default, show up anonymously in…

Alex [00:20:14] Right.

Paul [00:20:14] Chat rooms and all the way back kind of tools. So how are you trying to tap into that kind of energy, and why is there such a moment of hunger for that in the current market?

Alex [00:20:26] I think it’s definitely like a tricky challenge because ultimately part of Landing’s aim is to allow people to explore and express all the different multi-hyphenate sides of themselves because there’s so many people inside of each individual human with like so many interests and ideas and desires. And we want to bring that out. And Landing’s about like flexing your physical self. It’s about flexing the soul and energy and the heart behind the people. And that’s what we want to allow for. If you want to come here and you want to put your name and your face and be the amazing human that you are and be upfront about that, you are so welcome. Also, if you want to be some avatar and some persona, we are also flexible with that.

Alex [00:21:13] Obviously, we’re not gonna allow you to like pretend to be somebody else is a big thing for us. Like, we’re not going to let you come in and catfish people and pretend to be someone you’re not, but we’re going to allow you the flexibility to try out being those different types of people and interests that you have and really let you flex all those muscles and all those ideas. I think what’s really driving the hunger for that is the idea of the inauthentic memes and scrolls that we see where people are just like flexing the best second of their day when the rest of that is like not real. It’s staged it’s bought, it’s rented, and it’s not true to who anyone actually is. I mean, for some people it is, and good for them.

Alex [00:21:59] But I think, you know, our users have grown up in a world where they recognize that people are not being their most authentic selves, that they’re preaching that, they’re preaching that this is them, and we’ve already seen how that gets exposed and what that does to the influence that we’ve seen. And they’re just rejecting that now as a whole because of that’s what they’ve grown up with. And they’re like, “That is awful; that makes me feel really bad, right?” I mean, we don’t need to get into all the statistics of, you know, how negatively social media has impacted and has spiked anxieties with younger generations. But I think so many of them have seen and grew up in the toxic culture that the “authenticity” that people are playing and presenting at on social media is not it. And so people want to go back to this time when they want to be able to be safe and be expressive and be just how they want to show up and not be worried about being judged for it.

Mimi [00:23:00] Awesome. So pivoting to user experience design in general, UX design has been increasingly more and more popular. People want to get into the field. I’m sure people are reaching out to you a lot asking how to start getting into product design. So do you have any advice for someone who is maybe just starting out or is interested in it?

Alex [00:23:22] Yeah, I think definitely I would say, you know, there’s lots of great ways to get into UX and user centricity and product design as a whole. I think, one, it’s really just about being really flexible to opportunities and being able to be really creative in all the ways that you’re able to express yourself.

Alex [00:23:46] I think my overall advice for people who are starting out in product design and UX design is really just being super comfortable in trying a lot of things and being willing to mess them up and fail. I think there’s so much about, like, design in general that we have this aura of perfection and, like, everything must convert every user perfectly. But I think for me what I really respond to in product design and why I consider myself a human-centered product designer and not a user-centered product designer is because it can’t always be the perfect data and listening to every single thing that every number and every click event tells you about a user.

Alex [00:24:29] It needs to be about that intrinsic human element that like makes it messy and makes it weird, makes it really fun. So for me, it’s obviously just practice, make things, create things, put them out there, but also, like, don’t worry that there is a perfect artifact or a perfect flair because there is not because ultimately we are not designing for ourselves. There’s millions of people on the other side of that screen or that device or that poster or anything that you’re making that are going to see it in their own unique way.

Alex [00:25:04] And you need to just be okay with learning and growing and being really comfortable and saying like, “Oh, I had no idea what people were going to do.” And I think when I see people have certain dogmas attached to the work they do, I struggle because it’s like there’s so much opportunity in being messy. But you also have to be willing to be that method too and just like have that layer of humanity, because that’s what makes great products great is that they are made by humans for humans, and that means everything from the social media platform that I’m building to the B2B SaaS tools that I’m building, too, like they have just that level of humanity that ties them in and comes to the surface in all the small ways and big ways that I can think of that just make them really sick and make them perfect because they are imperfect.

Paul [00:26:01] Love it. So we have just two last questions. We’re coming up on the end of our time together and I wanted to get some thoughts from you on topics that we ask all of our guests before we let them go. So the first question in our homestretch here is, how do you define the word innovation?

Alex [00:26:17] Yeah, that’s a great question. I think what I like about that question so much is I think it asks the question that is behind it, which is like, how do you know you’ve found something innovative? And the answer is, “I know when I’ve seen it,” right? No one can define innovation, which I think is brilliant. For me, what I think is really innovative is there’s this level of like purposeful subversion. And I think it’s just about people who are able to see the world or see a small micro thing turn their head to the side and be like, “I can do that differently,” and then go and do it. Right?

Alex [00:26:59] And that can be for some major altruistic purpose, but it can also just be because like, “I didn’t like how it was before, so I made it my way,” and like, that’s amazing, and people who just have the hutzpa to do that. And I think for me, when I feel like I’ve had an experience that is innovative, it’s not so much that I have an exact rich memory of the exact every element of it, it’s that it gave me the feeling that I’ve never had before and I can recall that feeling, not necessarily every experience of, whether that’s a website or a meal or a play or a movie. And ultimately, when I know I have found something truly innovative is because that thing changes me and gives me a whole new lens to go and approach the world and every problem, right, and just like adds to my Rolodex of, you know, angles to look at any problem through.

Paul [00:27:59] What a really thoughtful answer. That is one of the coolest definitions that I think we’ve gotten out of that specific question, so thanks for sharing. As we’re closing out our time together, I’m curious, what is inspiring to you? What are you reading, watching, listening to that’s got you thinking about things that are on your track for learning?

Alex [00:28:19] Yeah, I’m actually rereading a book right now called Lifelong Kindergarten by Mitchel Resnick, which is just this story of creativity and life through play and all of these different, delightful experiences and I think has been a book that’s been really informative, especially since joining Landing, where the work that I’m doing is so much more playful than B2B Saas tools, not that those are not also delightful, but you know, building a social media and a user-facing app a bit more. So yeah, I love the book. I recommend it very highly if you’re just looking for something to talk about and reignite your playful spirit as a designer and maker, I’d definitely recommend it really highly.

Paul [00:29:03] Great recommendation. Awesome. Well, Alex, I know you’re super busy and I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day to come and talk to us for a bit. It was really a pleasure getting to peek inside your brain and hearing how things and decisions and products and experiences are going out the door at Landing into the future. So congrats on the success and we’ll look forward to your future returns. Cheers.

Alex [00:29:23] Cheers. Thank you so much. Pleasure.

Paul [00:29:28] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get. So please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

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