Why can’t designers solve more meaningful problems? | July 17, 2016

Every few months, somebody in our industry will question why designers don’t use their talents to solve more meaningful problems; like alleviating the world from illness, hunger or debt. This statement will often be illustrated with a story of how a team from IDEO or Frog spent 3 months in a sub-saharan village creating a new kind of water pump, a micro-payment app, or a revolutionary healthcare delivery service. The implication being that if these people can do it, why can’t you?

As somebody who believes in the power of design, I understand where this sentiment comes from. I also understand the frustration that comes from seeing smart and talented people seemingly wasting their skills on another image sharing platform or social network for cats. However this simple belief that designers should do more with their talent comes loaded with assumptions that make me feel very uncomfortable.

Firstly let me state that I think designers are a genuinely caring group of people who got into this industry to have some visible impact on the world. They may not be saving lives on a daily basis, but they are making our collective experiences slightly more pleasant and less sucky. They do this by observing the world around them, being attuned to the needs of individuals, spotting hidden annoyances and frustrations, and then using their visual problem solving skills to address them. As a result, designers are often in a permanent state dissatisfaction with the world.

Designers also regularly find themselves overwhelmed by the volume of problems they are exposed to and expected to solve. This is partly down to the fact that companies still don’t understand the full value design, and fail to resource accordingly. However it’s also down to the designers natural urge to please, often causing them to take on too much work and spread themselves far too thin.

The message that designers aren’t trying hard enough to solve the really big, meaningful problems taps into this deep insecurity; making them feel even worse about the lack of impact they are having than they already do. As somebody who cares about the industry I feel we should be trying to help lighten the load, rather than adding increasingly difficult to achieve expectations onto an already stressed out workforce.

I also worry about who get’s to define what counts as “meaningful” work. For some people, meaningful may mean taking 6-months off to help solve the refugee crisis—an amazing thing to do I’m sure you agree. For others it may mean impacting hundreds of millions of people by working at Facebook or Twitter. That may seem facile to some, but both these platforms have been used to connect isolated communities, empower individuals, and in some cases, topple regimes. So who are we to judge what “meaningful” means to other people?

Many designers I speak to do actually want to have a bigger impact on the world, but don’t know where to start. It’s not quite as easy as giving up your day job, traveling to a crisis zone, and offering your services as a UX designer. It turns out that a lot of the world favours doctors, nurses and engineers over interaction designers and app developers. I sometimes feel there’s a whiff of Silicon Valley libertarianism tied up in the idea that designers should be solving the really big problems; the kind of things that Universities, Governments and NGOs have been struggling with for decades.

There is also a sense of privilege that comes with this notion. While some designers may be in the position to take a pay cut to join an NGO, or invest their savings into starting a community interest company, that’s not true of everybody. Designers may be better paid than many in society, but they still have mortgages to cover, families to look after, and personal lives to lead.

By comparison, many of the people I see extolling these notions have been very fortunate in their careers, and have the time and resources to tackle problems they find meaningful. Some have run successful companies for many years, while others are living on the proceeds of their stock options. Most are tackling these problems for the right reasons, but I can’t help think that some are doing so out of guilt. Doing so to make amends for all the cigarette and alcohol adverts they worked on as a young designer, or to justify the payout they got for being at the right company at the right time.

There is definitely an element of “mid-arrear crisis” in the sense that we should all be doing more with our lives than we actually are; making a bigger impact before our time is up. However it’s much easier to have these thoughts, and see these opportunities towards the end of one’s career, and then judge younger designers for what they themselves didn’t see at that stage in their lives.

Ironically I believe there are a large number of designers choosing to work for the greater good. Organisations like GDS in the UK, and Code for America in the US, have done a fantastic job of recruiting some of the best and the brightest from the tech world to help improve government and foster civic engagement. Other well known designers have given up their time to work on political campaigns, or donated their skills to charity. This is nothing new. Many famous graphic designers, type designers and advertising executives donate part of their time to good causes, be it fundraising drives, charity campaigns, or education.

Less well known, but no less important, are the tens of thousands of designers who work for organisations like Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the WWF. People who actively choose to work for companies they feel are making a positive impact in thew world. Then we have the individual designers, working under the radar for lesser known charities. Much of their work goes unreported. You’ll never see them on stage at a typical web design conference, or writing an article for your favourite digital magazine for instance. But don’t let this lack of visibility fool you into thinking great work isn’t going on; projects like falling whistles and the lucky iron fish are just the tip of the iceberg.

So why aren’t more designers choosing to solve large, difficult, and meaningful problems? I think a big part of the reason is sociological. We look to our peers and our industry leaders to understand the career options available to us, and see what success looks like. If all the evidence says that being a successful designer means working for a well funded start-up, gaining a large Twitter following, and waiting till they IPO, that’s what people will do.

If we really want designers to be solving bigger problems, two things need to happen. First off, the people who currently own those problems need to recognise the value of design, and make it easier for designers to get involved. I think conferences like TED and publications like HBR have helped with his endeavour, but it’s still not obvious how designers can get involved and move the needle in a meaningful way.

Secondly, we need to create an alternative success narrative that shows it’s possible to be an amazing designer by doing meaningful work, without having done the rounds at a well known design consultancy or large tech company. We need to break the idea that solving big, important and meaningful problems is the preserve of the design-elite, and instead create alternate role models for budding new designers to follow.

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Universal wage | July 2, 2016

Stories of mass underemployment due to the rise of Artificial Intelligence have been popping up all over the place the past 18 months. It would be easy to dismiss them as crack-pot theories, were it not for the credibility of their authors; from scientists like Stephen Hawkins to industrialists like Elon Musk.

Self driving cars seem to have gone from science-fiction fantasy to real world fact, in a matter of months, and the worlds transport workers are right to be concerned. Uber are already talking about making their drivers redundant with fleets of self driving taxies, while various local governments are experimenting with autonomous bus services. However the real employment risk comes from the huge swathes of haulage vehicles which could be made redundant. This won’t happen soon, but I suspect our roads will be 30% autonomous vehicles by 2030.

While it’s easy to assume that AI will only affect blue collar jobs, as we saw with the automation of manufacturing, I’m not so sure. I’m currently using an Artificially Intelligent PA to book my meetings and manage my calendar. It’s fairly crude at the moment, but it won’t be long before internet agents will be booking my travel, arranging my accommodation, and informing the person I’m meeting that I’m stuck in traffic. All things that are possible today.

Jump forward 20 years and I can see a lot of professional classes affected by digital disruption and the move to AI. In this brave new future, how will governments cope with rising unemployment?

One idea that’s been raised by both right and left is that of a Universal Wage. Put simply, every citizen would automatically receive a small, subsistence payment at the start each month. This would be enough to cover basic expenses like food and accommodation, but it wouldn’t guarantee a high quality of life, so most people would still choose to top up their incomes through work.

Unlike unemployment benefits, people don’t lose their universal wage if when they do work, removing a huge disincentive for many people. Instead this provides greater flexibility in the type of work people are able to do. For instance carers could fit work around their caring duties or students around college. As such, the Universal Wage supports the current trend we’re seeing towards the gig economy.

This may seem like an impossibly expensive solution, but various economic studies have shown it to be just about feasible today with only a marginal rise in tax. The reason it’s not more comes in part from the savings it would provide to the state. No more judging benefits on means, or policing infractions. Just a simple monthly payment for all.

The left love this policy for the social equality it brings. People can now spend their time in education and training, raising families and caring for loved ones, or exploring the arts. The right like it for similar reasons; empowering individual entrepreneurship while simultaneously reducing the size of government.

Several Universal Wage experiments are taking place around the world at the moment, so it will be interesting to see what the findings bring.

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What the hell is design thinking anyway? | April 4, 2016

In a meeting a couple of weeks ago, one of my colleagues asked me to define “design thinking”. This question felt like a potential bear trap—after all “design thinking” isn’t a new or distinct form of cognitive processing that hadn’t existed before us designers laid claim to it—but I decided to blunder in regardless.

For me, design thinking is essentially a combination of three things; abductive reasoning; concept modelling; and the use of common design tools to solve uncommon problems.

If you’re unfamiliar with abductive reasoning, it’s worth checking out this primer by Jon Kolko. Essentially it’s the least well known of the three forms of reasoning; deductive, inductive and abductive, and the one that’s associated with creative problem solving.

Deductive reasoning is the traditional form of reasoning you’ll be familiar with from pure maths or physics. You start with a general hypothesis, then use evidence to prove (or disprove) its validity. In business, this type of thinking is probably how your finance department plans its budget i.e. to generate this much profit we need to invest this much in staff, this much in raw materials and this much in buying attention.

Inductive reasoning is the opposite of deductive reasoning, using experimentation to derive a hypothesis from a set of general observations. In business, inductive reasoning is often the preserve of the customer insight and marketing team i.e. we believe our customers will behave this way, based on a survey sample of x number of people.

By comparison, abductive reasoning is a form of reasoning where you make inferences (or educated guesses) based on an incomplete set of information in order to come up with the most likely solution. This is how doctors come up with their diagnoses, how many well-known scientists formed their hypotheses, and how most designers work. Interestingly it’s also the method fictional detective Sherlock Holmes used, despite being misattributed as deductive reasoning by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Abductive reasoning is a skill, and one that can be developed and finessed over time. It’s a skill many traditional businesses fail to understand, preferring the logical certainty of deductive reasoning or the statistical comfort of inductive reasoning. Fortunately that’s starting to change, as more and more companies start to embrace the “design thinking” movement.

So what else does design thinking entail other than abductive thinking? Well as I mentioned earlier, I believe the second component is the unique ability designers have to model complex problems, processes, environment and solutions as visual metaphors rather than linguistic arguments. This ability allows designers to both understand and communicate complex and multifaceted problems in simple and easy to understand formats, be they domain maps, personas, service diagrams or something else entirely.

All too often businesses are seduced into thinking that everybody is in alignment, by describing complex concepts in language-heavy PowerPoint presentations, only to realise that everybody is holding a slightly different image of the situation in their heads. This is because, despite its amazing power, language is incredibly nuanced and open to interpretation (and manipulation). Some of our biggest wins as a company have involved creating graphic concept maps in the form of posters that can be hung around the office to ensure everybody understands the problem and is aligned on the solution. We call this activity design propaganda, and it’s a vital part of the design process.

A simpler incarnation is the design thinker’s tendency to “design in the open” and cover their walls with their research, models, and early prototypes. By making this work tangible, it allows them to scan the possibility space looking for un-made connections, and drawing inferences that would have been impossible through language alone.

The final aspect of “design thinking” is the tools us designers have developed to help think through these complex conceptual problems. These tools include a wealth of research techniques, prototyping activities and design games, not to mention processes and frameworks like “lean” and “agile”. Designers are often better equipped than typical management consultants and MBAs to tackle the sorts of problems business are starting to experience. This is just one of the reasons consultants and business leaders have started turning to programs like the Singularity University and dSchool, to become versed in the language and practice of design thinking.

It’s really good news that “design thinking” is starting to gain wider adoption, but this success comes with a small warning. While we designers helped pioneer and popularise the practice of “design thinking”, we may eventually lose out to the traditional purveyors of corporate strategy. Why?

Because despite having the skills necessary to deliver these functions, designers have shied away from the term, and resisted immersing ourselves fully in the business world. The large internal consultancies still have the business connections, they speak the same language, and are now starting to adopt the best practices of our field. So unless we get out of our beautifully designed and ergonomically friendly ivory towers, we may find it’s a hollow and short-lived victory for design after all.

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The benefits and challenges of running a slow-growing business | February 22, 2016

It’s understandable why we’re all so interested in fast-growing businesses, thanks to the drama involved. Will the company in question be able to raise the next round of funding, or will they hit the end of the runway in a ball of flames? Will they be able to hire fast enough to meet their demands, or will the culture implode on itself as people flee to Google or Facebook? Will the company fight off unwanted takeover bids and gain an even bigger valuation, or will they end up regretting not taking the deal? Will the founders end up as multi-millionaires, or just another Silicon Valley casualty? Each option is a juicy as the next, and equally deserving of comment and speculation.

As rapid growth is considered the yardstick of start-up culture, it’s unsurprising that the majority of how-to articles focus on the challenges of running a fast-moving business. So how do you embed culture when your team has grown from 30 to 100 people in less than a month? How do you ensure your infrastructure is up to the task when your user base is doubling every few weeks? And how to you keep the company going when your monthly payroll is in the millions, but your income is in the thousands?

These are all very interesting questions, and ones that will help many budding entrepreneurs. However as the founder of a deliberately slow-growing company, there is a real lack of articles charting the challenge of slow growth; and challenges there are a-plenty.

For instance, when fast-growing companies hit problems around team management, marketing and sales, or HR, they can usually hire their way out of the problem. So they’ll create a new management layer, build a sales and marketing team, or hire HR professionals. The speed they are moving, combined with the funding they have raised, is often enough to power through these inevitable growing pains and get to the other side in one piece.

By comparison, slow moving companies often have to live with these challenges for years, until they have the revenue or work available to justify even a part-time position. Until that point, slower moving companies need to make do with the resources they have available, figuring out ways to self manage, spreading sales and marketing across the management team, or using external agencies for ad hoc HR work.

That’s why smaller companies end up having to focus on their core commercial offering, be that building, maintaining and supporting software if you’re a tech start-up, or offering design and development services if you’re an agency like Clearleft. This means that the traditional business functions you’d find in a large company (finance, marketing, HR etc.) end up taking a back seat; either by being distributed across the whole team, or concentrated amongst a small number of operations staff.

Neither of these approaches is ideal. For instance, you can adopt a “many hands make light work” attitude by distributing common admin tasks across the team. But having experienced (and expensive) practitioners spend time on admin isn’t particularly cost-effective. It can also be a little demoralising, especially if colleagues at larger companies don’t have to do this. The other option is to centralise typical business functions amongst a small group of operations staff. This works well for general admin duties, but can be challenging when you start to need specialists skills like sales, marketing or HR. So in the end you just struggle through until you grow big enough to justify these additional roles.

In fast-moving companies, hiring new people is less of a cultural challenge as the team are used to job descriptions fluctuating and new people joining all the time. In a slow-growth company, people get used to the status quo. It can be hard to relinquish part of your job to a new hire, or suddenly find yourself working under a manger when you never had one before. These changes need to be handled with much more care and sensitivity than the typical start-up environment.

Fast-moving companies obviously have their fair share of cultural problems. Still, the pace of change can make it easier to shape the direction of growth. For instance it’s common to see companies between 20-50 people start to define sets of company values. A fast-moving company may reach this point in a year, when the culture is still fairly new and malleable. By contrast a slow-growing company can take years to reach this point, by which time the culture has already solidified. This solidity has many benefits, such as cultural resilience; but it also makes culture change much harder.

These challenges aside, there are a lot of positives in running a slow growth company. For a start there’s a lot less stress involved, and a lot less risk in something going spectacularly wrong. You have much more time to build the right team, and ensure the culture sticks, rather than just papering over the cracks. More importantly, you get to build a sustainable business under your own terms, rather than those of external funders. The biggest benefit for me is where you place your focus.

If you’re focussed on growth above everything else, it’s easy to sacrifice things like quality of service provision. Sometimes this is deliberate—like hiring less talented staff to meet current staffing needs, or winning less interesting work than you want, just to pay the bills. More often than not it’s just accidental; the natural result of managing so many spinning plates at once. For me, slow growth allows a company to focus on what really matters to them, building a sustainable business focussed on quality.

Of course some businesses need to grow fast in order to gain the economies of scale they need to survive; to jump over that chasm to a world of profitability. There are plenty more businesses who have found themselves forced to grow needlessly fast; either as a result of pressure from investors, or the founders’ own desire for scale. Many potentially sustainable businesses end up growing beyond their means and burning out too soon. I know the goal with many businesses is to “go hard or go home”, but I’d prefer to see 100 successful start-ups making 10 million in revenue each, than one billion dollar unicorn and 99 failed ventures.

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We won the moral argument but did we lose the business case for UX? | February 11, 2016

When we first started Clearleft 10 years ago, the bulk of my effort was focussed on explaining to clients what user experience design was, the extra value it offered, and why design needed to be more than just moving boxes around the screen. I’m pleased to say that it’s been a long time since I’ve had to explain the need for UX to our clients. These days clients come to us with a remarkable understanding of best practice, and a long list of requirements that contain everything from research, strategy, prototyping and testing, through to responsive design, mobile development and the creation of a modular component library. I think it’s safe to say that the quality of the average digital project has soared over the past 10 years, but so has the effort involved.

This isn’t unusual and happens across all kinds of industries as they develop and become more professional. You only have to look at the advances in health care over the last 50 years to see the dramatic rise in quality. Back in my childhood, the most advanced diagnosis tool was probably the X-ray. These days a whole battery of tests are available, from ECGs to MRIs and beyond. The bar has been raised considerably, but in the process, so has the average cost of patient care.

Over the past few years I’ve seen client expectations rise considerably, but digital budgets have remained largely unchanged. We’ve done an amazing job of convincing digital teams that they need proper research, cross-platform support, and modular style guides, but somehow this isn’t filtering back to the finance departments. Instead, design teams are now expected to deliver all this additional work on a similar budget.

I believe one of the reasons for this apparent lag is that of tempo. Despite the current received wisdom of continual deployment, most traditional organisations still bundle all their product and service improvements into a single big redesign that happens once every 4 or 5 years. Most traditional organisations’ understanding of what a digital product should cost is already half a decade out of date. Add to this the fact that it takes most large organisations a good 18 months to commission a new digital product or service, launch it, then tell whether it’s been a success, and you have all the hallmarks of a terrible feedback loop and a slow pace of learning.

I think another problem is the lack of experienced digital practitioners in managerial positions with budget setting authority. It’s relatively common for digital budgets to be set by one area of the company, completely independently from those setting the scope. Project scope often becomes a sort of fantasy football wish list of requirements, completely untethered from the practical realities of budget.

I couldn’t begin to tell you the number of projects we’ve passed on the last couple of years because their budgets were completely out of whack with what they wanted to achieve; or the number of clients who have asked for our help when their previous project failed, only to discover that the reason was probably due to their previous agency agreeing to deliver more than the budget would actually allow. These organisations end up spending twice as much as they could have done, because they wanted to spend half as much as was necessary—the classic definition of a false economy.

Fortunately once you’ve made this mistake once, you’re unlikely to make it again. Speed of learning is hugely important. In fact I think the organisations that will fare best from the effects of digital transformation are those who can up their tempo, fail faster than their competitors, learn from their mistakes, and ensure they don’t happen again. Basically the standard Silicon Valley credo.

It is possible to avoid some of these mistakes if you hire strategically. I’ve seen a fairly recent trend of hiring in-house digital managers from the agency world. You end up hiring people who will have delivered dozens of projects over the past 5 years, rather than just one or two. These people also tend to be fairly savvy buyers, knowing which agencies have a good reputation, and which are little more than body shops.

As for us practitioners, I think we’ve done a great job of convincing our peers on the value of good UX design and digital best practices. We now need to up our effort getting that message across to the people commissioning digital services and setting budgets, to ensure we can actually deliver on the claims we’ve made.

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The Industrialisation of Design (or why Silicon Valley no longer hires UX designers) | February 3, 2016

Despite having their roots in Silicon Valley, UX designers are a rare breed inside traditional tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter. In some cases they are so rare that other designers claim UX design doesn’t even exist. As a result I thought it would be interesting to explore where this attitude has come from, to see if it can hint at where our industry is heading.

In my (largely anecdotal) experience, Silicon Valley startups are focussed on hiring product designers at the moment. If you haven’t come across the product designer term before, you can think of them as next generation web designers; talented generalists with an affinity towards mobile and a desire to create great digital experiences for all.

While hiring product designers is all the rage at the moment, that hasn’t always been the case. Many early stage start-ups were originally conceived by individuals who considered themselves user experience designers. Many of these individuals have subsequently moved into design leadership roles at companies like Amazon, Adobe and IBM.

UX design is undoubtedly a specialism, focussing on the strategic and conceptual aspects of design, rather than the more tangible elements of UI. In that regard it has close similarities with service design, but is typically scoped around digital experiences. As practitioners traditionally came to UX design later in their careers, either through Information Architecture and Human Computer Interaction, or UI design and front-end development, there are naturally fewer experienced UX Designers than other disciplines.

This lack of supply, combined with increased demand, started to cause problems. Thankfully, a rising awareness around the general concept of user experience (as opposed to the practice of user experience design) saw more and more UI designers explore this space. Designers started to gain an increased sensitivity towards the needs of users, the demands of different platforms, and an understanding of basic interaction design practices like wireframes and prototypes. A new hybrid began to emerge in the form of the product designer; somebody who understood the fundamentals of UX Design, but retained their focus on tangible UI design.

The viability of the Silicon Valley product designer was made possible by several interesting trends. First off, tech companies started to hire dedicated design researchers; a role that UX designers would often have done themselves. They also started to hire dedicated product managers, releasing the need for designers to engage in deep product strategy. The has led many experienced UX designers to follow careers in research and product management, while others have moved towards IoT and service design.

At the same time, the rise of design systems has reduced the reliance on traditional craft skills. Rather than having to create interfaces from scratch, they can now be assembled from their component parts. This has allowed product designers to spend more time exploring newer fields of interaction design like animated prototypes. You could argue that thanks to design systems, product designers have become the new interaction designers.

This is further helped by companies with a vibrant developer culture and a focus on continual release. Rather than having to spend months researching and strategising, you can now come up with a hunch, knock up a quick design, launch it on a small subset of users and gain immediate feedback.

As a result of these infrastructure changes, tech companies no longer need people with deep UX expertise at the coalface. Instead these skills are now centred around management and research activities, allowing the companies to grow much faster than they otherwise would.

However this approach is not without growing pains, as I learnt when chatting to a design team director at one of the big tech companies recently. There was definitely a sense that while the new breed of product designers were great at moving fast and delivering considerable change, they lacked some of the craft skills you’d expect from a designer. Instead, design languages, prototyping tools, research teams and multi-variant testing were maybe acting as crutches, hiding potential weaknesses. There was also a concern that product designers were so focussed on the immediate concerns of the UI, they were struggling to zoom out, see the big picture and think more strategically.

All these concerns aside, it’s easy to see why, inside the tech industry bubble, UX design may no longer be recognised as a distinct thing.

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