Experience design gives you the competitive edge

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Andy Budd on the rising value of design, the bright future of agencies, and designers on the brink.


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This week on the Radar Podcast, O’Reilly’s Mary Treseler chats with Andy Budd, a partner and UX designer at Clearleft. Their wide-ranging conversation circles around lessons learned at Clearleft, understanding who your user really is, and why design agencies have a bright future. Budd also offers some insight into the people and projects he’s keeping an eye on, or rather, as he explains, keeping a look out for — the next big things probably aren’t yet on our radar, he says.

As Clearleft, a user-experience design consultancy, has matured over its 10 or so years, Budd says they’ve gotten a lot more interested in the psychology and philosophy behind design, how designers’ actions affect the world and society in general. The value of design, Budd notes, has been increasing over the past few years, becoming equal to — or even beginning to surpass — the prominence technology has traditionally enjoyed:

When I used to go to technology conferences, six, seven, eight years ago, the general narrative was around actual technology. It was around the developers as heroes around the technical stack being the main differentiator. Design was often lost in the conversation. Now, I think that’s changed. I think in the last three or four years, actually the technology stack, and the technology in general, has become a lot more commoditized, with the rise of rapid prototyping tools, with the rises of libraries and frameworks, and also just the general maturation of products. I think it’s very rare nowadays that a startup or product company will have, particularly in the Web space, will have a massive competitive advantage, just through technology alone.

One of the reasons, I think, is that design is one of the few areas of the technology space, and the Web space, and the digital space that has a competitive advantage because it’s really easy to copy an application technology when it launches, and create sort of a ‘me-too’ product. Actually, it’s quite difficult to design a really, really good quality product and get the essence right. We see a lot of companies trying to mimic successful products, but they get them fundamentally wrong. Often, if you’re just following on the trends, by the time you’ve copied somebody’s application, another one will come out. The designers push out another new update and you find yourself, again, six months behind the curve.

I do think that, fundamentally, those companies that adopt a designful approach are much more likely to increase the delight that their products give, and, ultimately, increase the return of investment they get. Those companies that don’t invest in design will find themselves struggling over the years to maintain their market position.

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Your customers aren’t who you think they are

One of the design philosophies embraced at Clearleft traces back to a value list on the Edenspiekermann design agency website, Budd says: “You’re not our customer; your clients are our customer.” Budd notes that, though it may be painful, it’s essential to have a firm grasp on who your end user really is:

Even though our clients are hiring us, we’re designing, not for them and not necessarily for only their needs and their stakeholder needs, but we’re really trying to see through that and design for their users. That can be painful because sometimes putting on that lens of the user needs can really highlight some fundamental failings within the structure or the approach or the outlook of our clients. … Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to empathize with the user and trying to put the user’s needs first. I truly believe that if you put the user’s needs first, you can align those needs with the needs of the organization. It’s much easier to align the organization’s needs to the user’s, then trying to somehow force the user’s needs to the organization.

Portents of promise?

In a recent blog post, Budd looked at the much-hyped “death of the agency” debate, declaring it “greatly exaggerated.” In his conversation with Treseler, Budd says it’s actually quite the opposite situation, that companies like Capital One buying agencies like Adaptive Path aren’t the portents of doom they may seem:

The reason that Adaptive Path were bought out wasn’t necessarily because they were struggling to find work. If anything, it was because Capital One valued them so much, and valued the design thinking so much, that they made them an offer that they couldn’t refuse, to say we want all of this great talent to come in house. I don’t think that’s necessarily a failing of design, I think it’s actually showing how important, how powerful design is.

I think that a lot of the stuff that’s happening at the moment isn’t something to be worried about, and isn’t a warning sign on the wall that agencies are dead. I think what it is, is it’s saying that agencies are so important now, are so valuable and design is so highly prized, that these agencies are having a much bigger impact on the world. I think that if design was failing, these agencies would be going out of business because there’s no market. When in fact, I think what’s happening is they’re going out of business because the market is so valuable that they’re being bought rather than disappearing because of poor cash flow. I think it’s a positive sign.

Designers on the brink

Five or six years ago, Budd says, he could have written out a list of the designers he found interesting or exciting, but things are different today; the difference, he explains, is that the industry has matured — where there were maybe 200 or even 2,000 designers doing incredible work seven or eight years ago, it’s 20,000 today. Budd isn’t keeping his eye on the limelight, he says — the next amazing designer probably isn’t even on our radar yet:

The things I’m really interested in are the people I don’t know about. There’s all this amazing work going on that me and you and your listeners have never heard of. People who are doing great work in basements, in bedrooms, in co-working spaces around the world. They might not be well-known bloggers, they might not be well-known Twitter or Pinterest personalities, but they’re amazing designers with amazing products. For me, that’s the weird thing: The best people are the ones that have yet to publish their work, who are waiting on the precipice.

It’s kind of that whole thing about the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. I think if you’re focusing on particular individuals, they’re already known by a certain number of people for a few years. It’s the unknown people that excite me. …That’s the thing that excites me: the richness and maturity of our industry. There’s not one or two leaders now, there’s thousands of them.

Cropped image by Marja van Bochove on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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