Process Is Process
Do you know what this image is? It’s a screen shot from an old game called Katamari Damacy. When you play this game, you control what is essentially a really sticky ball and roll it around a city. As you roll around, items stick to you and you get bigger and bigger until you become something like this. It's kind of a silly metaphor, but I think product designers with good process are like this ball. They absorb all the seemingly unrelated and arbitrary things around them and allow them to evolve their design process. They collect ideas and methodologies so that they can apply a high-level interdisciplinary philosophy to modern product design. Design process is about applying different ways of thinking. I'm going to talk about my own process and the different philosophies that have defined it.
The Artist — Design is about creating
When I was in high school I did a lot of graphic design. I made posters for events, I did design for a literary magazine, and I designed to simply express how I felt. What I hated about design was that I felt like I could never do it when I wanted to but I could only do it when I needed to; when I needed a moment of catharsis. I thought that being a designer meant that you had to sit in a room all day and come up with amazing ideas with only a blank canvas to start. I would put myself under so much pressure and pain until the only two things left in the world worth thinking about were me and my idea on how to layout that poster. But, not only did I come up with great ideas, I loved them. I felt deeply connected to them and driven by the fact that they felt part of me. Every piece of work I created this way had true emotional value. However, I still never felt like I could do that every day. The thought of being a designer scared me so much that instead of going to art school, I went to engineering school. Any designer with a decent job (hopefully) knows that day to day work does not involve locking yourself in a closet and taking drugs to come up with new ideas. There's a lot more to process than that, but shouldn't being an artist have a role in something like interaction design? When I am asked why I am a designer, I talk about this. I have this deep need to create. Nothing feels better than articulating and expressing an idea, taking a step back, and feeling proud. I want to be invested in my work on a cosmic level and believe that every product decision I make means something not only to me but to the user. This conviction should always be the core of design process. Create because you love to create.
The Engineer — Design is about solving problems
This is probably what you hear the most, because the majority of design is solving problems. We come up with creative solutions to complex problems. Engineers are taught to solve problems by using tools. Given any problem, they have a toolset that they can apply. Using formulas or algorithms they can deduce some sort of solution. Until I went to engineering school, I didn't think like this. I didn't realize that design layout could be a calculated and iterative process. In school I learned how to build things. Websites, algorithms, databases, and eventually simple products. I learned how to build logical process and efficient systems. I learned how to solve problems with a toolset. Designing a website as an artist meant that I would sit down and push and pull until I molded what my intuition and soul said was right. Designing a website as an engineer meant that I would design every possible layout that I could think of, then I would either pick the best or combine them into the best. This is the difference. Through thinking this way and learning how to build, I felt empowered.
The artist is an exalted craftsman. By the grace of Heaven and in rare moments of inspiration which transcend the will, art may unconsciously blossom from the labour of his hand, but a base in handicrafts is essential to every artist. It is there that the original source of creativity lies.
— Walter Gropius
Walter Gropius was the founder of the Bauhaus art movement. In his manifesto he discussed the idea that true artists are craftsmen. The ability to create something beautiful comes out of the ability to craft it because understanding the process of building allows us to innovate. This is the best argument i've ever heard that designers should code. There are so many obvious benefits. You can talk to engineers, you can sweat the technical details, you can have smaller teams, but most importantly you can build what you designed. You can feel empowered by understanding a craft. This ability to articulate yourself and work fluidly in a technical phase of a product vision will lead to your best work.
The Businessman — Design is about selling
When I was 19 I started my first company 4grids with a friend. We wanted to build a web product that would help students run clubs more efficiently. It would help you keep track of club inventory, events, people, and let you build a website. It would be a modular platform that other people could build off of. We were the perfect team: a designer and an engineer. We took it took our school business plan competition and won 1st place, seeding us with $4,000. We had all these ideas and worked constantly. Yet soon after, we failed. We failed for almost every reason possible, but the biggest reason was that I wasn't designing a business solution to a business problem. A product is something that satisfies a want or a need. As designers we have to realize that we are building something for a market. Unless we are building an art project we can't wear blinders. Even when I was at Google, the engineering playground with infinite money, our product design dialogue was heavily influenced by finding intelligent business solutions. While I working on 4grids I remember I was asking for advice from a friend and mentor David Hoffman (dodeca) on Twitter and he said "it seems like you are trying to do a lot of things at the same time." I remember thinking that he was wrong, that the product vision was complete and it needed all those parts to be truly actualized. But my problem was that I was framing it as a product problem and not a business problem. I didn't need a brilliant product vision, I needed to focus on one thing and do it really well so that I could actually sell it. It's much easier to find one small market problem and attack it, than try to attack 10 at the same time. I needed to analyze the market and find a place where my small focused product could completely dominate. With that momentum I could pivot, add, or remove. This can be framed as a business design problem with a product solution.
The Allegorist — Design is about telling about stories
I recently read my first graphic novel. I'd never been interested in comic books or anything similar but when I opened Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. I was completely enthralled. There are so many beautiful elements. The graphic design, the story telling, and the writing. What stuck out most to me as a first time reader of graphic novels was how much was being communicated with simple visuals. He was telling a story without words. There are so many emotions and ideas conveyed with so little. What can we learn from this? How can we apply this to design? Every time a user interacts with a product, their experience becomes a story. From their first interaction with your brand to them signing up and paying. This can all be mapped and designed in the same way as a story. There should be an exposition, a climax, and a resolution. For example let's say you discover a new product. The signup is the exposition, the first use is the climax, and the feedback from that first use is the resolution. When designing the user experience for a product from scratch it is good to frame it like a real story. What is your story? Where is the delight? How can you use visual design to tell your story?
The Architect — Design is about creating spaces
I wanted to end with this one because this is what I am absorbed in now. It is something that excites me and is influencing how I think. I recently had the opportunity to meet Wilson Minor and talk to him about design. We were talking about the things that influence product designers and he mentioned to me that we should look to architects and urban planners for inspiration in our process. He said that products like Facebook and Twitter are spaces that people dont just use but exist in. They are environments that form behavior. This really resonated with me because it feels so true. People act differently on Twitter, Facebook, Quora, 4chan, Snapchat, not because these are all different types of people but because of the way these spaces are designed. We should learn how to create spaces to guide and encourage behavior. We can't just apply the same process that you would when designing a physical clock (Sorry Dieter Rams). We have to do more because the things we are building have become so much more. You may have heard of Twitter referred to as a town square before. This is because of subtle and powerful product decisions that made it feel that way. In Twitter, anyone can yell and some of them are heard. There is no other way to exist in the twitter space. Now I don't think we need physical metaphors for every product we make. That's not the point. The point is that every space has attributes that form behavior. If you built a park with no trash cans, people would throw their trash on the ground. If you build a photo sharing app with self destructing content, people are going to share naked pictures.
Process is Process
Design is about so many things and the process we follow to create should be malleable and hungry. Design process is not about knowing how to draw on a whiteboard or how to use photoshop. Those are tools that we can use to express a way of thinking. Design process is about how we think and function. We should always try to apply different methodologies and philosophies to our own work because we are changing the world. It's our responsibility to do good work. Let process be process and create something.