Photo credit: m. godfrey —

Design and Banter 5

Matt Soczywko
Oct 16, 2013 · 8 min read

Tuesday saw the return of Design and Banter to Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes; an informal way for designers to meet and share ideas as they are often isolated as creatives in their workplaces.

The fifth event, or ‘Five Minutes to Live’, as it was dubbed, was the biggest event yet and for the first time, two of the three speakers were female (Pow! Take that, pesky rumours of sexism in tech that won’t go away).

The format of D&B is simple: 3 talks, 7 minutes a piece. Each is by a designer or someone talking about design, with the talks usually evenly split between a war story, a process we can try out, and some food for thought. After each we get to ask silly questions, and the whole shebang rounds off with beers and bowling.

The first talk came from Alice Tyler from Mint Digital who spoke about their project ‘4 Days to Launch’, a rapid prototyping service to build a product with a brand faster, which represents an exciting solution to how agencies can work more closely with clients.

When given the brief by the client, Mint prepare for a four day intensive process (with a fixed budget from the client) to build a working prototype, where the prototype is unveiled on the fifth day. This working prototype is then taken by the client to be shown off internally, getting buy-in for the next phase of development.

The benefits of this process are that when you’re working directly with representatives of a client, you shorten feedback loops to almost nothing as the client remains active in the process throughout, so nothing is a surprise. They never go away to wonder how the process is going (and how their money is being spent).

The agency and client work together as a team in a shared space; they get lunch together and spend the whole week together and it’s this bonding element that Mint Digital learnt was crucial to the process working.

‘You have to make sure you go for lunch with the client, and if you can, go drinking with them. We did this with another agency, and there was a lot of drinking.’

An obvious question might be, how would this work with a really massive corporate client where there’s a much higher potential for difficulty? Luckily, Mint had recently worked successfully with the terrifying all-conquering grocery monolith that is Tesco. Alice talked in detail about how they worked with Tesco on a project to visualise Clubcard data for customers and make it easier for them to use their points.

The team from Mint spitballed lots of ideas to be prepared for the four days (Alice stressed how important this initial research and thinking is). The stronger ideas were gradually whittled down on the first day with Tesco’s representatives. They went from 9 ideas everyone liked best which could be described easily in two sentences, down to 6 ideas which were visually realised in what looked like wireframes, ready for user testing.

Mint and the client then take it in turns user testing in pairs, with people from the agency and the client, to get feedback on the ideas and with the aim to give the developers something they can start coding on the second day. The aim with the user experience was to involve the user in a loop; give them context to aid discovery which in turn would trigger action, taking the user to the next step and so on.

After the four days, Tesco went back to about 50 (!) decision makers internally with their prototype, to get sign-off for the next steps. They were reportedly very happy with both the prototype and the process of delivery, and they are keen to repeat it themselves internally. What they built with Tesco is still top secret as it hasn’t launched yet, but keep your eyes peeled.

Next up was Ayesha Moarif who is a researcher and designer at Ustwo who describes herself as a ‘practising human’, which fed into her ideas about building apps and solutions for real humans, rather than creating ‘human-centric design’, which can unfortunately tend to see people as human-shaped data points rather than humans.

Her talk was about ‘My experience of a better life vs. apps and solutions I design for a better life’. She spoke about when designers think about building good apps they think about how they should make us ‘better’ — they should be more convenient, handle our data better, be faster or more efficient — without stopping to think ‘Is this good?’

Ayesha’s next point resonated well with the audience — ‘how can I be more good and less bad?’ Digital designers and their ilk are uniformly obsessed with writing lists and to-dos, setting goals and getting more efficient. I can name several who use apps every day to record and optimise every minutiae of their life — how many hours they’ve slept and how many steps they’ve taken, or a new diet they’ve discovered that unlocks the secret of eternal life. We hope this self-optimisation will lead us to our goals;

‘It will happen when I achieve X. I could have it if only Y.’

What we consider to be the building blocks of being ‘better’: saving time, gratification, planning, control and mastery are actually counter to, rather than in service of, what makes us happy: savouring time, gratitude, presence, compassion and mystery.

These make us better (happier) humans and taking this sense of better-ness as a personal practice on board, we can conceptualise how better-ness can flow from good design.

‘Human-centered design doesn’t mean answering the needs that people share, it means creating a valuable experience.

‘Your own insight deepens what being ‘human’ means, and you’re aware of what part of being human to design or not.’

Perhaps designers are sentimental at heart, which is why they take to Instagram and Foursquare much more than life-hacking apps, they want to record where they’ve been and what they’ve seen, not what time they woke up yesterday.

The third and final speaker was Rik Lomas, founder of Steer, whose talk was ‘How to be a graphic designer without losing your control’.

His comfortable, animated style betrayed an experience of public speaking, or perhaps stand-up. He was speaking from his position as a current startup founder or ‘father of a family, with a wife [co-founder] and two children [employees]’ who had worked at agencies previously. He explained why he thinks the freedom and ownership that comes from working at a startup has serious upsides that ultimately outweigh the benefits of working at an agency.

The crowd was a roughly even split between startup and agency folk, so he got everyone going and laughing with his irreverent, but ultimately heartfelt, case for working at a startup.

Client == more fun

Rick started with a developer joke to sum up the main bugbear of working at agencies, the dreaded clients. I was reminded of what a friend in an ad agency said to me recently, ‘The reason you see shitty ads is because the client wanted it that way.’

For digital designers and creatives especially, clients complicate and extend the process of building and developing by repeatedly changing their minds and giving approval and then taking it away again, because what the client says, goes. Except that the client isn’t always logical, or even sure, about what they want.

Conversely the process of building something at a startup was summed up by Rik as thus:

‘You have an idea. You design it. You build it. You launch. Boom.’

The added steps when working with a client at an agency of repeatedly seeking sign-off is completely of the hands of the average designer because of the bureaucratic chain of command that must be maintained, lest you say the wrong thing to the delicate client, and capsize the whole relationship.

‘At a startup you are always just one step from the client or customer.’

At a startup, you can see what the customer is doing by looking in Mixpanel or Intercom, and you can IM or email them, you can even call them for some feedback.

Rik then brought the working relationship with developers into the equation, presenting either a marginally controversial opinion, or a complete fantasy, depending on your perspective, by suggesting that ‘developers at startups care about design’ whereas at agencies they are less likely to, as they are so ringfenced. Some of the wry looks in the crowd suggested Rik has had limited experience working with freelance contractors, or maintained his idealism, when he suggests that ‘at a startup everyone gives a shit’ because of the shared risk.

This shared higher risk of the startup, where you don’t have a big client picking up the bill, is balanced out by the potential for much higher rewards when you have ownership of something. I can definitely agree with that, putting your stamp on a new idea is an amazing feeling, and you can learn a hell of a lot at a startup by being forced to take on other roles.

‘Avoid the no business model startups!’

Rik rounded up his talk by giving us some of the downsides of working at a startup, and warned us that if a startup hasn’t got a plan of how they will make any money, chances are they won’t. Also, unlike the relative consistency of an agency, the way that startups can grow (and shrink) can be awkward as you’re not always working with the same people, and you’re not as protected from other responsibilities as you would be in an agency either. At a startup, individuals tend to share equally in responsibility for a company, so the potential for ‘stress, anxiety and/or depression’ grow. Make of that ‘and/or’ what you will.

Despite the potential for panic attacks and premature death, startups win out because they offer you a ‘life changing experience’, and isn’t that what it’s all about, man? At this point, I was reminded of a quote by an ad exec bigshot (I forget who) who said, ‘No agency is more than two clients away from closing down on any given day’. You can equally switch ‘two clients’ for ‘four months’ and the point holds: Perhaps creatives at agencies are in a more precarious situation than they realise, and they should take the leap to a startup, just as startup folk should do some time at an agency.

Disclosure: Gearoid and Sam, the organisers of Design and Banter, and all-round lovely chaps, are chums of mine and we’ve worked on a number of projects together. They can probably coerce me into taking this down if they really don’t like what I write. Well I won’t stand for it! Which is lucky, because the night really was great fun, honest.

To nominate a speaker for a future Design + Banter, head here.

    Matt Soczywko

    Written by

    (pronounced So-Chiv-Ko) Marketer. Strategist. Copywriter.

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