Becoming a better butler

Why creating great products and growing as a designer is all about serving people better.

James De Angelis
Design Life
Published in
5 min readMay 20, 2013


When we use products with great design, the experience feels like concierge service. It carefully walks you through unfamiliar environments and makes you feel comfortable straight away. It feels personal, delightful, effortless and only there when you need it.

In most ways, I think growing as designer is about serving people better and creating products that feel like that concierge service. Of course we can’t personally help every person who uses the things we make, but the systems we create serve this purpose and it feels like we’re there the whole time.

I’ve found these ways help me do this better.

The Batcave

Start with the person, not the problem

Alfred always seemed to have the right tool, gadget or advice for Mr Wayne before he knew he needed it. Certainly this comes from his loyal years of service with the Wayne family right from Bruce’s birth.

The UX process tries to bridge this with Personas. While there is some debate to their effectiveness the basic premise still stands. Understand your audience first, then use this as a foundation to answer every other question there is in the problem-solution. For instance, suppose your primary customers are women in their 50's with little to no technical knowledge. Your solution or “design” will be completely different to one catered to tech savvy teenage boys. Starting with the problem first ends up with one size fits all solutions which feel mass produced and are much less likely to persuade people that you’re solving their problem.

There is a mammoth effort to abstract these sort of insights with data — but the real magic is in the interpretation which comes from a deep sense of empathy with people. Empathy is hard to teach because it’s so intangible, but the ability to see through someone else’s eyes is the core of what makes a good butler and great designer.

Solve their problems, not yours

I work with startups every day at Pollenizer and see the mistake young companies make focussing on business models, not people. They become so obsessed by chasing business goals and growth hacking that they forget that a business is about solving real customer problems. When this drives the design, nothing lasting comes of it. You see dodgy tricks like dark patterns emerging and products that are memorable or loved do not follow.

At the opposite end of the spectrum you have one of the companies doing it best, Squarespace. They do a brilliant job of making the website creation process extremely easy and customer centric. Signing up for the first time feels personal and thinking about you first. Before they ask for any details, you’re given the tour so you can start doing what you want before jumping through hoops or misspelling a CAPTCHA for the sixth time.

Squarespace signup process

A butler is never concerned with himself, only the patron

When it’s time to eat, a good waiter doesn’t interrupt you by showing you how fine the silverware or porcelain is. And in the case of design, the content is the meal. Designers are sometimes accused of being self-serving and would rather wag their tails then serve people’s needs. This comes back to the heart of great design: having empathy with our customers and putting ourselves in their shoes means we think of them first, not us.

There when you need it, gone when you don’t

There’s something magic about being at a great restaurant or hotel and whenever you turn around, there’s someone there ready to take your order. Products like Google Now are a step in right direction, being presented with timely and relevant information before you know you need it is huge. The best technology gets out of the way and is only present when you need it. There is some danger to this however, over-designed solutions can be just as bad as not having them there at all. Too many guidances, alerts, walkthroughs are probably a sign of a poor system or a waiter after a bigger tip.

Surprise them

Google+ Pull to
refresh animation

When Bruce least expects it, Alfred offers a nugget of wisdom that catches him off guard. This is all about surpassing expectations, Google didn’t have to create a colourful effect for a simple action like a page refresh but they did and it makes all the difference.

More than just tuxedos and white gloves

In the end, It’s not just what you say but it’s how you say it. A wise quip, a well timed joke or knowing the right thing to say at the right time makes all the difference. And when people interact it’s not just speech that communicates what they’re trying to say, It’s body language, tone, or a certain turn of phrase. It’s exactly the same with design: design is words, design is the right balance of new and old, design is specific organisation for the problem at hand. Choosing colours and a nice font is only doing half the job. This is often the most misunderstood thing about the process and is where the hidden value lies.

The best designers (and butlers) are loyal servants to their customer first. By prioritising their needs then applying just the right amount of magic and service they make an experience great. How could you serve people better?