The Meaning of Design

Adapted from opening keynote presentation @ Toronto Tech Summit, Nov. 2016

Photo by Stefan Stefancik

It’s always felt a bit esoteric trying to describe what I do for a living.

Calling myself a designer frequently results in the misunderstanding that my job is to make software products “look pretty”. On the other hand, venturing to call myself a design leader or design strategist frequently garners looks of confusion, especially in those outside the technology and design industries. Even when speaking with others within the industry, a truly aligned understanding of design roles is rare.

What is Design?

Every company, every team, has their own understanding of what design is and what the role of designers should be. Within the user experience field, there are so many specializations within design roles — interaction designer, visual designer, information architect, motion designer, prototyper — and these roles can have overlaps with other domains such as marketing, architecture, industrial design, or even sound design.

To add to the confusion, no matter what the mix of roles on a team, UX as a discipline itself can be at varying levels of maturity within organizations. Some teams might be playing more of a service role and fighting for a seat at the strategy table. On the other hand, some companies might have Chief Design Officers and deeply embedded design teams that contribute at the highest levels of business and product strategy.

The understanding of what design is, can really vary across companies, organizations, and teams.

The Evolution of Design

In spite of the varying interpretation of design roles, we have universally seen a gradual maturing of the UX field over the years. At the industry level, the understanding of design and what designers do has evolved.

Design is no longer seen as just crafting UI elements or even product experiences. There is a broader understanding in the industry that design can influence the experience a user has with all of a company’s touchpoints. Ultimately, all these touchpoints and product experiences culminate in the overarching perception of a company’s brand — and design impacts all of this.

The focus has shifted. We’ve gone from the idea that designers simply create usable components and product designs, to the understanding that their work impacts the perception of entire brand and customer experiences.

Let’s Talk About Feelings

As we consider this broader impact of design on a company’s brand, it becomes important to see design as not just about usability, but also about feelings. People don’t just want products that work — they want to feel happy while using them.

Delivering delight and pleasure to our customers is critical for user engagement. However, what we are seeing increasingly is that customers want more. We are learning that delight alone isn’t enough.

As Steve Jobs spoke of the turmoil his generation experienced in the sixties, he mentioned a shift that began leading up to the new millennium:

“We wanted to more richly experience why we were alive, not just make a better life…there was definitely more to life than the materialism of the late 50’s and early sixties. We were going in search of something deeper.”

This search for depth has grown. Increasingly, people are finding gratification and a sense of purpose through creating connections, memories, and experiences. People are looking deeper for a sense of identity that can’t be derived only from material product purchases.

People want to feel as if they are involved in something bigger than themselves. They want to be able to identify with the products and services they use. People want to feel like that their lives have meaning.

What is meaning? Meaning is what gives us a sense of importance or worth. It’s very specific to each of us and it helps us interpret the world and decide how to act. Meaning is what helps us assess and determine what we value, believe, and desire.

Every choice that we make in our lives contributes to our own personal framework of meaning. Products or services that we decide to buy create a bond between us as the customer, and the company that we buy them from. And this bond becomes an intimate part of the meaning of our lives.

Designing for Meaning

Design isn’t just about making things look appealing, or just about usability, or even just delight. It is about taking products from being usable to delightful, and then beyond that — to meaningful.

Design is a way for us to deliver deep meaning to our customers through the experiences we craft.

We must strive to elevate the value we deliver to our customers from a basic, functional one, to one that goes much beyond. Design needs to not only deliver pleasure and delight, but must deliver the deep meaning that we know people are seeking.

The book Making Meaning is a great reference that contains powerful insights on driving brand and product innovation. It aims to get to the core of how to deliver meaningful experiences. It captures the 15 types of meaningful experiences that people most value and is based on extensive research around human needs.

Here are a few examples of how the work my teams have delivered in the past has translated to the concept of designing for meaning.

Example 1: Remote Collaboration

While working on a past remote collaboration design initiative, our team’s focus was to deeply understand how people work, and how they communicate and collaborate with each other remotely. Through our ethnographic research, we found what was really driving people was the desire to do well at work.

People wanted to appear valuable, they had a deep need to build strong relationships and rapport with others, and they were seeking to create things together. The deeper meaning that our customers were seeking was that of Accomplishment, Creation, and Community.

Photo by Bruce Mars

Example 2: Gaming & Entertainment

On another past project, our team was seeking to understand the deep meaning that people seek when they immerse themselves in gaming or entertainment contexts.

People lean on this type of entertainment to escape from reality and it was our job as gaming and entertainment designers to deliver fun, joy, and enjoyment to our users. The deeper meaning our customers were seeking was a sense of Freedom and Wonder — and a Community through which they could experience this with others.

Though I’m only a few months into my design leadership role at Google, I have already been exposed to some beautiful stories of the way Google products have changed people’s lives. The way in which Google products deliver a deep sense of meaning to users is astounding. The story below about Google Translate’s impact on the lives of new immigrants is bound to tug at your heartstrings.

Meaning is Important to Business

Everything that we design needs to embody the core meaning that users are seeking. Delivering meaning cannot be an afterthought. The desire to do so needs to be deeply embedded in a company’s culture, its mission, its strategy, and the core values of its employees.

Meaning needs to be part of the core intent of an organization.

Designing for meaning is not only beneficial for the user, but is also key for business success. Delivering experiences that get to the core of what customers really value means that they will identify more deeply with the brand and form a stronger bond with the company. Brand loyalty and advocacy will be higher and customers will have deeper engagement with products. This will in turn lead to higher use and retention. Rather than brief, transactional interactions with a product or brand, the interactions will be deeper and longer lasting.

Meaning is the guiding and driving force within each of us. It’s what helps us value ourselves, and the products and companies we interact with. Delivering meaning through experiences creates a deep bond with users. It elevates design to a higher level of maturity and strategic presence. And it helps deliver positive business outcomes.

Without meaning, we are missing the heart of what users are looking for.

No matter what industry we are in — whether we create products or services, whether we have an enterprise or consumer focus, and no matter what our role is — we have an opportunity to drive successful business results in a way that also impacts people’s lives.

Every touchpoint with the customer becomes an opportunity to bring more meaning to the lives of users. Regardless of whether you are a designer, product manager, marketer, or developer — I hope that you will allow your craft and your decisions to be guided by the goal of delivering meaning to others.

Like what you read? Give Reena Merchant a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.