Design Technologists will transform your creative process — if you let them

by Emil Wasberger, Design Technologist at Topp

Designer + Developer. It’s a pairing as natural as right and left hand, or the two sides of a coin: both are necessary to create great things, but they’re also very distinct. The tech world has come to realize that coding expertise alone isn’t enough to deliver a great user experience, so there’s been a rush to bring design talent into the fold. That’s a good thing. We’ve even acknowledged, mostly, that it’s not enough to build an app or device and then hand it over to a design team to make it pretty. Design should drive the vision.

What if the traditional designer/developer dichotomy is undermining our creative process?

But what if the traditional designer/developer dichotomy is now undermining our creative process? Today, great user experience is often integrative, bringing together objects and apps, products and services, touch screens, wearables, voice interaction, data, sensors…all into a seamless whole. In an environment like this, a design team that explores ideas visually and hands them off to a dev team is working at a severe disadvantage.

A Design Technologist.

Enter the Design Technologist (I’m one of them). There are various names for this role, which has been around in some form for nearly a decade, but its underlying skill set is well established: sensitivity to design intent and user experience, coupled with the ability to write code, analyze technical requirements, work with big data streams, and build prototypes. That last capability — prototyping — is worth particular attention.

We build a lot of prototypes at Topp, both digital and physical, just as many other design studios do. In the modern design landscape, prototyping is indispensable as a creative problem-solving technique. And with Design Technologists in the studio, it becomes far more powerful: in addition to sketching a new concept on paper or making a visual mockup, a design team with a competent DT can also explore interactive or physical possibilities directly, with rapid prototypes that can be worn, held, launched, tapped, or talked to.

Treating a Design Technologist as just a skilled pair of hands leaves a lot of potential creativity on the table.

But as useful as this is, we’ve come to realize that just viewing a Design Technologist as an exceptionally skilled pair of hands leaves a lot of potential creativity on the table. More than anything, this is a function of the assumptions we make.

There’s a common understanding that anyone good at things like programming and electronics is necessarily a linear thinker, obsessed with efficiency and technical mastery. To write good code or wire up a breadboard, we need to “think like machines,” valuing rationality above all and constantly striving for the optimized solution. From this perspective, creativity and intuition are distractions at best, often at odds with good practice.

A good designer can turn any tool into an instrument of exploration.

But we know from experience that a good designer can turn any tool into an instrument of exploration. Some of us use Sketch to build infographics; some of us mock up apps using Keynote; I even know of one guy who made a video game out of an Excel spreadsheet. When you know how the tool works, and how to use it well, you can use it however you like. The key is to place design goals above commonly accepted standards of the tool’s limitations.

An interactive prototype can open up possibilities that more traditional exploration might never see.

This is also true of programming and electronics. Once you’ve learned the syntax of C, or understood how a Newton-Raphson approximation of a polynomial works, you’re no longer constrained to necessarily use it in the “right” way. Code, algorithms and circuits have the potential to be “misused”, just as Sketch can be, provided the person using them is comfortable enough to break with a traditional developer/technologist mindset.

A Design Technologist who’s made this leap can literally transform a design studio. Everyone’s perspective is unique, of course, but a DT’s is usually grounded in a love of technology and a desire to push its capabilities. It’s also informed by hard-earned experience in software development, applying algorithms to real contexts, working with unpredictable data sets, and walking the fine line between abstract efficiency and real world user behavior.

A capable, creative Technologist can point out possibilities that might be invisible to other designers.

This unique perspective means that design conversations tend to go differently when a DT is in the room. Contrary to stereotype, it’s often a broader conversation — a capable, creative Technologist can point out opportunities that might be invisible to others, because they have a fuller grasp of a technology’s capabilities and unexploited potential.

Prototyping an IoT experience using Noodl.

On a recent client project, for example, we wanted to develop an image gallery using a dynamic layout that would display as many pictures as possible without scrolling, but with minimal cropping. It’s a complex problem to solve manually, but exactly what recursive algorithms were made for, letting us rapidly iterate thousands of variations to find the ideal one. With this tool in our design kit, we were able to create a user experience far better than anything possible with traditional design tools. It’s a “technical” creative solution, in the sense that it relies on a lot of automated processing — but then, so does Photoshop, when you look under the hood.

This is just one of literally hundreds of examples in Topp’s recent history, of collaborative problem-solving that leverages technology as an exploratory tool. In the hands of a capable DT, code, APIs and algorithms become creative sandboxes, to the benefit of our clients and ultimately their users. As these technologies permeate every aspect of user experience, whether physical, digital or service-based, it’s an approach we expect will become industry standard in the next few years.

But it also prompts an interesting long-term question: when technology is a design medium, how is a Design Technologist different from a designer? I’m comfortable being a DT for the time being, but it’s likely that before too long we’ll just be considered Designers, albeit with a particular kind of tool box. And we’re not the only ones. As user experiences become more and more integrative, there’s room at the designer’s table for a wider range of skill sets than most of us can currently imagine.

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