“Product designers” and design team evolution

(This may or may not end up being part of a series of my reflections as in my role as VP of Global Design at Groupon.)

In Silicon Valley, there’s a new(-ish) design role called “product designer.” I first heard about it at Facebook a few years ago, and since then, many other companies have adopted it (including Groupon, where I work). Product designers are jacks-of-all-trades, expected to deliver interaction design, information architecture, visual design, and even front-end code. From what I can tell, “product designer” emerged for two primary reasons:

  1. Startups don’t have the resources for many employees, and so needed individual designers who could cover a lot of ground
  2. More and more young designers demonstrate these cross-trained skills, and don’t want to be pigeon-holed

The title also suggests a tight relationship with product managers.

With the rise of the product designer, there’s a simultaneous progression and regression in digital experiences. Using Jesse’s 12-year-old diagram (!) as a framework, we’re seeing the top two planes getting tastier and more interesting — look at Path, Square, AirBNB. Luscious full-bleed high-design screens where it’s clear that designers obsessed over every pixel and element of movement. But in that middle plane, digital experiences suffer from a lack of attention to flows, taxonomies, relationships between content areas, etc. (Any attempt to navigate Path turns into a trip down the rabbit hole.) ¬†We’ve forsaken managing complexity in favor of delight in the moment.

Additionally, a challenge seems to occur as design organizations scale, and the product designer (or 2) needs to turn into a product design team. People who are able to deliver effectively across the entire “product designer” set are few and far between, and so if you require all of those boxes to be checked, you’ll be looking for a long time.

So, organizations end up changing requirements, looking more for “T-shaped” people (strong in one thing, able to work well cross-discipline). This leads to an uncomfortable interim where you have these jacks-of-all-trades who feel a sense of ownership of the whole trying to figure out how to collaborate with a designer who is focusing on a part.

This means designers (and the organizations they work for) must embrace a team model of design. I’ve never worked in a context other than that of team design, so I’ve been staggered by the Silicon Valley startup model where team design is considered optional. (I had coffee with a friend from New York today, who said that Silicon Valley is becoming notorious for the ‘design unicorn‘, whereas New York startups are more, well, traditional in their thinking about teams.)

Another interesting aspect to this is productivity. I’ve always sought to hire generalists, because I believe a small team of capable generalists (who each might have different emphases) is stronger and can deliver more than a large team of dedicated specialists. Product designers often work alone, and because they’re expected to do so many things, end up working on projects of limited scope. (I think this contributes to the problem of managing complex user experiences). My supposition is that the small team of generalists can also out-produce an equal number of team-of-one product designers. You get higher quality, because folks who have a functional emphasis (such as visual design or interaction design) can deliver better than those whose priority is developing a broader set of tools. And you get greater output, because their mastery of those areas means they can deliver more quickly. What you give up are the transaction/overhead costs of teamwork, but I don’t think those are as great as the gains.

An essential element to making this all work is leadership. Design teams *will* be less effective than a squad of singular designers if there’s no clear leadership and authority. Someone needs to step up and be accountable, or design teams will flounder. For reasons I’ve never quite understood, design teams can be quite bristly about leadership, but it is essential. Much the same way that there’s one director of a film who makes the final call, there needs to be one leader of a design team who makes decisions and keeps things moving.

 

 

Nexus One: I’ve had one for a couple weeks

I can finally announce it publicly: I’ve had a Nexus One for the past couple weeks. While I played with it a bit, I never used it extensively, as I didn’t want to put my iPhone’s SIM card in it, and I didn’t have any other SIM cards lying around.

The Nexus One is a perfectly solid offering in this touchscreen-smartphone space. Its interaction and interface design are quite good. I love the Maps app, which essentially can operate just like an in-car turn-by-turn GPS navigation device, with the added benefit of Google Street View, so you can be quite positive your turning at the right spot.

I’m very interested in leaving Apple and AT&T, and the Nexus One could very much be that new phone for me. I am not really reliant on any non-standard iPhone apps, so the transition shouldn’t be too hard. But, at this point, I’m not ready to make the change, for two primary reasons:

  1. Podcasts. The thing I do most with my iPhone is listen to podcasts. And I’ve become quite reliant on the “2x” playback feature of podcasts. Google’s Listen app does not offer double-speed playback. I suppose I could turn my iPhone into an iPod touch and use the Nexus One for other things, but having two glass bricks on me at all times seems unnecessary.
  2. Desktop software configuration. Or rather, the lack of it. With Nexus One, you have to do all your configuration on the phone, or within various Google Apps. There is no iTunes equivalent for the Nexus One. I believe this is a huge mistake. Anyone owning a Nexus One is likely to own a computer with a USB port. Why not let me use my computer, with it’s bigger screen, easier text entry, etc, etc, to configure my Nexus One? I’ve said it many times – iTunes was the secret of iPod’s success, and is quite significant in iPhone’s success. Having to do everything on the Nexus One’s screen is a pain and it kind of angers me that Google hasn’t seen fit to release software to make the configuration easier. (If you’re not beholden to Apple/iTunes the way I am, this might not be an issue. Or, if you’re an extensive Google tool user (Gmail. Google Calendar, etc.), it might not end up mattering to you, as you can get all that information onto the Nexus One pretty easily.)

All that said, if I could get a $60/mo plan on T-Mobile for the NexusOne (which is what I currently play AT&T, as I’m grandfathered in with my first-gen iPhone), I would have to seriously consider the switch. However, it looks like the minimum price of the necessary T-Mobile plan is $80/mo, which is kind of a non-starter for me. I would even consider $70/mo with unlimited SMS and data.

I am happy that there is now a legitimate competitor to iPhone/AT&T, and one that is not beholden to a particular carrier. I hope this finally leads to some competition in the pricing of service plans.

Experience (and services and systems), not products (What I would tell interaction design students, #1 in a series)

I had originally planned to speak in SVA’s Interaction Design lecture series today, but had to cancel because I’m needed in the SF Bay Area. So, I thought I might blog the things I would have said

This is a subject I’ve talked about at length before, perhaps most notably in the essay, “Experience IS the Product… and the only thing users care about”, the slidecast “Experience is the Product”, and it was a main theme in Adaptive Path’s book Subject to Change. So I won’t go into in detail again, but it’s worth acknowledging that most people still approach product development very much from a features-and-functionality standpoint, and most design work gets so focused on the specific outcome that the designers lose sight of the ecosystem in which their work must fit.

In this increasingly complex world, product design is really systems design. A number of elements must be marshaled and coordinated. But it doesn’t make sense to design a system for the sake of it.

So, a system to what end?

I would argue, a system to support great experiences for people. And from figuring out how to support the delivery of great experiences, then design the interactions, identify the touchpoints, and build the systems that support that.

Samsung has crappy design — so why is it always an exemplar?

I’m reading Do You Matter? How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company. In theme and topic, it’s *very* similar to Subject to Change, which mostly makes me grateful that we published first. We also don’t reference Apple *nearly* as much as this book does, though I guess it may be excusable, because one of its authors, Rob Brunner, worked there (though, he worked there when Jobs wasn’t there, so take that as you will).

Anyway, I’m compelled to blog because when talking about “design driven” corporations, the book cites, among others, Samsung. Now, I know that Samsung has been lauded in the design process (though not for a few years) because of how they used design to elevate their brand from an east-Asian also-ran into the next Sony. BUT, from what I can tell, Samsung’s “design-driven”-ness is all sizzle and no steak. I’ve owned two Samsung products in the time since they supposedly got design religion, and one sucked (a mobile phone) and one is mediocre (my DVD player). Am I missing something here? Are there Samsung products that are truly useful, usable, and desirable? If so, please point me to them… OR STOP USING THEM AS AN EXAMPLE.