The Designer’s Angst

We have built this product, and are looking for a UX designer who can ‘Make it Look Beautiful’.

This would be the content of I do not know how many mails I have received in the past from Product Owners, Entrepreneurs, Cool Startup Guys, Project (Product) Managers at large companies, etc. I have had no problems with that, except when it started getting repetitive and, as a result frustrating at times. More often than not, I would reply back with the question whether you are looking for a Visual designer or a UX Designer. The reply would always be UX Designer, but in reality, I knew that they wanted a purely Visual Designer. Needless to say, I would often end up refusing to work with that client because more often than not the UX suggestions would be discarded.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 18.50.10

Over the past few years, I ended up teaching at an Exec MBA program, mentoring students taking courses in design both online and offline, taking workshops at corporates and speaking about Design at various conferences and events. My interactions with lots of Product Leaders, Product Owners, Product Managers and people who want to start their own Product Companies gave some very interesting insights. From being clueless about UX to the classic misunderstanding that UX is UI, to not understanding the value of research, to being driven by beautiful things! I also attended numerous startup events, spoke to numerous investors, visited a couple of accelerators to understand where the problem is.

I come to the conclusion, that in India (and to some extent perhaps around the world), we face a huge supply-demand gap. There are few (good) designers, and the demand has suddenly risen; for design is cool and the buzz word in the industry today. The role of the designer in the industry itself has changed over the years. However, the notion of what constitutes a good UX is still missing widely.

It is for sure that almost every Product Leader now at least knows that design is ‘important’ and should not be ignored. But not everyone is sure about when to invest in it and how to go about it. These are perhaps the greatest challenge that a Product Leader faces.

For some this engagement with a designer comes from the inception, while some get them too late. How do these things impact the team? With the introduction of new processes that teams follows, how does the Designer with a penchant for the waterfall way of working adapt and fit into it.

With the plethora of resources available, picking up the skills and knowledge is not that difficult. So why does the UX designer still demand a high value?

Make it Look Beautiful! is a handbook for Product Leaders and Designers to collaborate better to create amazing products. Over the course of the different chapters in this book, I would write about my discussions on various aspects of design, product management, innovation and research.

The rise of Product Design(ers)

When I graduated from the Department of Design at IIT Guwahati, back in 2005, the graduates were given a Bachelors in Design degree with a specialisation in either Communication Design (CD) or Product Design (PD). At the end of the first semester, the students had to chose either one of them.

I graduated from Communication Design, as I had an interest towards Graphics, film, photography. It is an interesting story how I ended up choosing CD. My fascination for typography, and the dislike for Mechanics (a subject that Product Designers had to study), made the choice very clear.

When we graduated almost everyone in the batch had a job. But the interesting thing was that for many it was not in the discipline of design. A few of us had what was called User Interface Designer, Usability Engineer, or Some of my batchmates went on to study management, some into finance and some went on to take up positions and eventually a career track change to Software development. Design jobs were tough to find, and being a Product Designer, the one that made physical products were tougher.

Years have gone by and the term ‘Product Design’ and ‘Product Designer’ is something that I see appearing in resumes more frequently now. Our understanding of the product has evolved. From what was earlier seen only as physical objects, we now talk about products in relation to Software products. In the Tech industry, where I have had the most experience of working in, the term Product Design is used widely today. This could also be due to the rise of startups and entrepreneurs trying to build solutions.

Students in a workshop
Image from a recent workshop on User Experience @ Product Innovation Academy

As design educators, we also need to think about whether what we teach about Product design, have to be changed, or the fundamentals and philosophies of design will continue to remain and it is just a question of adapting your learning to what’s contemporary and the need of the industry.

When User Experience as a career choice became more popular you had people from varied backgrounds sign up. There were product designers, graphic designers, artists, content writers, philosophy majors, psychology majors, human factors specialists all vying for the position. The umbrella of User Experience was (is) so vast that it does end up taking a wide range of professionals.

In the days where Internet of things is going to become a more integral part of our lives, and omni-channel experience is what people are going to be looking for, the role of the product designer will be all the more critical. These augurs well for the discipline of User Experience.

We will eventually see it going one step ahead with not just thinking about products but also about the system in which the product is placed and delivers the experience.

The trends that are evident, point to the fact that the economy will be experience driven. The experiences will be provided through products. Product Designers will be higher in demand and will be expected to work closely with the Product managers and people from a wide range of capabilities and expertise, all in order to ensure he success of their products.

These are indeed exciting times in the field of UX.