Designing beautiful experiences, when everyone hates you.

When you stop and think about your career as a designer does it feel like something is missing?

In the rush to develop your design skills did you get that lurking feeling that you could have done something bigger?

Do you feel that sharp pain, when you see design work that is so good it changes the game? You know those design projects that not only look amazing, but have achieved something for people’s lives. That pain may well be a creeping sense that your portfolio hasn’t made the world any better. If the pain is really sharp, then perhaps you could say you’ve wasted your talents (or you should see a doctor).

Are you collecting portfolio trophies?

Designers have historically gravitated towards certain types of briefs, brands and sectors. Design students are sometimes given the freedom to write their own briefs and on most occasions they will pick music, sports or fashion products to design for. I think this is due to aligning with personal interests, but more importantly we (the royal we) are most often attracted to those sectors because they’re renowned for harvesting exciting and ‘on trend’ design thinking. This mentality doesn’t end in college and is apparent in agencies. As far back as the ad agencies of the 1950s the notion of the ‘big four’ clients existed. Car, airline, alcohol and cigarette clients were coveted and paraded around like trophies.

Don Draper pitching Jaguar. From AMC’s Mad Men.

Even today digital agencies have been known to chase the glamorous clients to keep their ‘creatives’ engaged and to attract awards. It’s not exclusive to agencies as designers will take a sideways steps to work in more appealing sectors. The effect of this behaviour is that areas where good design lives continue to grow and the parts of society with less appeal continue to suffer from a lack of design thinking. The few prosper while the many starve.

There are areas of western society that we universally dislike dealing with. A BBC survey identified politicians, estate agents, insurance companies and lawyers as the “most hated professions”. As a design community we don’t embrace these hated areas as design challenges. Instead we shy away from them, as boring clients.

Jump back 6 years and ask yourself who would have lined up to be a civil servant designer working in central government?! Now the GDS is one of the most revered design teams in the UK. Arguably the work by GDS has changed the UK’s perception of its government. There is no doubt that injecting design leaders into this sector has rapidly advanced the tools which the British public have to access information and services.

The brightest opportunities are in the darkest corners

A key consideration here is that processes like buying houses and insuring our cars are a part of our lives. We rely on experts in these fields to guide us, provide us with the tools to achieve our goals, and ultimately allow us to move on with our lives.

As Wilson Miner eloquently pointed out (in his When We Build presentation) human beings are defined by our ability to build tools and it’s those tools that ultimately reshape our society. As designers of digital tools, in the digital revolution we find ourselves with a historically prime design opportunity to positively improve our society. What we design and put on screens ultimately shapes the way we interact with the world, so these challenges should be embraced as genuine opportunities to go further than making pretty interfaces.

It only takes a few clicks around on Pinterest or Dribbble to see how the design community likes to flex its muscles and experiment. Whilst experimentation is valuable, the reality is that the world doesn’t need another beautiful weather app UI.

We shouldn’t be tempted to swim in the warmest waters. It’s our responsibility to seek out the areas of our society that people hate and use our design skills to improve them.

They are ripe for disruption

In cases like insurance it’s been a slow burner but disruption is coming and there is clear movement. The upheaval of the market is inevitable. Thomas Kuhn observed that every ecosystem rotates through a cycle of paradigms. Sectors like insurance will go through a phase of stability, followed by stagnation, disruption, then again back to stability and so on. His theories are commonly used to illustrate how revolutions occur. So you can rest assured that even the most comfortable insurance professional is heading for disruption. Many will not survive, but the fittest will strive.

This is the inevitability of change and the natural order of our species. If we (the design community) don’t actively get involved, then the revolution will be lead by technology alone.

And we know how that ends. ↓

Designing experiences for begrudging users

Before you quit your very comfortable job and kick out your lovely stakeholder and head towards lesser loved sectors, there are some points you should consider.

1. Complexity is unintentional

I feel as though I sat through a 1,000 hours of research sessions and listened to users continually accusing companies of “hiding behind legalese”. However in my experience organisations have fallen into esoteric language from bad habits. Complex experiences are more often than not a result of poor judgement and cut corners, rather than anyone intentionally trying to confuse users. Whilst estate agents and lawyers may be unappealing professions they should not be approached as the enemy. They should certainly not be punished for driving poor designs.

2. You’re going to need outlets

Working against a tide is tiring. You may have to work within very tight constraints. To counter this you should persue creative activities outside of your day job to give you back a sense of freedom and exploration. If you spend your days designing very ‘dry’ UI, why not carve out some spare time to explore sketching or building.

3. You will scare people

You will not find departments full of people who are excitedly waiting to be disrupted. You will find many people who have made a career out of the status quo and would not like their jobs to be threatened. This is going to take patience and keen negotiating skills.

4. Users will score you harshly

No matter how beautiful your designs are, users will feedback with a preloaded sense of resentment. After years of poor treatment (from lawyers, estate agents, insurance providers etc) they may well see your work as an improvement, but it won’t immediately change a person’s lifetime of experience.

5. Never benchmark your competitors

The easiest trap to fall into is measuring yourself against other people in a crappy sector. Being the best of a bad bunch is not a measure of good design. Don’t get lazy and keep a keen eye on other sectors.

6. You will get withdrawal symptoms

You will yearn for an Eames meeting room chair and you will covet design teams experimenting with the latest tech. Yours is a colder, darker path but the rewards will be greater than any superficial perks.

7. You will meet alot of snake-oil sellers

Your job will become that of a guardian. These darker corners are filled to the brim with consultants who will put the words ‘enterprise level’ in front of any piece of junk to justify its astronomical cost. It’s a big part of the problem and as designers we should be close enough to users to know when services/features/tech are unnecessary.

Your greatest design challenge

You — the designer — have the tools, skills and creativity to build wonderful things. The routes to launch are clearer now than they have been in our history. Don’t waste this opportunity on building a pretty portfolio.

Find something you hate and make it better.

This article is the accumulated thoughts from the past 8 years of designing digital insurance products. I’ve attempted to capture my biggest learnings and a little bit of my soul, so that you may consider tackling an industry that you hate. Good luck!