How to scale meaningful design in a multi-device world

Albert Shum
Oct 19, 2018 · 6 min read
Disrupt the patterns with meaningful design.

We’re at a point of tension in the design industry. Technology is prolific and continues to trend upward, inundating us with devices and experiences all vying for our attention. Design as a practice has evolved within the melee, redefining the role of designer and expanding the meaning of creativity.

At the crux of the evolution are design tools and systems — things that have always been around but only recently found their modern identity tied to AI and machine learning. What used to be static graphic design manuals now span the full range of interaction design, giving companies a means to scale their identities using intelligence and automation. The sheer amount of digital experiences created has forced the investment in living design systems and design tools — a positive thing, but also an existential moment for creative professionals. Is AI more creative than you? And if intelligent tools can do all the creative work, do we even need designers anymore?

As the eternal optimist, my challenge to creatives is to adapt. Machines are skilled at seeing patterns, but humans are skilled at disrupting them. Investment in AI will only increase. But what you can do as your creative, human self is find the intent within all of these experiences and bring meaning to the forefront. Design in a way that brings the human back in. Here’s a guide to scale meaningful design:

Build the table

Design has won its seat at the table — now take it further.

Don’t just take a seat at the table. Build it. Re-imagine what it means for design to have an influence and build the prototype for new ways of working and connecting to people. As our capabilities grow in the modern age of design tools, we need to use those skills to foster innovation in pace with technology. That comes first from fostering an intersection of disciplines and backgrounds, considering the meaning of both “Design” and “Designer” to include more perspectives and bring everyone along for the vision.

That’s not to say it’s easy — it takes time to make impactful organizational change. But ultimately championing human-centered design thinking and creativity helps develop more inclusive practices, create essential experiences for people, and drive real business impact. Build the table and use it to evangelize for meaningful design work.

Open it up

Static systems can’t keep pace — open up your design models.

Design a co-creation model and get more comfortable with sharing imperfect work. The line between designer and developer is blurring with open-source collaboration, inviting creativity and feedback at scale. Our connections to customers are opening up in increasingly connected environments. The world changes quickly and it’s important to have the tools to iterate in tandem with people’s needs.

It’s also critical to understand that our designs make an impact. Particularly as AI becomes more integrated in digital experiences, our designs need to reach the customer early on so they can help us identify bias and exclusion. It’s more difficult to overhaul at the end than to simply be open from the start. Show teams unfinished work. Connect with real-world customers to test prototypes. Working in a closed system only intensifies the silo effect, and the design industry is clearly moving in a more open, collaborative direction. Adapt, let these tools unleash your creativity, and move faster in a constantly evolving world.

Outside in

Get out there, connect, find a new perspective. Photo credit Michael O’Neill @ Design for Inclusivity Summit

This is about finding the real need and seeking perspective outside of your day-to-day. Your brightest moments of creativity often live away from your desk. Get out and discover something, because inspiration drives innovation.

Microsoft’s partnership at the Design for Inclusivity Summit this summer was a thought-provoking experience bringing outside in. There are passionate designers everywhere — those in leadership, those underrepresented, those chasing their dreams to create something meaningful. There’s so much to learn about the way the design industry is thinking about things like diversity, inclusion, and access to design education, and we’re only getting started to bring more perspectives and equity into the field.

Microsoft Design is privileged to be able to connect to others in this way, and I recognize that not everyone has the same opportunities. In the end it all comes down to practicing empathy. If you’re designing something and never consider the person on the other end of the experience, change your thinking now. In the cacophony of design trends and new tech, human understanding always brings harmony.

Jobs to be done

The dilemma zone is where we are. The desired level of meaning is where we’re headed.

As time marches forward and performance continues to increase, tension is created between new technologies and a sense of trust in what’s already familiar. We are in the dilemma zone. We need to be thoughtful about bringing customers along for the journey that we’re creating for them, especially in the proliferation of multi-device experiences.

More than the jobs we perform to drive innovation — design, writing, research, engineering — there is the job of the thing itself that we create. These are the jobs to be done across people and product: making sure that we’re building the right thing and building the thing right. We can achieve this by redefining innovation to align better to people’s lives the way they live them.

To do so means scaling insight and customer obsession. Anyone can collect mounds of data and go by the numbers to determine what we design next. A real innovator will be more archaeological about it. Data is only useful if you apply the right level of meaning, exercising a keen and empathetic eye to design for what people really need.

Be a free radical

Refik Anadol, “Melting Memories,” a creative collaboration between human and machine.

Don’t get comfortable in stasis. Design tools and AI are making our jobs easier, but that doesn’t mean we should lose our pioneer spirit. Be a free radical and disrupt the patterns. Design lives at the crossroads of technology and liberal arts, and it’s that duality that allows us to be problem-solvers and artists at the same time. The design job of the future will be to affect change with creativity, because automation only serves the system, not the heart of the people behind the experience.

Creativity will always matter because it’s part of our human spirit; that which defines innovation and meaningful design. Embrace the future of experience design and think beyond the screen.

This story was first given as a talk at AdobeMAX 2018. Reach out in the comments or on Twitter with your thoughts on the future of design, and read more human-centered design stories on Medium @ Microsoft Design

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

Albert Shum

Written by

CVP of Design at Microsoft. Leads a collaborative team creating the future of Windows computing. Views are my own.

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

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