Design's disruptors and healers
As part of a crowded schedule of Design Week Portland events, on Tuesday, designers flocked to the offices of Cvent to watch the documentary DESIGN DISRUPTORS, which was produced by InVision.
The filmmakers talked to designers and product managers inside 15 heavy-hitting tech firms including Facebook, Netflix, Airbnb, Pinterest and Google — and a Google Ventures executive called Daniel Burka. Google Ventures hold the purse strings at dozens of startups, and they have a say in how things look and work.
In the film, Robyn Morris, a Facebook designer, said "The pixels that were sweated in creating those buttons is really important but the creative thing is more about how people connect and less about how a button looks."
Another long time Facebook designer Julie Zhuo said "The biggest challenge is understanding how to design less and less for myself and more for people who are different from me." She joined fresh out of college and designed for her peers. But Facebook grew, adding grandparents and people in India and Brazil. "There's no such thing as an average user at Facebook anymore."
The movie presented a case study of how to sell a brand of high-end coffee beans called Blue Bottle on the internet. It showed designers working in a "sprint" with tight deadlines forcing them to make decisions. Ultimately the best design was the one that made the users feel like they were choosing their coffee beans with the help of a knowledgeable barista, as though they were in a coffee shop or roastery. One user commented that they loved the detailed description of the types of beans, even though they hadn't actually read them.
Another showed how the high-fiving monkey hand that comes up at the end of a Survey Monkey email blast was tossed off in 20 minutes but because a huge hit because that's how people feel. According to the designer, "I've finished that email, let's have a beer!"
The 30-minute "executive cut" of the documentary, DESIGN DISRUPTORS, had a certain look: Dozens of talking heads spoke, sometimes cautiously, many without makeup. There were one-second establishing shots, highly symmetrical images of people sitting on couches, and super close-up shots of pens and pencils making marks on paper, and cursors clicking noiselessly on digital buttons. Much of what was said on screen was abstract, about changing the way users think, feel and organize, as much as about how things look. This carried over into the panel discussion afterwards.
David Beach, eBay's Director of Product and Spatial Computing, was rocking the Aaron Draplin look (bushy beard, baseball cap indoors). Beach is a designer who is now a product manager, which includes managing designers. He knows that the buck stops with him, and that he has to "own" the product. But his style conceals that.
"As a leader I recede into the background," Beach said. "I let them feel it's their product." He is averse to the idea of being the king of the product or project. "When you set yourself up as the king or queen of a product, you get revolt."
His former colleague at eBay, Mark Iris, who is now Cvent's Principal Product Design Strategist, interjected that Beach was able to do that because he grew strong relationships with his designers.
Kate Vandenberghe, Cofounder and Creative Partner at Saint Friend (and formerly of the digital bank Simple) echoed that, saying she has no problem asking people what they do, and befriending them to find out what makes them tick. "That's the guy who loves popcorn, that's the person who loves org charts…." she said. Making friends may not come easily to people who are usually glued to screens, but it is essential to breaking out of silos within a company, where perhaps designers and engineers depend on each other but don't speak the same language.
She said it was also important to float low stakes, silly ideas. "We're all mitigating for failure." Her pro-tip for getting dealing with people who might be adversarial: sit alongside them, not opposite them. "It bridges the gap and makes them feel you're on their side."
Beach of eBay agreed. "Failure is always an option."
Walmart comes to Portland
Jeanne Bard is a design researcher at Walmart Labs which has a growing presence in Portland. As part of trying to make the Walmart experience more friendly advocates designers consider the whole journey. She has spent time with families on their three-hour journey from home to the store and back again to understand their wishes and moods, and lets it inform her work when she is design something small, like on part of the Walmart website. She also tossed in a history lesson for the Walmart snobs, saying that the company didn't invent self-service shopping, and it gained its dominance by targeting underserved rural America first.
Mark Iris, the Cvent Product Design Strategist, said at Cvent they think in terms of Spock and Kirk from Star Trek. If he's dealing with an engineer or a statistician, but they all want the same outcome for the customer, he thinks, "What do I need to build to get Spock to come along with me?"
Since almost everything has a digital side to it now, much of what designers are tasked with doing is designing experiences. These are much more like narratives than posters or paintings.
Iris was tasked with an event creation experience eon Cvent (which is like a business-to-business version of Eventbrite). He drew a flow chart and imagined two users, an experience on and someone using the service for the first time. He drew thought bubbles for each one showing what they were probably thinking each step of the way, which helped his team understand the customer. It also gave him guidelines for designing a website and mobile app that worked for everything from the old hand to the newbie.
Beach told a story, which he said may be apocryphal, that when Walt Disney was getting ready for the big reveal to television of Disneyland, they had not planned the paths. Disney told the designers to not mark out paths until after they had seen where the crowds naturally walked. Beach says these are "desire paths" and users have them in digital experience too, and they should be respected.
All the designers stressed that they were problem solvers, Bard of Walmart added that at Walmart they have trouble with people returning items that they have been told not to return, just keep. They also had a way to scan receipts from the mobile app, but found out most people had no idea where the scans went to on their phone.
Julie Mathers, Cvent's Senior Director of User Experience said she has been designing for web and mobile her whole career. Self-taught, she got into design via coding. She was a programmer when she was told to design websites and had to figure them out for herself. She has worked at serious places such as Marriott International, Freddie Mac and SAP on their cloud solutions. She said it is most important that designer demonstrate how to solve a problem. She cautioned against designers who refer to their work as their baby. They should not fall in love with their work to the point that they forget to serve the customer.
"Art is for yourself. Design is for others."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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