Business leaders are beginning to recognize the value of design in technology. Though the benefits are far-reaching – improved user experience, better products, and increased sales – many organizations still struggle to put it to practice.
The Design in Tech Report 2017 found that “adopting an inclusive design approach expands a tech product’s total addressable market.” Even more, it discovered that computational design will be a key driver of tech businesses hoping to lead in design.
Last weekend at WordCamp Europe in Paris, Global Head of Computational Design and Inclusion at Automattic John Maeda, who conducted the Design in Tech Report, talked about how to think about design in digital technology today.
Stop putting lipstick on the pig
As mobile computing reaches the masses, we’re in a paradigm shift from “tech led” to “experience led” products. In fact, both McKinsey & Co and IBM have recently made appointments at their most senior levels for designers. Many technology companies, however, are still behind in the way they think about design.
This is largely routed in the way we think about technology today. “We think about technology as engineering – a way to create faster, more compact, more elegant products,” Maeda said. “In the tech industry, we make and invest all of our money in the technology, and then, after we’ve spent all of our budget, we call in designers to make it look pretty.”
This is a huge problem with design, as it represents itself as a field that just “makes things look good,” Maeda emphasized. It’s something that gets tacked on to the end of a product. “This is called “putting lipstick on a pig,” Maeda said.
It is a way to make it look good, but fundamentally does nothing to improve the product. It’s an old way of thinking about design – but, although antiquated, is still widely adopted in the tech world today.
The practice evolved from a time when the only technology users were technologist. But today, you’re also creating technology for real people.
“If you bring design early into the process, you will design something much better for real people,” Maeda said.
Bringing in design early on, can help create experience-led projects that are focused on improving the user experience. And, when you create a product with the customer in mind, you do better business.
“Design isn’t just about beauty. It’s about market relevance and meaningful results,” he said.
Maeda emphasized the importance of inclusivity when it comes to design. “In general, you need to have you team represent your target market,” he said. If you don’t have a deep understanding of your target market, you risk being irrelevant. In other words, you can’t have engineers building products for non-engineers. You need to involve designers, someone who understands your target market.
Three types of design
Maeda’s research focused on three different types of design – classical design, design thinking, and computational design.
Classical design refers to a more traditional style. It’s the oldest type of design, dating back centuries. It’s the “right way” to design, the way we’re taught in schools today. It’s practice-based and and typically results in a tangible artifact. Most designers today, even in the technology space, fall in this bucket, Maeda said.
Design thinking varies dramatically from classical design and is used by big businesses today as a way to drive innovation as it relates to customer needs. Design thinking has become widely adopted model because “execution has outpaced innovation.” This type of thinking is based on strategy and manifests in consensus between stakeholders.
Computational designers understand algorithms and data models, and help create products with the user experience in mind in mobile, Internet of Things (IoT), and Virtual Reality (VR). The Design in Tech Report 2017 found that computational design will be a key driver of growth for tech businesses hoping to leading in design.
Although computational designers are best equipped to balance engineering and design needs, they are the minority. In fact, less than 5 percent of designers fall in this category, Maeda said.
Balance design and engineering
The most successful technology companies today are successfully balancing design and engineering. They are including design in the product development process early on. Not only does this improve the user experience but it also helps create market relevance and drives meaningful results.
Computational designers are best equipped for these positions and remain in high demand at tech companies of all sizes and maturity levels. By thinking about design as more than just a way to make products look pretty, you can improve the user experience and drive business.