Writing as a designer wasn’t something I imagined myself to be doing when, just four years ago, I had signed up for an analyst position at an investment firm. By the time this article finds its way to your hands, my boss would’ve likely received it along with my resignation letter. I’m moving from a great company to a great cause that I hope to sell to you in the next six minutes.
I was recently invited to a tech meet-up where I met with Mohammed Al-Hajeri, a software engineer. We talked about an application he’s been building to help home-run businesses organize customer orders and delivery. His inspiration was his sister’s business which started sailing smoothly after he set her up with the app. The story is all rosy, until he began to complain about how it was a hard sell to other home businesses whom didn’t see as much value in it. For a technology optimist like myself, this was difficult to accept.
Something isn’t Right
The Bloomberg news service ran an interesting story about a prediction made in 1965 by a U.S. Senate subcommittee that Americans would be enjoying 20-hour work weeks by the year 2000, thanks to the computer revolution. But that obviously didn’t happen. Although there is evidence that the revolution is in fact arriving on schedule (see Moore’s law, 1965), it is our adoption that hasn’t taken place at the rate that we had hoped for.
We now have more computing power in our pocket than NASA had when they sent astronauts to the moon. But what good is it when applications still struggle to find their place in our businesses, schools, hospitals, and government?
In contrast to how much power we carry around with us, we still find many parts of our world reminiscent of the past, perhaps confirming William Gibson’s belief that “the future is already here; it is just unevenly distributed.”
Two Berkeley economists, Bronwyn Hall and Beethika Khan, seem to have summed up what’s happening elegantly:
“Unlike the invention of a new technology, which happens as a single event or jump, the diffusion of that technology usually appears as a continuous and rather slow process. Yet it is diffusion rather than invention that ultimately determines the pace of economic growth and the rate of change of productivity.”
The Divide Between Engineers and People
It is not hard to trace why we’re slow to adopt technology when you listen to an insider like Al-Hajeri talk about how software engineers often delve deep into the technical possibilities, paying very little attention to the user experience.
The outcome of the engineer-dominant model has been a recurring theme of technology businesses building applications that often go nowhere. Organizations under this model are promised efficiency and better results and so managers would get on board. But stubborn employees, being the end-users, would decide that it’s a chore. Initially we thought hey, maybe the staff weren’t trained enough. Or was it the user manuals that weren’t thick enough?
But then something incredible happened. We saw babies who haven’t learned to speak yet capable of using humanity’s most advanced piece of technology, the iPad.
So it seems that the bulk of failing applications tend to reduce one type of friction while creating another type of friction. And while engineers are clearly needed to eliminate the former type, it is the designer who is best equipped to prevent the latter.
Technology must be intricately weaved into our lives and workplaces and whoever is building it better know a thing or two about our habits and nature.
What Happens When Designers Bridge the Gap
Apple’s story is one evidence of the potential behind the designer-driven model. When Steve Jobs resigned shortly before his death, he left the power to call all the shots on products with Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief designer. This stands in clear contrast to the way traditional tech companies work.
Not convinced? Here’s another story about a venture capitalist, Enrique Allen, who saw the billions of value created by tech startups with designer co-founders. His Designer Fund’s website makes a reference to successes like YouTube, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter’s creator Jack Dorsey who’s profiled as “OCD about design.” Allen initially spent much of his energy mentoring startups about how to bring creative thinking and a respect for user experience to their company culture. But he figured that through his investment fund, which aims to bring designer CEOs to the tech startup scene, he would have better success in incorporating design into a company’s DNA. Allen goes on to say that “what we’re hoping to do is shift the paradigm of what design is. Design encompasses systems now, not just ‘making things look pretty.’”
If we look in other areas where progress is much needed, designers can play a crucial role in introducing technology. A recent survey discovered that most doctors in fact like digital technology, but their adoption levels have lagged their desire to use it. And Pat Wise, VP of Healthcare Systems, believes that “when technology is user-friendly and fits into the workflow of physicians, they clearly are early adopters.”
Make the Future Arrive Somewhere
User Experience (UX) designers are an emerging species with a dose of empathy and curiosity.
Empathy here is the capacity to be sensitive and vicariously experience the feelings and thoughts of the person we’re designing for without him or her explicitly communicating it.
When we’re designing interfaces for instance, empathy becomes the ability to resist the urge to fill the white space on the screen with more stuff. Cognitive science tells us that this is both stupid and disastrous.
Another common failure is when our assumptions in the beginning of a project turn out to be wrong. And let me tell you that they do most of the time. Yet we still overestimate our intelligence because it is easier than to dedicate weeks for research and fact-finding interviews. Genuine curiosity then becomes our only option to form real understanding.
Your goal could be to save a human soul by reducing tedious work to few clicks, or if you’re brave enough you’d dip in unchartered territory in health care, education or government.
Whatever it is that you care about, when you’re re-imagining its workflow, you have to understand the relevant constraints of the real world and tip-toe around the land mines to eventually arrive at an elegant solution that won’t break.
Join the movement if you’ve got the empathy and curiosity. If not, hire someone who does and listen to her. You’ll make the future arrive somewhere.
About the author:
Hamad is trained as an analyst in the investment sector, Hamad likes to explore problems and spot patterns. He’s also a change advocate who believes in the potential influence of design and the exponential reach of technology. He shifted careers to become a user experience designer for web and mobile applications. When he’s not working or learning more about his craft, he’s often busy reshaping his worldview, one controversial issue at a time. You can follow him in twitter @hamadmj and in tumblr @hamadmj.