Design is changing. In organizations of all sizes and functions, the requirements of designers and the roles they’re expected to play are increasingly being pulled in different directions. Questions around ownership in the product development cycle and the growing emphasis on human-centered design are now top of mind for designers and the teams they work with.
Optimal Workshop is home to many talented designers, but I wanted to get some outside perspective on this change in the industry. That’s why I reached out to Transpire’s head of UX, Amir Ansari.
In this interview, we’ll explore the role of designers in the modern organization, including how much business acumen they should be expected to take on and how they might work with product, engineering and marketing as the lines become increasingly blurred.
Thanks for chatting to us Amir. To start off, would you mind telling us a little bit about your history and what you do in your current role?
Amir: Yeah, sure. So I’m the head of user experience at Transpire. We’re a technology consultancy and we help our clients build technology and digital solutions to help their own customers. My role is spread across operations, sales and delivery. From a delivery perspective, my focus is on supporting my design team. From a Sales perspective, I help to bring in work, and from an operational perspective, I’m part of the leadership team, helping to work on our own business strategy and growth.
I got started by studying industrial design, which I then worked in before moving into the digital space back in the early 2000s. I think it was around 1999 or something when I started working at my first software company. I’ve spent the last 15 years working with large telecommunications companies, in the agency space and also working as a consultant.
I very much fell into design leadership, too. I’m still not entirely sure why, but I guess somebody thought I was empathetic and gave me a chance! I’ve managed teams of designers, researchers, information architects, strategists and so forth, and I’ve also worked with leadership teams to guide the business and on establishing design as a practice. That’s my history in a nutshell.
Let’s dive into it then. It’s clear to many that the role of design is changing. How do you see the current state of the field?
Amir: This is a really passionate area of mine. In a nutshell, I guess what I’m seeing and hearing through the grapevine from people out in the field (other design leaders) is that design as a practice and a role is no longer seen to be on the same level of importance as that of product owners or managers. A lot of organizations are building digital products and so we’re getting to a point where, rightly so, product managers are managing those products.
And so what’s happening is that design is becoming just a capability within product teams, on the same level as engineering, marketing, and so forth. And so maybe the tension is that while it’s true that design is starting to have a seat at the table (after many years of hard work), it’s now becoming a bit of a subordinate. So much so that my industry colleagues are telling me that product managers and product owners are almost mandating the type of methodology they want their designers within product teams to follow.
I’ve been seeing this in tier 1 and tier 2 corporations, and hearing it from design leaders. We’ve almost been pushed down within the hierarchy of the organization, and I’m just curious, what’s next for us?
Do you think the term ‘UX’ has lost some of its effectiveness? Has it been relegated to buzzword status?
Amir: Yeah, that’s an interesting one. When we talk about terminology, there’s user experience, human-centered design, customer experience and design thinking. There are all these words that have been thrown around, and they all pretty much mean the same thing, which is, design with intent, evidence and an understanding of users. That is, overall, what our aim is. Designing a product that we want our end users and customers to be able to use.
I’m also constantly hearing this term ‘UX/UI’ and I really have a gripe with that. So the analogy I use, and I’m not great with analogies, it’s almost like saying, hey, I’m a plumber, but I also change washers. So for me being a plumber is your craft. One of your skill sets is changing washers. The other one is unblocking drains. The other one is, I don’t know, working on gutters. So when I start to hear UX/UI, it sort of tells me that maybe the industry doesn’t quite know what it is. For me, UI is just one aspect of user experience design.
How does the UX/UI problem feed into how you speak to people who aren’t necessarily familiar with these terms?
Amir: The challenge with somebody who is not as knowledgeable, like a CFO or CIO, is determining their level of design experience and exposure. They’ll ask “Do I need that at all?”, “What does that mean?” and “What’s the outcome?” When I’m talking to someone who maybe doesn’t have that knowledge, I’m speaking less about UX and ‘design’ and more about the outcome of the problem they’re trying to solve. In fact, I’ve stopped mentioning the word ‘design’ in some of my conversations as it has mixed meanings for people.
Transpire is a consultancy, so we go in, we try and solve problems and we get out. But I don’t go to our clients and say, “Hey, would you like some UX with that?” Like you do with French fries when you go into McDonald’s. I go, “What’s the problem you’re having” followed by “Great, we can help you with that?” I try and not use buzz words around methodology or tools, unless I have measured the recipient’s maturity around design.
I’m trying to remove this ambiguity that UX, CX, service design, human-centered design, and design thinking have created because, to be honest, I think it has diluted what our core meaning is and what our core purpose is, which is a very methodical design process with the end-user or customer at the heart of all the decisions.
Let’s circle back to the role of design in the organization. There’s obviously tension when designers are working with product managers, who are laser-focused on things like viability and feasibility. How much business acumen should designers have to work effectively with roles?
Amir: Designers certainly need to have business acumen. One of the tools in a human-centered designer’s toolkit is and should be stakeholder engagement and business analysis. We talk about competitor analysis being something that we do but we need to expand our ‘business-centric’ toolkit. Designers need to truly understand the context of their clients’ world (aka The Business) and be able to clearly define the problem needing to be solved. What market is the client trying to solve the problem for? How does their business currently run? Who are they competing with? A designer needs to know these because there’s nothing worse than designing a solution that’s just not viable. We often say, “Hey designers, you need to work closely with the developer so that any solutions that you provide can be built”. We need to equally say “Hey designers, you need to work closely with the business so that any solutions that you provide can be sustainable, profitable or meet the business goals etc.”.
So I think designers need to build up a little bit more acumen around business, not just technology.
Flipping this around, developers, product managers and marketers should also be expected to understand some of these human-centered design principles, right?
Amir: I think that needs to happen. Engineers and developers especially need to understand the problem to be solved. They need to understand the customer or the user.
Businesses need to look at their design teams. They’ve gone and done the research and they’ve got the voice of the customers. So don’t go sitting around the boardroom and design a solution, get input from your design team, go sit in on those customer interviews and really start building empathy for the end customer.
Generally, there needs to be more cohesion. I think what’s happening is that the organizations that build products often structure their organizations around product streams, right? So you’ll find there’s a lot of heads of products. If the company has three products, each of those then will have its own product manager. And then what does that product manager need? Well, they need to be able to build the product and make it viable. They say “Well I’ll go and get a business analyst and an engineering team, as well as a designer to help me design it and I’m going to get marketing to help me market it”.
So product managers, rightly so, sit at the helm at the top of that peak. And what’s likely happening is that designers are going, “Well you know what, you’re now starting to drive the product without letting us do what we do well, which is to go and collect evidence.” It’s not happening all the time, but I’m just starting to hear that. I think maybe some shared understanding of who should own desirability, viability, and feasibility could probably help bring that relationship closer.
How does this relationship between different parts of the business work at Transpire? Is there a model for others to follow?
Amir: We’ve got engineers, project managers, sales and strategy in house and as a design practice, we’ve done really well to help the whole business understand the point of doing user and customer research. So much so that our engineers almost demand it before they build anything.
And the reason this works and is financially beneficial for our clients is there’s plenty of research that says that when you do design (including research) early or at the right time, the cost of design is one-to-one. As soon as a single line of code is written, then the cost of going back and retrofitting or changing the design becomes 10 to one because now you’ve got QA and you got the project manager involved, for example. Once a product is shipped, the cost of going back and redesigning is hundred to one because now you’ve gone to market, you’ve got marketing involved which you need to redo, etc.
There’s probably a good number of designers who already do a significant amount of strategic viability and feasibility work, but it just goes unnoticed by the business. Do you think designers need to do more to sell their value to the organization?
Amir: I do definitely think that designers are not selling their value or describing what they do well enough, especially at the junior level. But if you look at the likes of General Assembly, Academy Xi or other similar institutions, they teach you about the practical tools, right? This is how you sketch. This is how you use optimal workshop products, for example. This is how you use Survey Monkey to run a survey. Sketch, InVision, etc. This is the process. You start with research and then go into the prototype stage and then the various methods after that. But they don’t teach you the soft skills or the non-HCD skills required.
Imagine you’re about to present to the CEO and the CEO doesn’t even know what human-centered design is. You need to first articulate who you are and what value you bring to the table. I think that skillset is missing. For junior designers, they likely assume that the people they work with will understand human-centered design. They’ll say “I get it. Everybody else does too.” So either there’s that assumption, or they do a poor job of describing their true value. Maybe they get too technical. They start using industry jargon when speaking to the CEO. “Oh, we do information architecture, or we use Sketch, prototyping, and we run design sprints,” to someone who doesn’t know what any of this means. I imagine the executives are thinking: “What are you on about? Why should I use you? Why should I pay for your time or your services?”
I try and take a different approach when talking to people who maybe don’t have that understanding. I frame it and articulate it in ways they’re more likely to understand. I focus on things like reducing risk and increasing confidence in the business and business strategy. I use those C-suite level terms like de-risk, strategy, confidence and evidence. I’m using those terms to start to tell clients that it’s not a dark art. It’s just like any other process. The ultimate goal is to help your business. And then if they want more detail, then we can go into the methodology and practice.
Thanks for chatting to us Amir. Have you got anything else you’d like to add?
Amir: Look, I mean it’s an interesting time to be a designer. This notion of understanding end users and coming up with solutions to solve their problems has really come a long way. On a related note, the market has become much more mature, you know, with product managers, product owners and even CEOs starting to understand our role. Or at least they think they understand. Design thinking is starting to be sold at the c-level.
Looking from a technology perspective, we’ve got the onset of machine learning, deep learning, AI, and voice-based user interfaces. I think this means that for design, we’ll have to start thinking beyond the graphical user interface. And so probably the other questions that I think designers or practitioners need to start asking include “What does future technology mean for my role?” “How do you do a prototype for a voice-based interface?”, “What tools do we now have to use?” You can’t use Sketch to design AI. So that’s probably a secondary area. But overall, I think there’s a lot of evolution ahead of us. I’d love to know what we’ll call ourselves in 10 years? Will we go from user experience practitioners or experience designers to something totally different? I love being in this space and I’m constantly trying to find out how we need to evolve to become more valuable.
Amir Ansari is the Head of UX at Transpire as well as a coach, mentor and speaker. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.
Originally published at blog.optimalworkshop.com on September 4, 2019.