Lisa Apers Independent Designer and Researcher: Tailoring UIs with brainwaves for personalized user experiences

Chris Strahl: Hi, and welcome to the Design Systems podcast. This podcast is about the place where design and development overlap. We talk with experts to get their point of view about trends in design code and how it relates to the world around us. As always, this podcast is brought to you by Knapsack. Check us out at If you want to get in touch with the show, ask some questions, or generally tell us what you think. Go ahead and tweet us @theDSPod. We'd love to hear from you. Hey everybody. Welcome to the Design Systems podcast. I'm your host, Chris Strahl. Today I'm here with Lisa Apers. Lisa, hey, welcome to the program.

Lisa Apers: Hi, Chris. Thanks for having me.

Chris Strahl: So I'm going to get to some personal details in a minute. Lisa responded to our request for speakers and had a really interesting submission that was about something that I'd never really thought of before, which was how we think about supporting neurodiversity with design systems. Lisa, where is it that you work? Explain your background and how you got to where you're at.

Lisa Apers: Yes, so I actually have a background in industrial design and then through my career, or at least through my studies, I pretty early on noticed that it was too executional, and that's actually how I got into UIC design and service design. So instead of having to design a green box, for example, you're going to investigate why does it have to be a green box and maybe it doesn't have to be a green box at all. And that through internships and focusing on a little bit of graphic design, got me then into also UI design and design systems eventually. So I've been jumping a lot between different jobs. I've been working in agencies, I've been working in startups also in scale-ups. I've also been Fiji a little bit with generative art, but now actually I just opened my own design studio to focus a little bit more on what I love to do, which is both design systems, product design, but also a little bit more design, research and experimentation.

Chris Strahl: That's a great journey through a lot of interesting career choices. With the core of it being design, the core of it being this idea that you want to be creative, and I think that you have an interesting personal story and how it relates to that creativity. Why don't you tell us a little bit more about your personal background?

Lisa Apers: Yeah, so maybe how I got into design in the first place. It goes all the way back to my childhood from when I was very little, at least what my mom told me, I was always building super symmetrical towers to the point where it was a bit creepy. And then when I grew older, I also was the one when we had to wait in line in the stores, for example, I organized all the candy by the counter and then the people working in the stores, they thought I was stealing stuff, but I just wanted it to look nice and organized and also counting how much we're missing compared to the other ones. So I started to develop all these kind of systems in my head as I was growing up, and that also translated in playing a lot with Legos and all kind of component-based toys that allows you to build stuff here in Europe.

We also had this toy called Knicks, very similar to Lego. To this day, I still hope that at some point you can connect Knicks with Lego, but I had a lot of fun with that stuff. Then when I had to decide what I wanted to do in my life as most 18 years old, I realized I liked math a lot, like the kind of abstract thinking that comes with that problem solving as well. But I also like to build stuff and be creative and do things with my hands, and that actually led me to industrial design. Back in the day, there was no such thing as digital design educations. So industrial design was it for me.

Chris Strahl: And what did you really find with those systems that was helpful for you in your particular case? I mean, I have the same propensity to organize things. It makes my wife insane when I'm putting plates on the table. They all have to be turned the exact same way, and if the silverware isn't set right, I have to go fix it. I sometimes wonder why I don't work front of house in a restaurant because that sense of order is something that really helps me get through my day. I think that you also found that deeper meaning in systems. And what did systems really do for you and why did you feel like you gravitated towards that?

Lisa Apers: Well, on a personal level, totally. I think if you would just walk in my house, you would find a perfectly organized Instagramable kitchen with all the same boxes, same labels. I even read it my kitchen so that if I unload the dishwasher, I don't have to move my feet, which is great. It's super efficient. I've done that with everything, my wardrobe, my books, a lot of stuff, and it just kind of gives me more headspace to focus on things that matter more than choosing what to wear or where to put the rise back. What I try to do is with these systems, put all these things in autopilot so that I can focus on things that requires more headspace.

Chris Strahl: So a lot of this is about creating systems that organize your life, that make it easier for you. I think that one of the parts of this is a coping mechanism for somebody that has a neurodiverse mindset. And you'd mentioned before the show that you have ADHD, and as a part of that, there is the creation of these systems as a way to sort of train your mind to be able to focus more. Do you feel like as you create these systems around you, it's helpful in your ability to live your life the way you want?

Lisa Apers: Definitely. But it's also a learning curve. So as you grow into your life and you start doing new things, for me it's always like, okay, how can I create a system around that so I can actually do it? For example, working out is something that is very beneficial for me because you get these dopamine hits, but I know that if I don't do it in the morning, I just don't end up doing it. So now I've changed my working hours so I can actually have time to do my workouts. And that's just a very, very small example of how you can create these systems to help you in your daily life. Same with meal planning, stuff like that. But definitely also in my work, my notion boards are hyper organized. My Figma files are also hyper organized because I always think about what if someone else has to look at this file? They need to find what they're looking for as fast as possible. If they know nothing and if it works for me, then I can assume that it probably works for the others as well.

Chris Strahl: Yeah, it's interesting. We joke a lot internally at Apsac about how we're a company founded by people that need systems to make sense of their daily lives. We have a fairly large set of neurodiversity inside of our company as well. And a big part of that is this gravitation towards systems and systems thinking as a way to manage Headspace. And I think that one of the interesting things about the way you talk about this is it's less about the idea of how you think about managing yourself and diagnosis and a lot more about how you think about the way of being in the world. And I wanted to probe into that for just a quick second. When you think about the creative headspace, you're not talking about it in terms of necessarily I need this to get work done. You're thinking about this in terms of how do I create an efficient way for me to get to more meaningful problems. Is that true?

Lisa Apers: That's a hundred percent true. And I think maybe a good example of that is something I actually just started implementing as well is I created a shit list, sorry for my French, but as someone with ADHD, it's extremely hard for me to do simple tasks like emptying my mailbox or filling my tax form or this super tedious tasks that just takes so much head headspace for me. So I created a shit list and every time I do a task in the shit list, I pay myself out an amount of money that I then put into a saving fund for something that I really want to motivate myself. And then I dedicate half an hour each day to do a few of these tasks because if I don't do it, I will still think about it a lot and then I would sit doing my work thinking about the tasks on my shit list that I don't want to do. I will not do them, but it will take my headspace away from the thing that I actually should focus on, which is building stuff and designing stuff and be creative.

Chris Strahl: So when you think about this as applied to your daily job, everyone has tasks in their day-to-day that aren't the most fun things for me. It's basically anything to do with designing reports and updates to people on the financial health company. Obviously it's important as a startup founder, I need to be able to understand how the business is functioning, but it's not the thing that I enjoy doing. And it's also a thing that is very tedious. It's a lot of cells on a spreadsheet, and that's not really what I enjoy. And so in a similar vein, do you have a shit list of design activities that you get through as a part of your work, and how do you think about systems that help you solve those?

Lisa Apers: Yeah, I have that. I actually had one today. I was making a plan for a design system. We're building a design system from scratch, and I'm still in the process of convincing the whole team. So I actually had to document everything in one file and it's a lot of writing. One of the first things actually I started using is Autometer this app on Mac. And with that you can combine different prompts to do things that are very tedious. For example, extract all the images out of APDF file or save all the pages of a PDF file as images, stuff like that. And I remember when I just started as a designer, I created a lot of those programs, but I also remember that I ended up spending way more time building those programs instead of just doing it. So it's also a little bit about finding that balance, but as you grow older and as you gain more experience, you also know where to kind of stop.

Chris Strahl: Yeah, it is actually, it's funny. I've never had any DH ADHD diagnosis in my life. I probably have some form of it because I also develop complex systems for very simple and mundane things. And I think also, I remember when that XK to CD comic came out about automation and whether or not you should automate something, and it had the matrix of how many times you do something in a year and how much time is saved. And I was like, genius. Why isn't anybody sent this to me before that lets me know when I have to actually write the thing to automate the thing instead of actually just doing the thing itself. And I've always been kind of a fan of those sort of things and talking to you about them both as a coping mechanism and as a way of unlocking some higher function.

I mean, I feel that intimately because I'm the kind of guy that counts my steps as I'm hiking or you and I were talking before the show about people that create prime numbers in their staircases and how it makes us insane. No staircase should have 13 stairs. It just shouldn't have. The idea of how these systems and these constructs that we create help us to have more time and more meaningful time to think about those harder problems. I think about that in my own context as the creator of design systems software and the creator of this company that builds this sort of thing. Systems are how I run everything, and it is funny, this idea of living in this land that tends to be rather abstract and spending time focusing on the abstraction. We often joke a lot about how meta it is that we're a design systems company that uses design systems to build design systems platforms so that people can make their own design systems. And that level of meta being something that I'm really comfortable in, I love it there because that means that I'm going and changing the way that we think about building product for ideal an entire world. And I guess when you're thinking about these things like setting up a new design system or working with a new company for the first time because that your approach as you think about how do I create this structure and these systems first and then fill all that in, and how do you get people to really align to that view?

Lisa Apers: I don't always start a design system from scratch. I think it's always nice to have at least a grasp of what the product is that you're going to work with just to know what you're designing for because it's really, really difficult and a little bit impersonal I feel to come up with a whole design system without having a product or a product vision. But nevertheless, the first step is always talking the team through what a complete design system is because everybody has a different understanding of it. Some people think it's just components, other people think it's like a brand guide, but it's actually that both of those things and a lot more. So it's usually just talk them through everything like design principles, guidelines, tokens or variables, but also unique patterns, rules, all that stuff, and have a common understanding of what it is, what the vision is, and of course what the resources are, and then make a plan on what to do first.

And ideally, you do everything from create design principles first, and then you go into the foundations and the variables and all that stuff, but it's not necessarily the way for every company to do it. You can also start from just using a few very basic components like a button and a model and some input fields, and then just scale it up from there. And once a company reach a certain maturity, then you can talk about design principles. I work a lot with startups and sometimes they just have no clue what they stand for, and then it's easier to have that conversation a little bit later than in the early beginning.

Chris Strahl: One of the other things that I was thinking about as a part of this conversation is how does your background in industrial design and the design for the physical world really get reflected in the way you think about design for the digital world?

Lisa Apers: I think my education was really good in giving that holistic view over products. So we had a lot of economics. We had a lot of material like material design, actual physical materials, not the Google material design. We had a lot of three D modeling production stuff. We also had engineering and electronics, so putting that all together and of course also usability and anthropology and all those human subjects. And then we had to put that all together in one soup and create something out of that that works for all these different perspectives. And I think that is probably the biggest learning and skill that I learned is combining all these different inputs, these different perspectives and then make something out of that. And then of course in three D modeling, I think that software is just way more ahead than what we're used to in UI design.

Chris Strahl: You think about the use of AI and the use of generative design, right? Generative design's been around for a long time. I was really into three D printing and modeling for a long time, largely because of my obsession with tabletop role playing games and Dungeons and Dragons. And so I would create my own figures and the amount of AI that exists inside of modeling software to solve complex problems like fills and weights and structures is really fascinating where we're just now beginning to experience this in the web and in digital production. This has been pretty much the way of working in industrial design and materials for a very long time. So it's interesting to see sort of this revolution happening here in a place where I've been using it for the better part of 10 years to help me create supports for figures so that I can print them upside down out of a vat of molten plastic. I guess when you think about the ideas of industrial design applied specifically to UI and design systems, where does your mind go when you think about the similarities and where that's coming for digital?

Lisa Apers: Yeah, that's definitely in design tokens. I've played around a lot with the Figma tokens plugin, and I think what's really cool in that is that you can actually add formulas in there. There's this guy, Matthew Stro, I don't know if you've heard of him, but he writes about UI design and math and how you can actually create a whole color system based on one formula, and you can apply this also for typography and spacing and all the attributes that you have in design systems. And I think that's just a super interesting way to think about it because then you can go really meta and create dynamic UIs as well, because then everything is just math. If you then connect it with biofeedback or EEG feedback, then things can get really interesting.

Chris Strahl: Yeah, it's interesting actually, Stroms been on the podcast before back in the way early days, so we'll have to invite him back again. I was just looking it up real quick. It's been more than two years since he's been on. He was episode 28. So I guess the other thing that I wanted to cover around the idea of design tokens and how they drive dynamic UI is you're actually looking at starting your own research project around this. Talk to us a little bit about what you're really looking at doing.

Lisa Apers: So if you think about dynamic ui, then you can also start thinking about why don't we do more of that? Now we have the technology, but still UIs feel very static. I think we have now light mode and dark mode and everybody's like, oh, we need to have a dark mode, and that's great, but for me, it still feels very static because it's still the user that's going to decide, Ooh, now I want to switch to dark mode. Where with Dynamic ui, it could be really cool if you can start changing the UI based on input from the user, and that can be either biofeedback or maybe the time of the day, or maybe if you look at someone's calendar and see that person had had a lot of meetings today, maybe we need to tone down the UI a little bit to give him a little bit of a calmer feeling.

Chris Strahl: I need that plugin for my web browser or for the websites that I'm in. It's interesting to hear you talk about that as this idea of dynamic ui because I think that the ability for us to personalize experiences, I mean, I think about the lighting in my office, so I have it set up to change based on the time of day and the ambient light levels outside. I have a garden that has water sensors that are connected to a smart hub that dynamically waters my garden. And I think that we don't really have that same expectation in the digital space that we do in the physical space yet. And I've actually been starting to talk a lot about this with the idea of what if each of us had a personalization token that allowed us at runtime to have our preferences distributed to a website and to have that digital experience be modified based on those preferences.

Now, there's a lot of hard technical challenges that represent hurdles between here and there. First of all, anything that happens in runtime in the web is a giant dumpster fire usually. But the idea is interesting to basically say, can an experience look entirely different for you, Lisa versus me, Chris doing ostensibly the same website? And what kind of content and experience modifications could we reasonably expect to have? Because I view this as absolutely the way that this is all going. We all want to feel like we're working in a digital world that was made for us, and that's absolutely possible.

Lisa Apers: So with the research that I'm doing is I want to investigate if people that are neurodivergent, they have different brainwaves, their brains work just different, not worse, not better, just different. And I want to see and investigate if these people, if they have different ways of processing information and if that information, how that is presented, can impact that as well. For example, with bionic reading, that's one thing that has been proven that improved the reading capabilities from, for example, people with dyslexia a lot. Same with people with ADHD and how can we take it even further with colors or spacing or even UX patterns? And then if you, for example, start wearing these headbands with EEG sensors, Apple actually just filed a patent for EEG sensors in the airport. If you can put that in your device and change your UIs based on that, that would be the ultimate personalized experience because ideally, how I imagine it is that you take, for example, your commuter trained back home from a day of work and you're reading the news next to you is not a person reading news, and you both see the same website, but just presented in a completely different way because you had a completely different day.

You have completely different experiences, but still are capable of processing the same amount of information.

Chris Strahl: So the idea is that you'd have sensors that would read your brainwave literally what you were thinking, and based on that ability to essentially read your thoughts, it would present you with a different experience. And that experience isn't just personalized based on the UI or the ux, it's actually the content as well. And so I think that's a really interesting idea. I know that I definitely, after a long day of six plus hours of meetings and a lot of stress with customers and maybe a podcast recording in there, and then I jump in and cook my family dinner and then help put the kids to bed, and then at eight 30 when the kids are finally asleep, all I want to do is shut my brain off and scroll Reddit for 30 minutes while I can decompress. But that experience can also be agitating depending on what's on Reddit that particular day. And so is there a way that that content could be curated for a specific brain pattern that is a tired startup, CEO with two children at 8:30 PM I would love that.

Lisa Apers: Yeah. That's even taking it a little further, but it doesn't have to be brainwaves. It can also be just information that you can pull in from your calendar or from how much you have worked out that day or stuff like that. We have already a lot of personal data that we can use.

Chris Strahl: So you're just getting this started, right? Yeah. Describe a little bit more of the research project. How long is this going to be? Are you taking volunteers? Do you need us to use the podcast? Is recruiting device for you? How long is this going to go? Because I'm curious to hear about where this heads and what the results are that you get. So I'd love to have you back when you've gotten some data and can talk about some of the results of it.

Lisa Apers: Yeah, so I'm planning to have one month of heavy literature studies, so really reading about that information processing capabilities of people with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, all those things. Then based on those findings, I would love to make some sort of prototype, but really rudimentary, even in Figma, just trying out how far we can take it in Figma. But eventually we will also have to get a developer on board to help us build something real with actual, I hope to get my hands on an EEG headset and built actually something that's functional and can show you dynamic UIs based on your brainwaves. That would be super cool. And then that would be in month three. And then in month four, then we would do another round of experimentation and see how it actually improves the information processing capabilities of neurodivergent people. That's the dream. I'm currently looking for interns to help me, so if there's someone listening and interested, please let me know. But I'm super excited about it, and I think it's exactly why I wanted to start my own company to actually facilitate research like this. I'm also going to apply to some research foundries to hopefully get some funding. But yeah, that's the plan.

Chris Strahl: Awesome. And we'll put your contact details in the show notes so that people can reach out if they're interested in participating. I think it's a super interesting study in a place where there's the ability to have a really powerful impact. It'll take a little while for this technology to be available, but at the same time, the idea that we would have data that was concrete about how this could potentially help everyone, but especially those that are neurodivergent, have a better experience in digital products.

Lisa Apers: Yeah, exactly. Because if we go back to my shit list, the reason why it exists is honestly because if I have to make a bank transfer, for example, to my family at home in Belgium, it's a dreadful task. Not because the bank transfer itself, but just because the website is horrible and there's so much information, and I'm so afraid I'll click on something wrong, and it's just so overwhelming, and there are so many things that we have in our daily lives that are so overwhelming for neurodivergent people that I feel it's almost necessary to just look at accessibility beyond just color contrasts.

Chris Strahl: That's awesome. Well, Lisa, thank you so much for sharing your story about how you got here, talking about your research and talking about how you approached systems in these ideas of design. Really appreciate your time and let's definitely have you back on in five or six months when you've got some more to share.

Lisa Apers: Awesome, and thank you so much for having me. It's been a real pleasure and I feel super honored to be here.

Chris Strahl: Well, hey, this has been the Design Systems podcast. I'm your host, Chris Strahl. Have a great day, everyone. That's all for today. This has been another episode of the Design Systems podcast. Thanks for listening. If you have any questions or a topic you'd like to know more about, find us on Twitter @theDSPod. We'd love to hear from you with show ideas, recommendations, questions, or comments. As always, this pod is brought to you by Knapsack. You can check us out at Have a great day.

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