Interview: New challenges for designers in a participatory world

Late last year, I was interviewed by communication design student Thomas Wagner from the University of Applied Sciences in Mainz, Germany. The questions were focussed on our work at Made by Many for his thesis on Participatory design and the role of designers when creating digital products and services.

Do your clients have a precise idea of what they want or do they come with a ‘problem’ which you have to solve?

Briefs take on a variety of shapes and forms. Often clients approach us with an idea of what they think they want, or a problem or identified opportunity space. Our process is always to interrogate the brief in an attempt to unearth motivations and reasons to move forward with a project. It takes an open minded client to understand that their business objectives have to match up with customer needs to drive true value in the marketplace. Therefore these initial stages can often involve completely re-thinking the problem they have identified, making sure it is the right one to tackle in the first place or if there is a greater opportunity for them to pursue.

For instance working with Skype on what became Skype in the Classroom, they initially identified a group of pioneering teachers using Skype in their classrooms to talk with classes around the world. Skype wanted to create a microsite that had videos and tutorials aimed at teachers on how to get the most out of Skype in their classrooms. However these kinds of marketing based websites only drive traffic in the initial PR burst. How could we foster continuous engagement with teachers and not tell them things they already knew how to do?

Through talking to these pioneering teachers we discovered that tutorials and tips to help them use Skype better didn’t appeal to them. They wanted to make Skype more useful for themselves — they needed a tool to help them find other teachers and classrooms to Skype with. Through this re-framing of the opportunity space we created Skype in the Classroom, a service that has been running for the last 3 years and recently won an IxDA award. It encourages collaboration with other classes from around the world, allows classrooms to invite experts and guest speakers into their classroom and opens up new places for children to go on virtual field trips anywhere in the world.

What does the design process look like at Made by Many?

There is no one-size fits all for our design process at Made by Many. Throughout our 8 year history we have picked up a variety of tools and techniques that help us cater a tailored approach designed to be most effective for our clients needs. No two problems are the same — so we have a flexible approach that takes this into consideration.

We structure the way we work into short bursts of work (typically 1–2 weeks). This allows us to work iteratively very quickly, not focussing our attention on the wrong thing for too long. We do this by continually making, testing and learning throughout a project. So this could be getting out into the field with lo-fidelity prototypes that test hypothesis early to unearth user needs. Once we have an area of focus we layer fidelity and add more form and structure to our ideas, making sure that we talk to customers to keep our thinking on track.

What is a typical team structure?

We work in small multidisciplinary teams at Made by Many, with a representative of each of our core skills sets present. Typically this includes a designer, strategist, product manager and technologist. This allows us to work with our heads in business models and revenue streams, our hearts in the product and experience and our feet firmly rooted in technology and feasibility all at the same time.

Where does participation take place in the design development process with stakeholders or users? And what is the aim of the collaboration?

Our clients are as much a part of the design process as we are. They are experts at their business and what they do — so we involve our clients heavily throughout the entire project. This active participation was key to our work with ITV when we were re-developing their news proposition. The essence of the service is to turn the traditional editorial work flow on it’s head. We created a service that bases news updates around a reverse chronological feed. Much like twitter — this allows ITV to drip feed content to it’s audience as and when it happens, rather than the traditional model of packaging up an entire story only when it can be fully written up.

We worked closely with stakeholders from all over the UK, making sure we were capturing and learning how a multi-regional news service operates. Working side-by-side with journalists in the newsroom meant we were able to observe how they created news and the work flows involved. This meant we could prototype tools together with them that allowed them to create content quickly and easily. These bespoke tools have enabled ITV News to consistently break news quicker that any other news organisation.

Courtesy of @andywhitlock

It’s worth noting that this news service isn’t just the front-end (website or app) that the public use to consume news. It’s also the tools that journalists use to populate the service with content. If we had concentrated on just the public facing aspect to this service, we would have missed the bigger opportunity to create an entirely new and innovative type of news service. Their previous Content Management System would not have supported this distinctly different content type.

What is the role of ‘non-designers’ and what role does the designer play in the process?

Designers don’t have to be the expert in the room and have all the answers. We are not the fountain of all creativity. We act more as facilitators when working with others (clients or users). We help get the best out of them, reframe ideas, notice things others don’t. We help give form to ideas that can’t be explained or don’t exist yet — that’s where our value lies.

What are the advantages and also the risks in such a collaborative process?

You can’t be reactive when co-designing, if we were we would create Frankenstein like products that lack focus. If an idea doesn’t appeal to one person it doesn’t mean it’s still not viable to others. We shouldn’t listen too closely to individuals, instead spot patterns of behaviour through groups of people. That’s when the teams value comes in — being able to spot these behaviours and needs even if they aren’t explicitly obvious through direct feedback.

Do you take a participants skill level or motivations into consideration when conducting user research?

The collaborative design process should never feel like a test, with right or wrong answers. So skill isn’t an issue. It isn’t easy to design user research scenarios and create assets and artefacts that best illicit user feedback. This can be a time consuming process but the outcomes from these sessions far outweigh the effort involved in creating them.

We incentivise users that come in to test with us, to pay them for their time. Their feedback is invaluable. Clients see the value of designing side-by-side when we deliver true business transformation and continuous impact.

What are the typical ‘products’ Made by Many invent for your clients?

We now design the entire venture, not just the product. That encompasses the business model, the product that manifests this to an audience (whether thats an app, a website, a service is slightly irrelevant) and the venture — how it all operates. We identify new revenue streams, new operating models and also bring these skills and capabilities in-house for our clients. Ultimately we help them to run these services themselves — pushing their businesses into new territories.

Adam is a Product Designer at Made by Many in London.