Coming together to do great things is the secret to design success

In this week’s Digital Distractions, senior UX designer James Reece – a member of the BIMA Hot 100 ­– explains how breaking down boundaries produces the best digital results…

Four men toasting with fresh beer

Have you heard the one about the UX designer, front-end dev and copywriter who went into a bar? They had a friendly pint together, chatted pleasantly about work and nothing untoward happened.

Not laughing? Well, you clearly aren’t an old UX hand, as the notion of such a peaceful carry-on ever happening would have elicited snorts of incredulous mirth around here just a few years ago.

Back then, UX design, editorial and technology teams were siloed and distant, working largely in isolation with minimal collaboration. It was a model that stemmed from the era of industrial product design – where every detail had to be nailed down before sending it off to be manufactured. After this point, change could not happen because it was far too costly – a design change made to a physical product could mean that new manufacturing tools had to be created or factory staff needed to be retrained.

But the nature of digital means that magic can happen where various disciplines intersect. With increasingly complex technical possibilities and ever-inflating consumer expectations, a holistic approach to digital projects is key to ensure the best possible results. This is because today, more than ever, technology is the experience.

Much of my best work as a designer has been produced when working on ideas closely with developers. For example, the design of an app interface went way beyond what I could have conceived alone when a developer took my idea and gave it steroids, manipulating data to create a more dynamic version of the design on the fly. By having different mindsets to collaborate with, lateral thinking flows.

Concepts such as agile, minimum viable product and continual improvement show that, in digital, change is good and to be embraced rather than avoided

It took the digital world a while to realise that it didn’t have to follow the old model and, as our industry has matured, we’ve learned to love one of the fundamental benefits of our digital medium; it has a fluidity that doesn’t exist in industrial design. Ideas can be tested and iterated with marketplace feedback quickly and regularly. Concepts such as agile, minimum viable product and continual improvement show that in digital, change is good and to be embraced rather than avoided.

This contemporary thinking has led to a collaboration between skillsets that is becoming more important than ever, as the challenges of today involve working with concepts such as machine learning, chatbots, VR and the integration of complex data sources. User interfaces are disappearing and leaving technology itself to be the experience, without being masked by a design facade. Services such as Google Assistant and Amazon Echo are examples of a technology-first, design-second world – and in this world, collaboration is the watchword.

As an example, let’s look at creating a chatbot interface. Here, technology is the beating heart of the service. Next, UX design plays the role of ensuring that the experience of the technology feels human and matches the user’s needs. Editorial teams then devise the technology’s ‘personality’ – Google hired a team of writers from places such as A-grade storytellers Pixar and the satirical website The Onion to help make their Assistant feel funny and emphatic. Visual designers add the delightful details – for example, tell the Google Assistant you’re bored and it serves you up a fun game to kill some time.

We all know that technology isn’t getting simpler, so it’s key that digital teams truly understand it in order to devise the right solutions. But to do this we must collaborate: with UX design, editorial and technology experts all working as one to create a technology-led experience, the kind that makes consumers feel weak at the knees.

In the words of Jony Ive: “You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.” In digital, only through collaboration of disciplines can we achieve this level of understanding.

Oh, and obviously having a pint in the pub is usually more fun if you’ve got a couple of like-minded colleagues with you…

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