The real problem behind “Designer Duds”

It is not the designers.

This week a text by Mills Baker Designer Duds: Losing Our Seat at the Table took the web by storm. Read the text, but I will give you the short summary. Mills is voicing the concern that designers are in the threat of no longer being considered valuable so to speak, that designers are losing seat at the table when The Big Boys (CEO, CTO, … CXX) talk about a Product. Essentially, after Apple’s success various companies started poaching & recruiting designers, and from 2010 till 2013 these designers were hard at work in all those big companies. Facebook, Dropbox, Square, Path, Twitter, … However it is quite obvious today that each of those big companies made products that are simply put failures. Nobody is using Facebook Paper, Dropbox Carousel has no downloads, Path is a desert, Square is looking for a buyer, etc.

Mills is concerned that designers that were hired to make great products failed and that this potentially means designers are in danger to be cast aside from the “seat at the table”.

Mills is correct in assessing the outcome of these projects — they are quite a barren deserts — but where Mills is wrong is the initial premise and following that the main bulk of his thoughts on this subject. He exposed a good question and a good topic, but exposed it from the wrong angle and with the wrong starting thought, wrong premise to the whole thing.

A premise that designers had a seat at the table to begin with.

Spoiler alert: they didn’t.

You see, the products in question (Paper, Carousel, Square, …) were all, more or less, handed down to designers from the upper echelons of corresponding companies.

Designers had absolutely no seat at the table when Facebook Paper, for example, was concieved. Mark (or someone at the top) came with the idea, and designers were invited into the whole project about 3 weeks too late.

If a designer was there when Important Person at Facebook™ got the idea to make Paper, designer would surely say:

Well, umm, what problem are we exactly solving with a product that relies on perfect pictures, relies on people writing exactly 3 sentence long status updates because otherwise each card looks dull, and us making posting complicated and out-of-sight? None? We solve no problems that our users have? OK then, how about we simply do not make Paper?

Designers working at Dropbox, Facebook and the rest did amazing job. They did stellar job in the working parameters that were given to them. Handed over to them. What was wrong is the very project itself, as well as the whole chain of events that preceded it. The initial business idea was shit. Designers did marvelous job on top of that shitty idea.

One of the rebuttals here could be:

Well, give those products some time, perhaps they can grow to be better. Foursquare pivoted a few times from the initial idea to today’s product, just give them time.

No. You are wrong. There is no pivot that can make Paper be a good product. A solid pivot on Paper is called Facebook App, and it already exists. Paper is visually great, but is simply a product that should never have been made.

And here lies the biggest problem with designers in these big companies.

They hired designers to keep them as pets.

Designers are an afterthought, they are there simply to prettify the product. Whereas the starting role of designers should be The Voice of the User at the table when CXX folks are discussing the product. Designers should be The Users and simply call bullshit when they see the Product in question has no value for the end user (or there is some other cardinal flaw). Only if designers, people who empathize with Users and who solve problems, give thumbs up— then they jump into their next mode of working; making the product awesome, work well, be beautiful, slick and, well … designed.

I mean, come on, Apple tells their secrets to building products to everyone!

No, no, no, no!

Have a designer that sits at the table, and have him say “no” when the product simply does not solve anyone’s problem, when technology is still immature and could not support the idea. Sir Jonathan Ive can obviously say no. How many other designers in other top companies can say no and veto stupid ideas? Not many I bet.

Does this deserve to exist?

Another free lesson from Apple. Does Samsung Gear deserve to exist? No, it does not. It solves no real problems users have (please, notifications on wrist is a solution nobody needs) and introduces a host of new problems. Who the hell wants a wrist watch that has to be charged constantly? Swiss watch makers figured out this long ago and made Automatic winding mechanisms simply for the fact people did not want to (or simply forgot to) wind their watch. Casio has Tough Solar technology embedded in more and more of their watches which makes sure your battery never runs dry. And Samsung now figured out people will want to charge their wrist watch? Where was designer to say NO! to this? Samsung Gear is a product that does not deserve to exist.

Automatic winding mechanism. Do you see this Samsung? Can you learn something from this, from the people that are making “wearables” for the past few hundred years?


Which leads me to a rock solid example. Square. Square is one of those companies that have stellar designers, yet they seem to be sinking. I spent quite some time in California last year, in Palo Alto and San Francisco, and whole of the Valley. As a designer coming from Europe it was cool to see Square out in the wild. I actually bought a few products through Square simply to see what would happen.

Then I flew home, back to Ireland. I went to the store and bought some bread & milk, and swiped my card. And there was absolutely no difference between Square and Regular Old POS Machine for me. I swiped the card, entered PIN, and boom, sale complete.

So, ummm … why again would I need Square? What is the benefit for me as the user? None, that’s right.

OK, so Square can differentiate on the side of the other user, the merchant. How can they differentiate? Primarily by price. Square’s differentiator versus American Express, VISA, MasterCard is that they are, apparently, cheaper.

Two problems there.

First one is obvious — they are not doing well! They are sinking! Perhaps there is a reason other big card players are charging more? Hm?

Second one is a bit more sinister; say Square succeeds and gets massive adoption. What stops other big players to simply drop their price and call it a day? I mean, if successful, Square would obviously be an example that it is possible to be cheaper. Others could then dissect Square business model, see how can they lower their cost, and just leap over Square.

Let’s say you are a designer at Square before Square revealed the main product. You secretly work for the whole day in the office designing web site, Square reader, processes, entire User Experience, everything. And then after work you go to the local grocery store, buy a can of Coke and swipe your card at the POS there. Doesn’t some bell ring in your head at this time:

Wait … I just used the old product we are striving to make better, but this was not so painful for me as the user, so what the hell am I making then? What problem am I solving? I should call bullshit.

And that is the real problem.

Designers at the majority of big companies are not sitting at the table at all and are simply hired as pets.

By the way, I do not think anyone at Path should be blamed for its failure. The initial idea was a valid idea at the time, but time & market proved otherwise. Whole of social networking is still in infancy, and what Path did is simply prove to us that their particular model is not something people want.
Snapchat on the other hand — people want that.

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