Supply and demand of digital product designers

12 years and 1 day ago, a group of 7 founded Adaptive Path. If you look at the NASDAQ 100 around that time, you’ll see just how far things had fallen, and they actually got worse over the course of the following year.

But, no matter how bad the internet economy was, there was always work for digital product designers. Even with layoffs or companies dissolving, I never knew any designer who went long without work. It might not have been the most desirable work, designers might have felt continually compelled to prove our ROI, but there were always jobs.

What I realized then was that, even at its lowest point, there were still more jobs than there were designers to fill them. Up until 1995, design for software meant working on packaged goods, and there simply wasn’t as much need. Beginning in 1995, the web created a sea change in the job market, and then the launch of iPhone in 2007, and iPad in 2010, has lead to successive waves of need for digital product design.

So now, supply and demand in the market of designers is frighteningly out of whack. The competition for designers is fierce. I remember getting paid $60,000 in 1997, roughly 4-5 years into my career. That is the equivalent of $87,000 today, and I can tell you that capable designers with 4-5 years experience are earning much more than that.

There is a paradoxical risk when designers are in such demand. The demand reflects the value that is seen in design work. But, with such demand, most organizations have too few designers given what they’re trying to deliver. That means those designers are spread too thin, and are focused on execution that keeps the light on. Which means design isn’t being used to its fullest extent, driving not just execution, but product strategy and definition.

Because designers are seen as so valuable, they are not able to deliver their ultimate value.

Why UX is better marketing than marketing

Attending MX 2012, I was struck by a pattern that I’ve been eager to share, but have waited until the videos from the conference were posted, which happened yesterday.

I saw the pattern after connecting three dots. The first dot came long before MX, when I found out that the reason you no longer see television ads for Amazon is that they shifted all the money they spent on advertising to Amazon Prime, their $79/year service that provides 2-day shipping on any item, streaming videos, and the Kindle Lending Library.

The second dot was Hotwire’s’ Melissa Matross’ talk at MX, where she explained how she turned “bad revenue” into good. Her approach was to take meaningless banner ads that existed solely as a tacked-on income stream, and use that screen real estate to allow shoppers to easily compare Hotwire’s prices with competitors. That might seem nuts(“You’re sending traffic to the competition!”), but her research had shown that users were comparing across multiple sites anyway, and wouldn’t it be better for Hotwire to get some money (through referral fees) rather than no money at all? The strategy paid off big — users were happier, and Hotwire had more revenue.

The third dot came from Brandon Schauer’s closing talk. Among his examples were Tesco’s initiative to offer grocery shopping in South Korean subway stations — not by locating a physical store there, but providing QR-coded wall-sized print outs of store shelves, where advertising was typically shown. Commuters photograph desired items through a smartphone app, which are then delivered to your home. South Korea is infamous for its overtaxed workforce, and this service allows people to complete necessary household chores without taking additional time from their day.

In each case, we have resources that were once dedicated to advertising instead being used to enhance a customer’s experience, and proving far more beneficial both to the customer and the business. Traditional advertising grew up in an industrial age world dominated by mass-manufacture and products. As we shift into a connected age built on services and customer relationships, savvy businesses are those that recognize money is best spent not cramming messages down people’s throats, but tirelessly figuring out how to enhance the service experience.

Addendum (1:31pm May 16, 2012)

Something I meant to mention, but forgot in my original writing, was since MX, I found out about the phenomenon of the Growth Hacker. The idea is that a web service’s best marketing opportunity is to figure out how to embed the service meaningfully into user’s lives, to go where they are, not with messages, but with a functional aspect of the service.

User experience is strategy, not design

User experience, when addressed appropriately, is an holistic endeavor. The emerging conversation of “cross-channel user experience” is redundant, because if you’re weren’t thinking cross-channel (and cross-platform, cross-device, etc. etc.), you were doing “user experience” wrong.

As the holism of user experience becomes more broadly realized, something else becomes clear. Earlier this week, designer Jonathan Korman tweeted, in response to a conversation taking place at the Re:Design UX conference, “STILL having trouble defining the UX design profession.” I would argue that that is because there is no such thing as a UX design profession. User experience is a strategic framework, a mindset for approaching product and service challenges. In that regard, it is akin to Six Sigma or Total Quality Management.

It’s only once we recognize UX as “an integrative philosophy of management for continuously improving the quality of products and processes” (to borrow Wikipedia’s definition of Total Quality Management) that we appreciate it’s truly massive scale, and how limiting it is for UX to be solely associated with specific (and usually screen-based) design practices. It’s no wonder why at this year’s IA Summit, which was explicitly about “cross-channel user experience”, the primary emergent theme was how organizations need to break free of their industrial age, bureaucratic, and hierarchical ways, and embrace cross-functional means that align every employee’s work around the customer experience.

The practice of user experience is most successful when focused on strategy, vision, and planning, not design and execution. In other words, UX adds value by bringing design practices to strategic endeavors. This means generative and exploratory user research, ideation and concept generation, scenario writing and roadmap planning. The impact of those strategic endeavors will not be limited to product and service design, but should be felt across business development, corporate development, marketing, engineering, sales, and customer service.

With respect to design execution, user experience should serve to coordinate and orchestrate a range of design efforts, not just that which has historically been called “UX design” (wireframes, architecture diagrams, prototypes, screen design). This includes industrial design, retail and space design, marketing and collateral design, and more. I think a huge challenge for “UX designers” has been to square the design legacy of making with the new reality of planning and coordination, because many don’t feel legitimate if they are not building something tangible. It’s great to build something tangible, but that is no longer “user experience” — it’s just one of many activities that, in sum, fulfill on a user experience strategy.

Trend: designers moving from agency/consultancy to in-house

Let me begin by saying how excited I am to have Todd Zaki Warfel join our team at Inflection. I’ve known Todd for a number of years, and have respected his passion, commitment, and sharing within the UX community, and know that he’s going to be a tremendous asset in our efforts moving forward.

I’m also intrigued because Todd’s move seems to be part of a larger trend I’m witnessing, and, obviously, taking part in: designers (and particularly design leaders) moving away from the agency/consulting world and heading in-house. I don’t have a huge sample size, but it’s hard to ignore when you see folks like Andrew Crow and David Cronin go to GE, or Bill DeRouchey join Simple, or former APers such as Leah Buley, Ryan Freitas, Ljuba Milkovic, off the top of my head. And that doesn’t take into account the other people who have approached me since my move and told me of their similar plans, yet to be executed.

I suspect that all these folks realized the same thing I did (and most of them did so long before me): in-house is the frontier of design and user experience. And the typical reasons why people worked at consultancies (variety of projects, working with the best talent) no longer holds true. The design teams at many organizations rival and excel what you typically find in an agency, and thanks to the fracturing of the device landscape and the growing appreciation of the need to address a broader customer experience, in-house designers don’t find themselves just spinning wheels, but working across multiple platforms and challenges.

Interesting times!

User Experience Design is Dead; Long Live User Experience

In a recent post where I argued that the biggest challenge the field faces is understanding how companies can sustainably and repeatedly deliver great experiences, a commenter wrote Bryan Zmijewski from Zurb commented, “UX Design doesn’t exist and designers have only tried to reinterpreted what great product designers, design thinkers and design managers having been doing for many decades before the web ever came along. The only things that have matured are the designers themselves.”

My initial thought upon reading this comment was, “Bullshit.” But upon further thinking, I realized he’s partly right. When you’re designing for user experience, you’re designing toward a desired outcome, the user’s experience, not a thing. If this is true, then user experience design would be the only form of design not defined by the medium, technology, or artifacts of its design, and that’s weird. And so I’m beginning to believe “UX design” doesn’t exist, really.

The label “User experience design” emerged in order to combat the small-mindedness of design for technology that was prevalent in the early 90s. During the technological boom of the last 20 years, with the emergence of the Web, prevalence of computers in all aspects of our lives, and the increasing complexity of the things we are building, “user experience” has been a helpful term in that it continually reminded us to think beyond whatever narrow thing we’re considering at the time, and to consider the entire user’s experience.

And now, in 2012, with Apple, Inc. having the largest market capitalization of any company in the world, and an endless stream of CEOs and pundits talking about the importance of user experience, I suspect the phrase “user experience design” is no longer necessary, and could even be harmful. Harmful because it suggests that the only folks who need to worry about user experience are the designers, when in fact companies need to treat user experience no different than they treat profitability, or corporate culture, or innovation, or anything else that’s essential for it’s ongoing success. The companies that succeed best in delivering great experience are those that have it as an organization-wide mindset.

(Why is the comment only partly right? Because UX design was not simply a matter of reinterpreting that great designers have done in the past. It has been an ongoing attempt to grapple with the newfound complexity of the subjects of design, a complexity that our prior tools and methods were simply not up to the task of addressing. And he’s wrong for using the phrase “design thinkers”–if “UX design” doesn’t exist, than “design thinkers” most certainly do not.)

The Frontier of User Experience

In the months I spent figuring out what was going to be my next move after Adaptive Path, I spoke with many folks about the transition. And in that process I began to realize something that I had never articulated.

Up until a few years ago there was no better place to push the boundaries of user experience than in design consulting, and within that, no better place than Adaptive Path. This was because the field was undergoing rapid methodological development. Those of us in the field of UX were making it up as we went along, and Adaptive Path had the fortune of an operating model that encouraged codifying these approaches and teaching them.

And then, around 2008, that changed. The pace of development ground nearly to a halt. The territory had been charted. There weren’t new methods to explore. We as an industry had largely figured out how to do our work. It was mostly a matter of applying the most appropriate tool given the nature of the problem. UX. as a practice, had matured.

Given that the field had matured, and we know how to design for user experience, it begs the question, Why are so many experiences so bad? It was in 2008 that I began to seriously think, write, and speak about organizational change, with a 90-minute talk at UI13, “16 Challenging Steps to Becoming an Experience-Driven Organization.”

There are a number of companies with very smart people, talented designers, and an honest desire to do right by the customer, and yet they deliver crappy experiences. And even though I had been talking about it for three years, it hadn’t really hit me until April or so of last year — the frontier of user experience is organizational. How do you get a company to sustainably, repeatedly, dependably deliver great experiences? That’s the biggest challenge our field faces. And while as a consultant I could offer advice or guidance, I wasn’t really solving tackling the problem. In order to seriously address these challenges, it requires a day-in, day-out organizational engagement that lasts for years, a kind of engagement that project-based design consulting simply does not afford.

User Experience Themes, Part I: Craft and Engineering

This past weekend I was asked to speak to a group of graphic designers and art directors about user experience in general, and my work in particular. This opportunity for reflection brought up four recurring themes in my work, themes that pose more questions than offer answers.

Of late, the theme most on my mind is Reconciling Craft and Engineering. A bit back, on a mailing list for information architects, Jesse wrote, “We are artisans, too often trying to get by with the methods of engineers.”

In my experience, we have to be both, and finding the appropriate balance is among the most challenging aspects of our practice. I suppose this is a classic left-brain/right-brain conflict.

My own gut tendency is toward engineering. (Had I not had a miserable experience in learning multi-variable calculus in 12th grade, I could have very possibly become some form of physicist.) I’m most comfortable solving problems through rigorous data gathering and analysis. I seek to understand how people process information so that I can tailor systems to satisfy them. I figure that if I get all the details right, order and meaning will emerge. I’m hesitant to consider any design as “final” that hasn’t been tested with potential users.

In the field of user experience the products we develop must, above all else, *work*. What I mean is that they must function in order to support their users. Before it looks good, before it conveys the latest business direction, before it satisfies the designer’s artisanal desires, the product must enable users to support their tasks at hand. Such a functional approach, by necessity, requires an engineering approach.

When dealing with web user experience, another factor to consider is that no product is ‘finished.’ Unlike other design disciplines where you create a final finished artifact (package, magazine ad, television commercial, industrial design product, etc.), web sites live on, and, so, must be maintained. Maintenance requires an explicit detailing of how the product works, why certain design decisions were made, and tools for keeping it running. This, too, favors an engineering approach.

In fact, I’ve worked at design companies that took an artisanal approach to web site design, where the designers crafted a beautiful solution derived from intuition and their incomparable ability to execute on it. Clients would receive this work, not know quite what to do with it (since they didn’t share or understand the artisanal vision), and would often alter it beyond recognition. In this instance, no one is happy–the agency can no longer point to the work as an exemplar, and the clients feel they spent a lot of money on something that didn’t work for them.

So, for the sake of playing it safe, we assume engineering methods, either from the field of usability engineering (in order to ensure our products will work), from library and information science (relying on accepted practice in the organization of information), and computer science (from database design to human-computer interaction).

Unfortunately those methods lead to overly reductive approaches, wherein you attempt to address every little problem in the system. We aim for solutions the success of which can be easily measured, and this doesn’t take into account the reality of the messineess of the systems we’re creating. We provide a false sense of structure and order on top of what is chaos.

Perhaps most damaging, and what I suspect Jesse was getting at in his statement, is that such reduction limits our ability for insight. For seeing the Big Picture. For making the intuitive leap that will push the design to the ‘next level.’

The logical extreme of this precedence of the engineering approach is that every site looks and operates similarly, because the reductive methods will result in the same solutions. And you’re seeing that emerge across the web, in travel sites, financial services sites, much of e-commerce.

And while it’s been important for sites to achieve that baseline of functionality and usability, we’re reaching a point where it’s imperative that we move beyond that. It’s time to utilize insight to provide a unique engagement for our visitors. Not that we ought to abandon engineering methods. Far from it — we need to figure out ways to merge craft and engineering to provide the greatest satisfaction.