In my last 20+ years as a designer (no need to be precise), design has transformed immensely. My initial dream as of student of bringing “emotional design” to products to the forefront has changed radically as technology has progressed and heralded the rise of Experience Design. This is my 20+ year history in design, and by extension a history of design in the digital age itself.
The 1980s: embracing technology
Even in the beginning, I embraced technology and idolized the magic of computers, growing together with my then best friend – the Macintosh IIx, part of the first wave of Apple computers in 1988. My heroes were David Carson – “the father of grunge” (Ray Gun magazine) – whose work in the 80s, without any technology, remains the best I’ve seen. And Neville Brody (The Face Magazine) known as the best graphic designer of his generation. It was the junction where design first met technology and gave us students the chance to choose what path we’d want to continue in. I chose digital.
Both of my heroes reflect my tremendous love for experimental design and the creation of new visual languages. Since those prosperous times, I’ve always pondered about the power of design and how to challenge the boundaries of innovative and experimental design versus the creation of minimalistic functional product design. I always leaned towards Human Centered Design–focusing about the user more than the product–even before it grew into a massive trend, and have tried to figure out the choices people make and their true needs and habits.
The 1990s: the age of Interactive Design
10 years later, I was unusually ready for the transition to Interactive Design. One day, we all woke up to discover we were interactive designers. All firms added the interactive prefix to their name, feeling swanky to be recognized as “interactive” companies all at work on their “new media” projects. We were all focusing on how products were interacting with their users. Our mantra those days was to be user-friendly and intuitive as every brand rushed to create their eBrand entities.
But there was a problem. The digital age was here but the infrastructure was plodding along way behind. We all struggled to create functional yet cutting edge design over broadband, wishing for a better day because bandwidth was just too slow. It was the year 2000, I had co-founded Clementina.net, and I was working on several broadband applications, British Telecom on their New WebTV gateway, HBO with their Sex & the City WebTV platform, Fox Broadcasting, Sony interactive and many more. We called them WebTV platforms, and the tech savvy called it OTV – Over the Top TV. Broadband back then was a big promise that collapsed together with the dot-com bubble.
The 2000s: faster speed enables [User] Experience Design
But disappointment didn’t last long and we found ourselves back on track with faster infrastructure and cutting-edge technologies that supported everything we ever dreamed of. Startups flourished and interactive designers woke up with a new title – User Experience Designer. The experience age was here. Our new hero was Steve Jobs and he showed us that design wasn’t just how things looked and felt – design was how things worked.
So, what’s UX really stand for? Most people don’t really grasp where UI (User Interface) begins and where UX (User Experience) ends and what it is all about. There is a symbiotic weave between the UI, UX and the design elaboration of a product and that’s the reason this territory proves to be so topsy turvy. They can overlap, be separated, or even be done together. It is actually taking the status “it’s complicated,” “in a relationship,” and “single,” into one status and trying to decipher what kind of relationship you have.
So, to try and make it simple even though it isn’t, UI is the advocate of the product needs and UX is the counselor for user behavior. But this explanation is misleading since UI needs to take in consideration the user needs too and the UX designs under the restrictions of the UI and technological needs. But it is not only UI, UX and design that are getting tangled, the picture is much more elaborate.
How Experience Design leads to great products
In our ubiquitous life of EEA (everything+everywhere+anytime) the definition of a product comes from so many stratums, from basic technological definitions through psychological behavioral human understandings to dynamic social relationships, and many more facets. Having said that, building a good product doesn’t need to be back-breaking. It doesn’t mean we need to aim for the perfect product with long exhausting internal iteration while burning out our resources and budget. It means we need to develop it enough to be ready to be shipped and tested. That’s our starting point.
So how do you get there? A great product is the outcome of great team that understands the value of working together from the very first moment of the idea. Think of it in terms of being agile, which means working together, continuously analysing the product, detailing the requirements, and iterating on design, development, and marketing with each key learning. The more this is done, the better a product the team will have in the end. So the natural product cycle should start with incubating everything together and incorporating it into a transparent workflow that continues to analyze, develop, and test it’s way over and over to a great product.
Another key element that will make this magical cycle faster is using the 80/20 principle, which suggests that most of your results will come from a few select activities. The smart people will see up front which 20% should be focused on that will lead them to 80% of the total results they want to see from their product. So think big, move fast and do everything in small steps.
Today: it’s all about Experience Design
Now going back to our UX question, you can now understand why there are fuzzy borders between the UI, UX and Design Specialist. They are all working together, or sometimes they are the same person, and that underscores the fact that today’s design is not only the front-end structure, shape, font, color, and style, but also designing for behavior change and potential impact on society. It’s about emotion, it’s about intuitive human behavior patterns, it’s about keeping it simple but outstanding and differentiated. It’s about the brand ecosystem. To sum it up, it’s all about the experience. Because, in the end we’re not selling a product, we are selling a feeling.
A perfect design doesn’t mean a perfect experience, which can lead to a poor product. And a perfect experience doesn’t mean it is well designed. When you are hooked to an app, whether it is your photos sharing app, your fun messaging app or your daily emails and search engine, it becomes your daily habit, an essential part of the fabric of your life. You have something valuable there and you feel like it’s your home.
So any change Google, Instagram, or Uber make to their branding doesn’t impact users’ relationships with the brands because their relationship is based on endless accumulated experiences. It is like a family member you love; even if he makes a ridiculous change in his life, like picking up dumpster diving or getting a tattoo sleeve, he is still your family.
So brands are our new relatives. Think I’m wrong? You spend more time on Facebook than you do with your parents. You’ve had a longer relationship with Gmail than you have had with your husband. We might as well change our relationship status to brands to “married,” accepting that brands won’t always be perfect and we’ll stay anyway because divorce is always messy.
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Design as we knew it 20 years ago doesn’t exist anymore. To make a great design nowadays a designer must be able to take a holistic approach to building a product, understanding and adapting to all new trends while building the infrastructure for a relationship between humans and products.
So until the next age arrives–whether it’s the BOT ecosystem, which might change our perception of what experience is, or something else–remember that what matters is not the color or shape, look or feel–a retro brown logo or snazzy bright colorful one–but the completeness of the experience, what users feel and remember, and what makes him come back again and again to build a long-term relationship with the product.