Twenty years in a blink of an eye! This is how I felt reading the message from my provider about the dopamino.com age.
I vividly remember twenty years ago! The first fast connection, the sound of the old 56kb modem, and the first MP3 file downloaded from Napster. But the brighter memory is about the dawn of the “Californian garage” myth. I lived in Rome and avidly read of illuminated folks locked into a garage around San Francisco building incredible stuff. Of course, according to those articles, each product would be a game-changer for the related industry.
I was willing to ride this wave. So, I started designing my website’s first version, which turned into an epic fail. I was not prepared to face the complexity of building a digital experience. First, I relied on technology, the Macromedia Flash, which turned every minor update into a nightmare. On top of that, I didn’t have a vision and a basic set of KPIs to measure. Hence, I designed the first version of this website. At the time, the word “blog” didn’t exist. I was so naive to set my expectations very high. I felt frustrated when I acknowledged that designing a website was tough.
When I realised the approach was completely wrong, I didn’t give up and rolled up my sleeves! At the time, the printing design was my cup of tea. So, I started to look for links between online and offline design practices. As of today, my exploration keeps going!
This exploration attitude brought me to design digital experiences as a “doer” and a “planner” within a couple of decades. I learned so many lessons from the countless design challenges and the various business environments I encountered on my way. I have bounced back and forth between the consumer and enterprise industries. Although unplanned, I am very thankful for this career path.
Here are some of the key learnings I collected during the last twenty years:
- Design is a 100% problem-solving practice, but not everyone who solves a problem is a designer.
I had the luxury of working with highly talented “educated” designers and highly talented self-made designers. According to my experience, how “educated” designers see the design role within a business environment differs. Folks with a design background are quicker in figuring out how the design outcomes can become business enablers. They can fluently speak the same language as a senior manager or a C-level person. In this way, it’s easier to link the design practice setup with ROIs in terms of business. This bread of professionals is great for planning the short, mid and long-term strategy for a great digital experience. Design leaders with this DNA are faster and more efficient in empowering their teammates. They bring the message the best design provides the optimal compromise between business targets, user needs and the tech landscape.
- Designers need to”speak machine“.
The beauty of being a designer is being open-minded and constantly re-evaluating any truth you stumble on. To capsize what I stated in point #1, one of the more extraordinary design ambassadors, Steve Jobs, was not a designer by education. Still, he said something about the design practice that sounds immortal. “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works“. On top of that, John Maeda, another great design ambassador, in his book “How to Speak Machine: Laws of Design for a Digital Age“, reinforced this concept by adding extra value to it. Designers need to know how the product they’re designing works to find the most convenient compromise. Let’s take as an example the design of a bespoke web application. Designers need to know how engineers envision the whole setup to contribute to finding the best compromise in terms of development effort and user goals. I love the idea that designers are the best people in the room to figure out how the whole solution can scale based on the business needs and plans.
- Design needs a system-driven approach.
Every pixel we push affects the whole experience of the product or service we’re designing. As designers, our mandate is to spot the most profitable solution to a problem. We have to run this exercise walking simultaneously in the biz and user shoes. The optimal target solution is something that looks adequate and works excellently. This practice requires considerable fatigue, though. Because designers need to evaluate, validate, and implement solutions in a timeframe that makes sense to the business. This is why shaping a design solution facing tech constraints and optimising the time-to-market defines the thick border between designers who do tremendous work and “designers”. That’s, in my opinion, what makes someone a phenomenal designer.
I am looking forward to knowing what the design practice will show me in the next twenty years. So far, I have been able to navigate these uncertain waters because of my superpower. In the end, it is a secret I can share with you. I keep observing and learning how multiple design methodologies can shape products, identify user problems, and spot business opportunities. My secret sauce is to be pragmatic rather than dogmatic. I know the theory, but I always look for the best match with reality. The road to success comes with several layers of complexity.
C-level management is the key to defining how companies can attract and retain talent.
My wish for the next stage of the digital industry is to see the company board doors more accessible to design executives and leaders. Onboarding this bread of managers into the “situation room” will undoubtedly show how design can unlock business value by improving people’s lives.