A conversation with Mathew Milan
What is Normative all about?
Normative is a software design firm. We use design practices and principles to make software and help other companies improve their software. We have a full or holistic view of software which means everything from the code and algorithms to how information flows to and from the software to the interfaces, users, interfaces for other software systems. Design excels at identifying what the problem is by building something. It is not something you do in your head or the whiteboard. Design is the act of making something to understand it better.
We’re helping companies solve the right problem by making software.
Did you always know you wanted to go into design?
Both my parents were designer; graphics and interior. I grew up in a household where design was very prominent. When I went to school I was very interested in technology and environments. Initially I thought I’d be using technology to design the physical world, doing things like urban planning. Along the way I realized I wanted to work in the emerging digital world but soon realized there is fundamentally no difference between the two.
Was I always interested in design? Yes. Did I think I would end up here? Not specifically but I ended up here because that’s where the interesting problems were.
What is your take on design being a competitive advantage?
Design is really fantastic to really help reduce risk in a business context. Design really helps you solve the right problems. People’s perception of what good design is; is unfortunately based on fairly superficial perspectives. that comes from a superficial perspective on what good design aesthetic is. So to be quite critical and I have said this professionally in a number of contexts — The aesthetic of the design or beauty of design for the digital world is not the same as aesthetic that comes from graphic design. So making a beautiful button or making a beautiful UI is good, but it is not the whole problem. Design is about more than just making it look pretty in the visual aesthetic level or even the interaction level. This is something that good designers have known for decades. You look at the Eames and Herman Millers making furniture in the 50’s. They made beautiful chairs that were also cost effective, created new markets for the business. They solved problems that impacted the bottom line of the business in a positive way, it wasn’t just about is that chair comfortable or pretty. In contrast a lot of the digital design we talk about these days, people are still saying ‘I made the chair comfortable look at how good it is’
So I look at our design practice at Normative as wanting our digital design practice at the same level as Charles and Ray Eames had or Paul Rand had with IBM.
Here at Normative we say that when you design software you’re designing a system. You’re designing a part of a system, that with its interface and programing changes the way people and machines interact with each other. So fundamentally when you design software, the purpose of software is to give someone superpowers.. The Google Search bar gives you superpowers — it’s like a memory you never had but you have perfect access to. You see so many to-do apps out there but a few of them get any serious uptake or traction. What are they really solving for people? What’s the superpower? Is it the organization of stuff? What if the superpower was the need to do less stuff?? But as designers we don’t think about that. What we should really ask ourselves is; what is the capability we want to design for the person and what is the value exchange?
How can you justify the business case around design?
A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine talked about the ROI of User Experience. At that point the thinking was — if you can prove ROI, you would have a better chance of selling design to business. I personally believe that is not the right approach now. I believe that showing that you have a real business problem and what needs to be done to solve it and having that understanding with your partner or client or boss is much more valuable in terms of establishing design as a tool for business then saying ‘here’s how we’re going to measure my success”.
How do you create the culture that encourages this kind of work and thinking about problems?
It is really hard! It is one of the hardest and most humbling things for me to try and do really well. Especially when as you try to create culture your personal biases and perspectives come into play and actually go against the culture you want to create so it’s impossible to create culture in purely prescriptive way. Because everyone sees the world differently and respects and values different things, finding common ground is really hard especially when the way you talk and look at something is really different. I’ll be honest it is both a struggle and a point of success that we have be able to become so attuned to the needs of the businesses we’re working with.
What are some of the projects you’re working on currently?
We’re working in areas of wearable technology, future currency, augmented reality, personal finance, media consumption. We’re working on problems like How do you help an organization that acquires hundreds of new companies a year bring those into a standard interaction, code base — what does that framework look like. Because the real problem you’re solving is not making all the websites, you’re creating a system that reduces the cost and complexity of bringing consistency. So we’re working on a lot of system level problems that are solved by tactical design work and building software.
How would you compare Toronto to Silicon Valley?
We have clients in the valley and we are looking at whether it makes sense to have a more permanent presence there.But I also want to say that one of the reasons we’re in Toronto is that we really felt that as a technology environment there’s a lot of potential in Toronto. I have seen how the start-up ecosystem has evolved since the early days of the work of David Crow to the really rich ecosystem we have these days. There’s a lot of people out there who are doing great work which I really respect. If we as a community don’t become divisive and focus more on being integrative and understand that entrepreneurship and investing in the future doesn’t just have to happen with a bunch of laptops and a co-working space but can happen anywhere else. If we build those sort of bridges, a lot of interesting things can happen here.
Written with the help of Amrita Chandra.