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How Stanford Earth shaped a product designer’s path

From her time as an undergraduate to her current role as a product designer, the Stanford Earth alumna has drawn on skills of observation, empathy, and systems thinking.

Lily Cheng portrait
Lily Cheng atFitbit039s San Francisco office. Photo credit Kace Rodriguez

Lily Cheng entered the professional world knowing she wanted to make a difference by helping people meet their needs.

“You’re not just developing a product, you’re developing a person,” said Cheng, whose career in product design has centered on human health and wellness.

As a product design lead at Fitbit, one of the main players in the wearable technologies industry, Cheng spent the last three years researching, brainstorming, building, and testing products that help people monitor and assess their physical activity in service to a sustained healthy lifestyle. She collaborated across teams, worked with engineers to build prototypes, and presented product ideas to stakeholders and executives in Fitbit’s San Francisco SOMA office.

“My area of design is focused on behavior change – what it takes to actually help people achieve their goals and how products can impact that,” said Cheng, who created products for Fitbit’s mobile application, trackers, and devices. “Getting things done means solving problems and asking the right questions.”

Now, she is shifting her focus to address a population with increasingly complex needs. As the first product designer at Big Health, Cheng designs and tests clinically proven behavioral programs that aim to help millions of people achieve good mental health without the use of pills. These programs could become the first wave of “digital medicine” to be available at scale and delivered through mobile phones. Although she is working with a very different population now, both design roles have allowed her to be creative and draw on her passion for improving health and wellness.

“Most people don’t have an interdisciplinary perspective on their role or how their position might be very different from someone else’s position,” Cheng said. “Earth Systems was really great in helping us see that perspective.”

Cheng, Earth Systems ’06, says her bachelor’s degree equipped her with an appreciation for context and analytical skills that helped her excel in a variety of roles – from managing data at Google to assessing energy policy in the Asia-Pacific region. After deciding to pursue a career in product design, those same analytical skills have propelled her to the top of her field.

Understanding data and landing the first job

“I actually landed my first full-time job because of the class I took with Karen Seto in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). I was invited to work on Google Earth,” Cheng said. “I was part of the team that manages the data that Google Earth hosts on their systems – my background in GIS and research was enough to land me an entry-level role at this cool technology company on this really cool team.”

Cheng took Seto’s class during winter quarter of her junior year at Stanford, which she described as her most academically challenging time as an undergraduate. She had simultaneously enrolled in World Food Economy, a seminal course based around a final project that requires students to build a model to project the world food economy out to 2050.

"You could take classes in all these different areas and not have to narrow yourself into one field."

Cheng recalled being very passionate about the project, which involved using publicly available data on agriculture, climate predictions, and economic demand to create plausible future scenarios.

“Being able to ask these questions and answer them all in one class was super powerful,” Cheng said. “That was a great introduction to the role of data in understanding and solving problems.”

More exposure

Born in Harbin, China, Cheng moved to the U.S. at the age of 5 and has strived to understand other viewpoints whenever possible. The daughter of ecologists, she grew up with a unique appreciation for systems thinking. She sought a degree program at Stanford that would enable her to make a positive impact on society, she said.

After exploring chemistry, chemical engineering, and medicine, Cheng pursued the interdisciplinary Earth Systems Programmajor in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) because it instilled an expansive view of the world and what it means to create sustainable well-being for people.

“The idea of being an interdisciplinary major where you could take classes in all these different areas and not have to narrow yourself into one field – that was very powerful for me,” Cheng said. “You have way more exposure than if you’re in a single department.”

She incorporated a broad range of classes – from economics and natural sciences to ecology and computer science. The Earth Systems major built valuable skillsets, she said.

Five-year goal: Work in innovative technology

Empowering experiences like her World Food Economy project at Stanford Earth helped Cheng develop the confidence to explore other interests related to climate and human well-being.

In 2008, she moved to Tokyo to pursue a position as an energy policy researcher at the Asia Pacific Energy Research Centre. After working to understand climate change and its implications in the Asia-Pacific region, Cheng decided to pursue her inherent fascination with design in the context of sustainability and human needs. In 2009, she returned to Stanford to earn a Master of Science in Earth Systems.

Because the degree program was self-designed, Cheng could focus on creating technology to “help save the world,” she said. She chose courses that complemented her work experience in energy and climate issues, and set an implicit goal for herself to be a designer working on innovative technologies in five years’ time.

Cheng met her goal. Within four years, she found herself in the disruptive industry of wearable technologies. As founding creative director at Lark Technologies, Cheng helped launch the first Bluetooth-connected, app-controlled sleep monitor and interactive sleep coach into Apple Stores globally. After that, she joined the design team at Fitbit.

Find a vision bigger than yourself

Reflecting on her career achievements, Cheng offers the following advice to current students: Find your vision and focus on something bigger than yourself. “Having that type of vision is incredibly powerful because it means you’re not going to get stuck,” Cheng said.

Her determination to maintain a global perspective and a constantly growing understanding of human needs has helped propel her career forward, Cheng said. She benefits from an appreciation for the big picture imparted by her undergraduate education – and it continues to help her see problems and bridge differences that may be difficult for others to overcome.

“Designers don’t always see or seek to understand how an engineer or someone with a business background might see the company,” Cheng said. “As a result, they undervalue that perspective and don’t always see problems that arise because of these silos people have – as an Earth Systems major, you’re homed in to when that’s happening.”

Community matters

Cheng was also drawn to Earth Systems because of its tight-knit group of students, faculty, and advisors – including an inviting student lounge. “The reason I declared [Earth Systems] was because I found a community there, and I didn’t really find that community anywhere else,” Cheng said.

Participating in Earth Systems events like faculty lunches and edible tours of the campus – during which Stanford’s groundkeeper explained where to find plants safe to eat – fueled her desire to produce those experiences for other students. As a result, Cheng served as an Earth Systems advisor during her undergraduate years, creating opportunities for students to join together outside of classes. She acknowledges being a bit envious that today’s students have the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm and the Wrigley Field Program in Hawaii to explore.

“I think the most successful students look beyond their major for opportunities of what they could do – I think that was definitely the case for me,” Cheng said. “Your search for great ideas, great people, great opportunities doesn’t stop if you’re one major or another.”

Cheng remains an active part of the Stanford community. She has helped teach product design skills for the past five years as an adjunct lecturer for a course called Needfinding. The seminar, which is part of the undergraduate core for Stanford Product Design majors, helps students understand how other people think and feel about the world, what kinds of needs they have, and how those needs manifest in their decisions and choices.

“That’s probably my favorite part of my job: getting to think about people and how they tick all the time, both to design products they love to use, but also to help them change their behavior and achieve their goals,” Cheng said.

Cheng lives in Silicon Valley with her husband, David Fedor, ’06, a fellow Earth Systems alumnus who works as a research analyst on the Hoover Institution’s Shultz-Stephenson Task Force on Energy Policy. He recently co-authored a book analyzing the benefits and challenges of nuclear energy in the U.S. Cheng is a member of the Stanford Earth Alumni Council and enjoys the Bay Area food scene, especially drinking tea.

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