Interview — Dan Tase, Product Designer.
Welcome to the first interview on Product Designers. We kick things off with the London-based Product Designer Dan Tase.
Originally from Romania, Dan has worked for a number of international brands including Burberry, Farfetch and JustEat, where he focuses on designing native mobile experiences.
Dan is currently freelancing in London, so to reach out to him, head over to his website — http://dantase.com
Dan and I chose to meet at Old Street Station in East London, right by where we had worked together.
We wandered through Shoreditch for an hour or so before pitching up at Fix 126 on Curtain Road, for coffee and conversation on all things Product Design.
Dan’s background and working life gives a fascinating insight into what it means to be a Product Designer in London, and the following interview gives an insight into his personal journey into design, what role design plays in his work, and where he sees the discipline of Product Design going.
Who are you, how do you find your self as a Product Designer in London?
I’m originally from Romania, born and raised in a small city close to Bucharest. That’s where I grew up and started doing design.
When I was done with high school I found out about this thing called Photoshop, and I thought this is what designers should learn, so I bought a copy of it, bought a Wacom Tablet and was like, ‘Hey, I’m doing design now’.
“ I found out about this thing called Photoshop, and I thought this is what designers should learn, so I bought a copy of it, bought a Wacom Tablet and was like, ‘Hey, I’m doing design now’.”
After a year or so I realised it might be the right time to find a job, mostly due to the lack of money, and I was hired by a small graphic design studio in my hometown. At that time I had zero experience with interviews, almost no portfolio, so I’m not ever sure how I got the job, but it scared the shit out of me.
The context was different from working in my bedroom: I got to work with real clients, on real projects and I learnt a lot just by analysing every small piece of feedback.
After a while I found out about this new ‘Digital thing’ so out of nowhere, my curiosity landed me this job as a UI/UX Designer — even though I didn’t know a lot about UI/UX.
Around the same time I moved to Bucharest, where the Romanian ‘design bubble’ was. I worked with a startup for a while, did freelancing for a little more and then headed to a design studio where I got the chance to work with Microsoft, ING and some other San Francisco-based start-ups. That’s when I realised design is more than pushing pixels on a screen.
Technology was something I was always passionate about. I started studying Computer Science, but after a few years I dropped out. I was already into design so my guts told me to focus on that. I kind of regret it now, but it was the right thing to do in order to grow as a designer, as University wasn’t helping me too much in that sense.
What did people think of that decision?
My family did not understand my decision. They thought I should go and graduate, but I felt the opposite so I went with it.
I’m not saying it was the best decision. The thing about not going to University is I had to learn by failing. Usually that’s a good thing, but when it happens constantly you start doubting yourself.
Learning by yourself means you don’t really get to practice. You start doing stuff and along the way you figure out if what you did makes sense. For example, in the beginning I had no idea how to work with developers so I was coming up with these crazy designs that could never be implemented, and they were like: “we can’t really build this. try doing something else…”. For the first few years there was a lot of back and forth between me and developers/product managers.
At some point I wanted a change, wanted to meet new people, have new experiences, so I packed my bags and within two weeks I was in London where I got my first job at a small social media startup.
Did you line that job up before you move to London?
No. I actually moved to London and after a month, a month and a half I got the job. I soon realised that London is way different from Bucharest, from learning to meeting new people to designing new products.
I was reading all these articles from popular designers, and I realised I didn’t get the chance to do most of the things they were talking about, so I took all those and tried to integrate them into my design process. In Bucharest it didn’t really work, mostly due to time or budget, but London was different. People understood the power of design and were ok with anything that can help push their business further.
“I realised I didn’t get the chance to do most of the things they were talking about, so I took all those and tried to integrate them into my design process.”
Did you have any mentors in Bucharest?
Mentors is a strong word to me. I don’t think I had mentors. I had people I looked up to. We had various outlooks on life, design and so but we complemented each other. The best thing is that this gives you an outside view and makes you want to take a step back and re-evaluate things.
I consider myself as being an honest person, and I want the people I’m working and hanging out with to be the same.
I think stealing is a huge part of being a designer, especially when you’re just starting in this field. You look at what other people are doing, how they’re doing something and you try to learn from it — usually by imitating. If you look at most of the apps today you have some patterns, things the user is accustomed to, so you try and use those things and see what works and what doesn’t. That’s also a form of stealing but in a constructive way.
These are some of the most important design-related things I learned from them.
Where does the honest and stealing come from?
Well, I didn’t study design so I had to look at what other people were doing. I had to learn by imitating their work. I looked at how they use fonts, colors, how they solved a problem, things like that, and I started asking myself ‘Why did they do that?’ in order to get the thinking behind it. That’s how I learned.
Along the way you make some mistakes, some happy accidents, and realise ’that’s quite cool…why don’t I use that?’
How do you describe what you do?
My work is a mix of research, design and validation. There are other bits in between. I don’t think at what I’m doing as a process, it’s a back and forth between all these steps: data, workshops, customer interviews, design, prototyping, validation, usability testing, delivery, measuring the impact and then back to the beginning. It’s your decision as a designer to choose which of those steps are suitable for the project you’re working on.
“We shouldn’t have step 1, 2, 3, 4 because that just puts you in a box.”
That’s why I don’t think we need a perfect design process. We shouldn’t have step 1, 2, 3, 4 because that just puts you in a box. You should take all those small pieces and decide which ones are relevant.
What gives you, as a designer, the permission to choose which approach to take?
As a designer you’re in charge of the customer side. Our job is to provide a great experience and the product manager’s job is to provide business value. We both align on key metrics, but we have to find a middle ground between the business side and the customer side.
Is justification a part of practicing Product Design?
It definitely is. It’s your job as a designer to provide value, so you have to show why you chose that solution over the other, why A is better than B. No matter how experienced you are, stakeholders need a tangible proof that what you’re doing is right.
And that’s helping you as well because first of all, you make sure you’re on the right path, and secondly, having those metrics in front of you is yet another reassurance of a job well done.
Do you think this is because of a move away from digital specialisms (UX/UI) and more towards Product Design?
First off, I don’t think there’s a huge difference between UX/UI Designers and Product Designers.
From my past experience as a UX/UI Designer: you have a Jira task, you do some research, you do design, validate the idea, do some testing, measure the impact. Not too different from what people call a Product Designer. But, Product Design gave a seat at the table for some people.
As a Product Designer you also get to run workshops, define or influence roadmaps and so on. You’re not only a designer, you’re also a product person.
“You’re not only a designer, you’re also a product person”
Product Design also allows teams to work better together. You don’t need two separate disciplines, UX and UI — you need T-Shaped Designers. You have a main skill, one which is your speciality, and you have all these additional skills. You’re not an expert in any of them, but you’re eager to learn more from another T-Shaped Designer that’s stronger in that particular area. You work together, and you learn more by buddying up.
So what about companies that are actively positioning themselves as Product Design companies, and looking for Product Designers?
I guess those companies acknowledge design as an important part of their business. They want people to work better together and to broaden their skill set because they know that’s good for the business. At least I hope so.
There’s also the coolness factor. Being up to date with the latest terms in the design world is quite cool — for the company and for potential employees.
Is ‘Product Designer’ being used more liberally than that?
Well, a Product Designer is a designer that works on a product. Traditional Product Designers are the ones that build physical products (like Eames, Dieter Rams, etc), so we took that term and started using it for digital as well.
To be honest it makes total sense. The design process is similar between the two: you have research, prototyping, testing, delivery. We use the same principles in our daily work, only we’re applying them to digital.
What about titles such as Service Designer?
A great experience usually transfers into the physical world as well. As a designer, your role is to look at the whole experience, not only what happens in an app. A huge part is still the offline experience: when are you receiving your product, how are you receiving it, what happens if you don’t receive it and so on.
Those don’t really affect the digital side, but they do affect the experience. A good product = online + offline. That’s where Service Design comes in.
Will Product Design address that?
Product Design is a mix of all these disciplines, with the end goal of solving a problem by any design means. It allows you to do the best of your capacities to solve that particular problem. In the end, you’re a problem solver, no matter your job title.
Is Product Design important for end users?
Design in general, Product Design, UI/UX, Service Design, it doesn’t matter what terms you use, has the end user in mind.
From my personal experience, working on the whole spectrum — from research to delivery — helped me move a bit faster. Everything is transparent, so there’s less back and forth between stakeholders, collaboration is part of the daily job and people are less protective over their ideas. This can only lead to a great experience for the user.
collaboration is part of the daily job and people are less protective over their ideas. This can only lead to a great experience for the user.
What is the trajectory for the Product Designer, considering where you’ve come from in your career, and where you are today.
Product Design — as everything digital — is evolving at a fast pace. It’s becoming less and less about pushing pixels and more about design thinking. For example, being a designer for Alexa is very different from designing an app. It doesn’t really require any traditional design work, but from a thinking perspective, it’s still design.
Also, being a Product Designer is definitely helping you become better at some non-design things. When I started doing design I was living in a bubble. Most of the people I was hanging out with were designers as well — and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing — but by doing only that you lose contact with the outside world. As I got more and more into Product Design, I learned more about the business side than I ever did. And that’s really good for the long-term, as it’s teaching you how to make a business grow.
Where do you see your career going?
At the moment I’m trying to work for a few months, take a month off, then back to work for a few months. I feel like I’ve neglected a few personal aspects of my life and now I want to make up for it.
I still love designing as much as I did when I started. I can’t see myself doing anything else in the near future. But I slowly became more and more interested in the business side — pivoting, scaling a company, running a team, handling stakeholders and so on. I guess that is a natural move after almost 10 years in this field.
Our generation of designers is lucky. In London, design has really reached a level of maturity and respect which is greatly benefiting us.
We’re lucky. We’re getting paid to sit at a computer. I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s really stressful most of the times, but in the end we’re in a nice office that has a pool table, we can take a break whenever we want, we can be late for work without anyone noticing it. Those can seem like small things but they’re not.
We’re also lucky to love our jobs. My parents hated their jobs, but they had to do it because it was the only way to make money and provide for the family. Back then jobs weren’t supposed to be fun or cool. I guess we should appreciate more and be humble.
“Back then jobs weren’t supposed to be fun or cool. I guess we should appreciate more and be humble..”
Do you think there is a lack of humbleness?
Oh, yes. My personal opinion is that everyone should be humble. Being an asshole, a know-it-all has more downsides that positives. I’m not saying we should keep our heads down, but we should learn to listen more, appreciate other people and give credits to those that helped us. We’re all just figuring it out in the end.
“We’re all just figuring it out in the end.”
Thank you Dan for taking the time for this interview. And thank you for reading the first piece on Product Designers. Tune in for more interviews and content soon.
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