Designers are Tech’s Newest Superstars- Apply Design Thinking with Them

Yes, the headline’s a little glib- superstars exist in every profession and superstar developers are still of paramount importance. That said, there are notable trends and forces further elevating the importance of design talent to a technology enterprise:

  1. Software is easier than ever to build and distribute
    1. hence the buyer has more choices
    2. so it’s a quality game
    3. and good design increases product quality
  2. The proposition that ‘design thinking’ can and should be universally applied to increase competitiveness is gaining traction
  3. The supply of trained, professional designers is relatively constant in the short and medium term.

For a successful tech business, you have to have a compelling idea and a product development team you can collaborate with to execute it. But increasingly that’s not enough- you need design talent to take your product from great to awesome. The balance of this post focuses on how to create fertile ground for good design to influence your work.

What is design thinking?

The core idea with design thinking is that you’re applying empathy and creativity to what you do. Being a ‘maker’, as David Kelley of IDEO puts it, is also important- another aspect of thinking like a designer is not being afraid to tinker with prototypes to articulate what you’re thinking.

Take the simple, non-tech example of sewing scissors, the kind with contoured handles that your hand gracefully slips into. Some designer thought up those scissors and got them built. They had empathy for sewers, who need very precise control of their scissors across a variety of activities. Then they designed and built the scissors in question, possibly through several evolutionary iterations. You don’t necessarily have to be the person to create the contours of the scissors or produce them. But there’s nothing stopping you from being the person that goes out and talks to sewers, asking and observing with empathy and interest, to determine what product they need. And, really, what’s stopping you from taking some clay or putty and making a crude model of what contoured scissors might look like? The next section describes a few specific things you can do to put yourself in a position to think like a designer.

How do you apply design thinking as an individual?

If your team practices agile, you have a ready-made platform. One of agile’s best properties is its emphasis on user personas and stories. These encourage participants to think empathically about their users. The tests tied to stories are a reasonably good way to start organizing your thinking about creating the right user experience. If you’d like to learn more about agile, chapters 3 and 6 of Starting a Tech Business aren’t a bad place to start and they’ll give it to you in perspective with a few related items that may help your understanding. Beyond that, Greg Cohen’s book on agile for product managers is great if you want an extended introduction. If you’re wondering how to construct good personas and stories, you may want to introduce yourself to the general rubric of product design.

If the general rubric of design is new to you, Donald Norman’s seminal book The Design of Everyday Things is a great introduction (in fact, that’s where I got the sewing scissors example). If you want something quick and inspirational, his essay ‘The Rise of the Small’ is also very good. Chapter 3 of Starting a Tech Business has specific examples around design for the example company and product the book describes.

If you’re looking for something more tactical, the sub-topics you’ll probably want to cover are user experience design and graphic design. For the former, Jennifer Tidwell’s book ‘Designing Interfaces’ is a good place to start. For graphic design, David Kadavy’s ‘Design for Hackers’ is a good introduction (the book does not presuppose that you’re an engineer).

You may find you want to learn basic programming so that you can tinker, building prototypes to describe your ideas. If all you want to do is build prototypes, Balsamiq is a great tool for wireframes that doesn’t require much more than attention to detail and some perseverance. Ratcheting up a little, your basic HTML/CSS/Javascript tools are pretty accessible and handy for interactive prototypes. If you want to learn programming, Codeacademy is a great place to start. The Khan Academy also has a computer science section with some interesting topics. That said, if you’re starting without a design or engineering background, I recommend starting with some basic fluency in product design fundamentals. If you decide you want to pick up some programming knowledge that will help you narrow down what exactly you want to learn.

There are stories about individuals who learn a little programming and bootstrap a company- it’s doable and it happens more than you might think. Think big. But more likely your exploration of these topics will give you fluency that’s going to help you do your job better, or a bigger job. Make sure you use your new fluency to listen as much as you talk- you’ll probably learn most of what you know from working with experts on the job.

The diagram below describes this advice in simple terms:

As a manager, how do you help your team apply design thinking?

Mirroring development of the individual, getting agile in place in your team is a great place to start. If you’re outside engineering and you’re engineering team isn’t inclined towards agile, I still recommend the development of personas and stories for descriptive purposes. Even if you’re still obliged to deliver your inputs in the form of requirements, the personas and stories will only help enrich your descriptions. See resources in the previous section.

Encourage more of your team to build prototypes to show what they mean. Encourage free form discussions around a defined objective or question. Discourage devil’s advocates- instead encourage alternative ideas. Try brainstorming sessions, but note that without good preparation on the part of the participants and (even with) good structure from the moderator, they often devolve into a question of whoever’s talking the loudest.

Most importantly, be your own guinea pig. Depending on your own areas of expertise, develop yourself and see what works and apply it to your team from there. I myself am a tinkerer and I encourage an expansion along the lines of the diagram above with all our new hires at Leonid. Professional development is a lead-the-horse to water type thing, so don’t be disappointed if not everyone is endeavors to acquire these new skill sets. That said, some will and even if they pick up just a little in a relevant new topic, they’ve just made themselves and the company much better off.

How do you evaluate design talent for hire?

There’s no substitute for an experienced, professional designer with a strong track record in your area. You may not need someone full time, or may not be able to afford it if you’re bootstrapping the venture. Regardless, try to form a working relationship with a freelancer or design firm as early as possible, even if the initial engagement you have/can afford is small. A stitch in time saves nine.

If you don’t have design talent in house, you have to do your own evaluations, which can be tricky. The hard thing about evaluating design talent (as a non-designer) is that you don’t get the broken-or-working type criteria you can use to (in part) evaluate the development of software. The easier thing is that the audience for their work is more universal- you can look at their portfolio and you’ll have at least some intuitive sense of whether it looks ‘good’. Just like technical talent, don’t underestimate the importance of their team-orientation and ability to help you understand what you want. Ask the usual questions about how they’d approach what you want to get done. Having armchair designers second guessing them is doing to discourage good talent but asking relevant questions with some fluency will signal that you’re someone who will appreciate good work. Better yet, do they ask you some pointed questions about your objectives and process? That’s a good sign.