“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.

 

 

Calling all designers!

Truly! I am calling all designers.

I’m in my third week at Groupon, and one thing is very clear–to tackle all the interesting stuff we’re doing (reducing the friction in local commerce between merchants and their prospective customers with web/mobile/tablet solutions, marketing and brand work, print and packaging), we need heaps more design talent.

We have design needs in Chicago, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Seattle, and Berlin.

We are looking for full-time digital product and visual designers from junior all the way to director level. We pay competitively for Silicon Valley/tech.

If you like your freedom and independence, we are happy to collaborate with contractors and freelancers. (This is particularly true for our marketing and communication work, which spans all media.)

And we are looking to partner with small design shops (digital product, ux, marketing) in those locations as well.

If this is you, please contact me directly at peterme (at) groupon (dot) com.

Why I’m excited about joining Groupon

Today I begin a new job — VP, Global Design at Groupon. I’m thrilled for the opportunity to work on what I consider to be one of the most interesting design challenges of the Connected Age.

Now, if you’re someone who, when you think of Groupon, you think of daily deals, you probably wonder what in hell I’m talking about. And that’s going to be one of my big initial challenges. Because Groupon’s vision is to become the operating system for local commerce. Thanks to the daily deals, Groupon has relationships with hundreds of millions of shoppers, and hundreds of thousands of merchants. The objective is to activate those relationships in interesting new ways in order to reduce the friction in local commerce, to make it easier for local businesses to attract and serve customers, and for those customers to find and buy what they desire.

You could think about it as taking the kind of e-commerce intelligence found within a single site like Amazon, and figure out how to distribute it to local businesses throughout the world. To give these local businesses access to the kinds of technology and data that currently only big box or online retail has. And in a time of increasingly boarded-up shops, it’s clear local commerce could use every advantage it can get.

And, hoo-boy, what a design challenge. Across merchants and shoppers you have a remarkably complex eco-system of devices, touchpoints, desires, and processes to serve. To make this real, we will need to bring to bear every tool in the design toolkit — service design to understand end-to-end customer journeys, brand design to better communicate Groupon’s evolution, interaction design at every touchpoint, whether a shopper using the website or mobile app, or a merchant processing a payment (yep, Groupon helps merchants take payments now). Addressing this all is going to be hard, but it’s also going to be a lot of fun.

Groupon has been a punching bag for the tech and finance press the past year, but I think the company has only remarkable opportunity ahead of it. With their (our!) phenomenal growth in the past few years no other company is so embedded on both sides (shopper and merchant) of the local commerce equation. But don’t merchants hate Groupon? Given all the bad press about unhappy merchants, you might think so, but it turns out that while it makes for compelling stories that fit the media’s overarching narrative about Groupon, it’s not indicative of broader merchant sentiment (yes, that’s a link to a press release, and yes, it’s research commissioned by Groupon. For a broad and deep look at Groupon and merchants, try this article.)

What cinched the deal for me was how impressed I’ve been, up and down the line, with the people I have met, and their commitment to serving their customers with great experiences. My job is not to try to convince Groupon that it should care about its customers — they already do that. My job is to help Groupon figure out how to sustainably deliver great product and service experiences that appropriately reflect its internal passion for customers.

If this all sounds interesting to you, we’re hiring (product designers for web and mobile, visual designers), and I’d love to hear from you.

Reframing “UX Design”

I was asked to speak at UX Week 2012, and figured I’d turn my blog post “User experience is strategy, not design” into a talk, but a funny thing happened along the way. I realized that, yes, UX is design, but not design as we’ve been thinking of it. And by reframing “UX design” as a profession, we can set it up to uniquely address increasingly prevalent business needs.

Before tackling the profession, we need to agree on just what “UX design” is. I have not come across a better definition than Jesse’s, which he originally shared in 2009:

Experience design is the design of anything, independent of medium, or across media, with human experience as an explicit outcome, and human engagement as an explicit goal.

Jesse went on to define human engagement across four factors — perception, action, cognition, and emotion, and then showed how design contributes to this engagement:

Similarly, Dan Saffer attempted to diagram the scope of user experience design:

These both present very broad mandates. This is particularly vexing for those who see design as execution, as making stuff, Because how can anyone be expected to execute on all that? How can UX design as a profession address the enormity of what it encompasses?

And I think the issue is that we haven’t been able to see the forest for the trees. UX design isn’t all of those disciplines. UX design is not design-as-execution. UX design is what’s left.




What’s more, Jesse’s and Dan’s diagrams are overly design-oriented. User experience arises from the sum total of interactions with a organization’s products and services. If we take Jesse’s definition to heart, we need to recognize that just because UX emerged from software and grew on the web, that doesn’t mean it has to be digital. User experience is affected by business development, marketing, engineering, customer service, retail, as well as product and service design.

An analogous model for UX design

The challenge for the UX designer is to identify where, how, and at what level to engage in order to appropriately address this scope. Typical “UX design”– workflows and wireframes– is insufficient. It needs to embrace a much broader potential that drives outcomes through deep organizational engagement.

I propose that we think of UX design in a manner similar to film direction. To explain what I mean, look at this org chart from Walt Disney (I’ve zoomed in on the pertinent area).

A film director doesn’t “do” anything. All of the execution is carried out by specific craftspeople. The job of the director is to coordinate, to orchestrate these activities in order to deliver on a singular vision. The director likely came up through a specific craft (writing, acting, editing, cinematography), but through experience and vision, has come to lead across all these functions.

I propose that the profession of the UX Designer is analogous to the profession of the film director, coordinating across all those disciplines identified in the diagrams (and undoubtedly other activities).

(It’s worth calling out that Dan mentioned something similar in the post supporting his diagram, but he was somewhat dismissive about the role of the creative director, saying there wasn’t much to it, and that it was a temporary role.)

What this means is that UX Designer is not a workflows-and-wireframes role. It’s a leadership role (though not necessarily a management role). It is a systems role — UX brings humanity to systems design and engineering. UX is a fundamentally synthetic role, not just coordinating these distinct activities, but helping realize a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. And while a UX Designer uses design approaches, they are not for typical design outcomes.

So, what does this person do?

The UX Designer doesn’t sit in a chair and shout “action!” (Actually, neither does the director. That’s usually what an assistant director does.) In order to support the orchestration of organizational resources to deliver great experiences, there are a set of activities I see UX designers leading.

User Insights

At the heart of great user experience is a deep understanding of the user, and the UX Designer should lead the development of insights that will help a company deliver better experiences. I’m calling out “user insights” distinct from “user research” — not all user insights are gleaned from user research, nor should the UX Designer necessarily be the user research lead. If user research is being conducted, the UX Designer should make sure to understand it well enough to be able to understand and prioritize the insights which will subsequently drive the design and development work.

Ideation and Concept Generation

Driven by user insights and other sources of inspiration, the UX Designer leads the team in coming up with ideas and concepts to address user’s behaviors, motivations, and context. There are many ways this can happen — sketching, brainstorming, bodystorming, improv, prototyping. The UX Designer identifies the most productive approaches, and then, as ideas emerge, filters out the less effective ones, and helps refine and evolve the great ones.

Experience strategy and vision

Perhaps the single most important responsibility for the UX Designer is to develop a clear experience strategy, and craft a compelling vision. An experience strategy specifies how a product or service will be successful from the perspective of user experience. A common part of experience strategy are design principles that help drive decision making.

Essential to helping a team understand how to realize an experience strategy is the creation of an experience vision. An experience vision provides a ‘north star’ for the product development team, helping them understand where they’re heading, and inspiring them to get there. These often take the form of prototypes — my favorite experience vision is Deborah Adler’s masters thesis for a new kind of pill bottle, dubbed SafeRX, which lead directly to Target’s ClearRX. I’ve had some success with illustrated scenarios of future experiences (either hand-drawn, or photographed). “Concept videos” inevitably seem like overkill and are usually never worth it.

Experience planning

It’s not sufficient to simply have a vision. And it’s typically not feasible, nor desirable to hold out on launching something until the complete vision can be realized. A UX Designer develops a plan for how to get from a current state to this desired future. What are in V1, V2, V3 along the way to the promised V4? Brandon’s Cake Model of Product Strategy shows how experience planning differs from typical product planning, because of its insistence on something experientially desirable at each stage.

Team Facilitation

While a visionary and a leader, the UX Designer must be a strong facilitator as well. There’s no way one person is going to have all the best ideas, so it’s up to the UX Designer to get the best from a broad, cross-functional team. Facilitation is less a discrete activity than a responsibility throughout a project. There will be a lot of things activities to facilitate, including branding exercises, customer value proposition articulation, tangible futures, and ideation and concept generation.

Oversight and coordination

This is the ongoing making-it-real of the experience strategy and vision. The UX Designer engages throughout the entire process, and makes sure that the user experience is never being compromised. If circumstances arise that force changes, the UX Designer leads the discussion to make sure that the new solution still adheres to the overall strategy. The UX Designer must sweat every detail, and, yes, occasionally be a jerk about it. As Charles Eames said, “The details are not the details. They make the design.”

What does this all mean?

My call for making the UX profession a strategic, planning, and coordinating one is not original. Here’s how Donald Norman, who coined “user experience” as we now think of it, framed it in 1995:

We describe the role of the “User Experience Architect’s Office”, which works across the divisions, helping to harmonize the human interface and industrial design process across the divisions of Apple and ATG.

The need Don recognized 17 years ago not only still remains, but is far more acute. As we’ve shifted from a world of standalone products to one of connected services, the increased complexity only makes poorer experiences likelier to arise.

Most people calling themselves “UX Designers” are not. They are interaction designers and information architects. These are perfectly laudable practices in their own right, but if “UX Design” is going to contribute meaningfully in this connected world, it can no longer be bound up in the constituent disciplines from which it emerged, but instead must embrace a new mandate to ensure the delivery of great user experiences regardless of where those experiences take place.

 

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.

$1 Billion is Ludicrous, So…

it suggests that there are things going on that we do not understand. It could be that Facebook is buying authenticity (which would be ironic), or it could be a rational calculation of value per user, but I suspect something else is going on. I have two theories.

1. The Instagram guys really didn’t want to sell.

They had made something because they loved it. They wanted to see where it would go. They wanted to make something meaningful. They didn’t want to join an internet giant, or they would have already. So Facebook kept upping and upping the price until they couldn’t, in good conscience, turn it down. Everyone has a price. Mine would be much less than that.

This was my initial thought, but then as I thought more about it, I came up with the second theory. This is not based on any evidence, besides some inkling into human nature.

2. Instagram was the object in a dick-swinging bidding war.

There are exactly four companies who would have gotten into this tussle: Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft. Instagram had hit upon something that none of them had yet to master: the intersection of mobile, social, and photos. Facebook gets photos and social, but has a weak mobile experience. Google has Android, but Picasa and G+ have not gotten serious traction. Apple gets mobile and photos (look at what they’re investing in the camera of the iPhone), but get social about as well as Ted Kaczynski. Microsoft needs to get traction — Instagram on Windows Phone could help make that platform legit.

So you have 4 players, hoards of cash, and a company that is in this sweet spot where they could augment any of these players perfectly. And once they start sniffing around, well, then testosterone kicks in. Zuckerberg, Page, and Ballmer are not meek folks (I suspect Cook isn’t either, but he doesn’t have that kind of chest-beating presence). The initial logic of the business deal morphs into a matter of testicular fortitude. And, because the others are interested, the deal turns from being one about acquiring a potential asset, and becomes one of preventing the competition from acquiring that asset. And the bidding gets out of hand, until you get to the point where a company with 13 employees and a fat AWS account (or however their stuff is stored) is somehow offered $1 billion.

Anyway. A theory.

The thing that I fear most is a total misreading of the reasons behind Instagram’s success, and the inevitable launch of a thousand “mobile app” companies trying to get on Facebook’s radar. As others have pointed out, Instagram was great because it was built on passion and care for the product itself. It was not a calculating or mercenary play. But now we’ll see countless hours of creativity and productivity pissed away on folks pursuing “the next Instagram” in a sad mini-Gold Rush.

Seeking: Candidates for a Service Design Internship at Inflection

I am looking for a graduate student intern to conduct a service design internship at Inflection this summer. This person would help me uncover, craft, and articulate a broader service strategy for our offerings, tying together marketing, sales, business development, product design, and member services. You must be familiar with the tools and techniques of service design (customer journey maps, blueprints, etc. etc.)

If you are interested, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!

Oddly nostalgic: the passing of the printed Encyclopædia Britannica

For as long as I can remember, if I didn’t know something, I’d look it up. The age of the internet has turned me into a habitual Googler, but as a kid, it was books — most often the dictionary, occasionally the encyclopedia.

And that encyclopedia? It was the Britannica. I don’t remember exactly how old I was when we got it (12, I think, as we had this 1985 version), but it had a prominent place in our little home. Leather bound. Tiny type. And pages upon pages of facts.

Owning it was definitely an investment on our family’s part. Economically, we were lower-middle class (socio-economically, fairly solid middle class). We were not an acquisitive household, saving for my dad’s predilection for VCRs. But when it came to my education, my capability to learn, my access to knowledge, we did not spare expenses. We bought a set outright, which cost $1,249 at the time (which, according to this calculator is $2676.77 in today’s dollars).

Now, I’m typically not one to wring my hands at the death of the printed book. Long ago I wrote about the benefits of ebooks, and this was particularly true for reference works. So I surprised myself at being affected by the news that the new editions of The Encyclopædia Britannica will no longer be available in print form. Most books are transient things, read once, placed on a shelf, and largely forgotten. The Britannica, though, was a different thing altogether, and key to the experience was its gravity (both figurative and literal). It was a physical presence in our house. Heck, it probably weighed more than my mom.

There’s something to the tangibility of information that allows you to grasp its scope. Clearly, what we now have access to at our fingertips is far greater, and I will never suggest “things were better then,” but I do think what we’re missing, and what my children will definitely miss, is a sense of the real scale of knowledge. Our computers and screens have rendered this information as weightless and abstract, and I wonder if this literal lack of gravity will lead to a sense of a figurative lack of (informational) gravity.