[DesignUp 2021] ‘Think by making’ – success tips for founders and designers by leadership coach Andy Budd

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Design founder, startup advisor and leadership coach Andy Budd is a firm believer in the power of design to build loyalty, delight users, create competitive advantage, and build new revenue streams.

Andy has been coaching startups for over a decade, first through programmes like SeedCamp, and more recently as an advisory board member. He earlier founded UK design agency Clearleft.

This year, the DesignUp 2021 conference team’s response to India’s apocalyptic second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is to organise a virtual fundraising drive along with the stellar lineup of speakers. To be held on the weekends of June 11-20, 100 percent of donations will go to charities bringing much-needed COVID-19 relief to rural India, in the form of dry rations, oxygen concentrators, and health centre wards.

As media partner for the conference series, see YourStory’s coverage of DesignUp’s earlier online panels in 2020, May the Fourth be with you and The pandemic’s impact on design as a business. See also our write-ups on the annual DesignUp conference editions from 2019, 2018 and 2017, and our d-Zen (Design Zen) section for more design resources.

Andy Budd joins us in this chat on how startup founders should actively engage in design, the role of design in the pandemic era, and tips for aspiring designers. He founded and curated the dConstruct, UX London and Leading Design conferences, and manages an online community of over 1,500 design leaders. He is a regular speaker at international conferences like SXSW and The Next Web.

Edited excerpts of the interview below:

YourStory [YS]: Many entrepreneurs with a tech/business background tend to underestimate the importance of design. What advice would you give founders on when and how to engage with designers?

Andy Budd [AB]: We now live in a world where technology — with the exception of some complicated machine learning — can be copied by your competition in a matter of weeks.

As such, your technology platform no longer provides any significant, sustainable competitive advantage. Instead, customers are shopping for products based on their customer experience, which is the fundamental preserve of the product design team.

So if you want to compete in the modern marketplace, investing in design, in the form of a superior customer experience, is one of the few lasting competitive advantages company founders have left.

[YS]: What are some notable projects or you are currently engaged in with startups?

[AB]: I recently joined Seedcamp, an early-stage VC company, as its first Specialist in Rotation. It’s essentially a Design in Residence type role, so my job will be to help the founders of Seedcamp’s portfolio companies make the most of their product and design function.

As somebody who has a long-held belief in the business befits of design, this is a great opportunity for me to help cement a strong design culture in the next generation of breakout tech companies.

[YS]: What are three outstanding examples you have seen of effective design during the pandemic?

[AB]: In the early stages of the pandemic, the UK government response was in chaos. This was especially true when it came to getting personal protective equipment into the hands of front line workers.

One of the great things about the internet is the ability to bring together diverse groups of people to solve complex problems. One such project was an organisation my friend, ex-Clearleft colleague Ben Sauer, found himself running, in order to crowdsource 3D printed PPE. Folks designed open-source face shields, printed them at home, found people in need, and shipped them.

During this time, government ministers were handing PPE contracts to friends and neighbours with no prior experience, many of which made millions sourcing inappropriate, out of date or otherwise unusable products. So while the government was running around like headless chickens, it was great to see the maker community step up and offer to help out.

We saw a similar level of ingenuity with the number of low cost, open-source, DIY ventilators that emerged during the early stage of the pandemic.

On a more prosaic level, we saw lots of innovation in the online workshop and events space, with many new video streaming platforms pop up. Two of my favourites were Konf (for event streaming) and MeetButter (for online workshops). In fact, I liked these products so much that I became an advisor to both.

[YS]: What are the key challenges facing designers in these grim times, and how can they be overcome?

[AB]: In the first wave of the pandemic, a lot of tech companies were forced to scale down their operations and when this happens, designers are often the first to be hit. Fortunately, companies like Airbnb and Lyft provided as much help as they could — getting their teams re-employed, including setting up databases of available design talent.

While there was an initial fear that this could signal a massive downturn in the tech sector, things bounced back quickly, and the number of open design roles has steadily grown.

Of course, it’s a challenge, joining a company as a remote worker. Especially if the company wasn’t set up to work this way. Many designers were already feeling isolated in their cross functional design teams, often being the only one of their kind in teams dominated by engineers and PMs. This sense of isolation has been exacerbated due to remote working.

Being cut off from the social heartbeat of both the internal and external design communities. Of course, design leaders have done a lot of work to try and keep the social ties going, but this is hard when you’re dealing with a range of different traumas. So, I think it’s been a tough year for many designers.

[YS]: What are the success factors for good designers to become good design managers?

[AB]: On one level I believe designers have the potential to make excellent leaders, as their focus on research and empathy means they naturally consider the needs of others. They also tend to index on abductive rather than deductive or inductive thinking, which makes them much better at solving complex problems where there’s no one right answer.

However, I think designers often find themselves working in isolation a lot of the time, and can be very protective about their own ideas. The most successful design leaders and able to give up ownership, even if it means that things take longer or aren’t quite as good as if they’d have done it themselves.

This giving up control is a hard lesson to learn, and the reason many early design leaders burn out. They end up trying to do too much themselves rather than learning how to delegate.

[YS]: What are three core skillsets or mindsets that designers need in the uncertain post-pandemic world?

[AB]: I think the last 14 months have demonstrated the importance of resilience and self-care. So making sure you have to physical, psychological and emotional tools necessary to keep moving forwards, in the face of often very challenging circumstances.

I think many designers have only experienced work in a time of abundance. Working for well-funded tech companies in an ever-growing market. So many haven’t had to deal with market stagnation, downturns, and redundancies.

As such, I think the last 14 months have been an important lesson in the cyclic nature of the industry and how markets can go down as well as up. That the only thing that’s certain in life is change.

Lastly, I think pandemic has taught us the need for flexibility. Not to hold on too tightly to the existing direction, but to be able to quickly switch direction where necessary. Moving from being comfortable with certainty to being comfortable with uncertainty, has always been an important skill for designers, and the last 14 months have tested this more than most.

[YS]: What are the leadership opportunities for designers in a world where inclusion and environmental sustainability are becoming key concerns?

[AB]: As leaders, we have an important duty to design products in the most sustainable way possible. At the moment many companies seem to over-index on developer convince, which often leads to bloated code libraries and unnecessarily large downloads.

While a 100 MB here or there may seem like nothing in the grand scheme of things, this all adds up. Especially if you’re a global scale business serving millions, if not billions, of people.

With our focus firmly on customer and user needs, I think designers are often the first people on the team to consider issues like download speed, page weight and bandwidth. So, we need to use our influence to push back on convenient but unsustainable practices that hurt both users and the wider planet.

[YS]: What are ways in which industry and academia can collaborate to improve design education? What is your involvement in this space?

[AB]: Sadly, with a handful of notable exceptions, I think the way digital product design is taught at university is broken. Digital courses are often led by people with little or no practical experience in the field, teaching out of date techniques from books where the lecturers are only a couple of chapters ahead of their class.

In many cases, the classes are really just an annoyance for lecturers whose real interest isn’t in education but rather undertaking their own personal research projects. As a result, graduates find themselves underserved, woefully unprepared for the workplace, and unable to land a job.

This is one of the reasons we’ve seen a massive uptick in online courses, bootcamps and cohort-based learning. Often you can learn as much in a 12-week bootcamp as you can during a two-year degree, from people with real-life experience, at a fraction of the price.

Until universities start seeing digital design courses as vocational courses, and start hiring talented practitioners rather than out of date theoreticians, my advice is to avoid most university courses and go down the bootcamp route instead.

[YS]: Looking back at your decades of experience in the design space, what are some notable shifts or trends you are seeing in the field of design?

[AB]: When I started as a digital designer, it was really a hobbyist pursuit. People doing it largely for fun rather than money. Setting up personal home blogs, sites to promote their bands etc. As the sector matured, it turned into a cottage industry. Often many of the same folks, gaining an increased appreciation for the craft. They’d essentially found a way to make their hobbies pay.

And then digital design — in the form of UX and product design — exploded. Companies like Google and Facebook went from no designers to hundreds (and then thousands) of designers over the course of a few years, demand spiked and we moved into the Industrial Age of Design. In the early days it was mostly about throwing talent, and then bodies, at the problem.

However, as demand for designers outstripped supply, tasks got divided up. Strategy moved from UX designers to Product Managers. Research became its own entitle, and for a while, many designers felt like they were part of a feature factory churning out UI elements. The rise of design systems helped to automate and abstract the process further.

With so many designers to look after, we saw the rise of design leadership. Essentially professionalising a previously cottage-based industry. I have a feeling that we’re coming towards the end of the industrial age of design and moving more to a post-industrial mindset.

I’m not exactly sure what that will entail, but it’s going to be super interesting finding out. So stay tuned.

[YS]: What are three daily habits of yours that you think helps in strengthening your design sensibilities?

[AB]: You’re really into your “three things” type questions aren’t you? Let me think. To be honest I don’t believe I have a conscious practice focussed on improving my design sensibilities.

It’s something that happens as a result of (1) Being exposed to lots of stimuli, be that the products you’re working on, or the products you use, (2) Consciously deconstructing and reviewing said products to spot frustration, and (3) Coming up with ideas for how you would personally make them better.

We do this at work through the medium of design critiques and playbacks. However I think out in the real world, designers are constantly judging the products they use and the experiences they have as a result. So it really becomes a subconscious process.

[YS]: From your reading list, what are three good books about the design you would recommend for the “non-designers” out there?

[AB]: Hah, there’s the magic number again. My favourite book to recommend to non-designers is Problem Solving 101 by Ken Watanabe. I also really like The Designful Company by Marty Neumeier and How Design Changes the World by Scott Berkun, which reads to me like a new Design of Everyday Things.

[YS]: What are your three tips or parting words of advice for the aspiring designers in our audience?

[AB]:

1. While you can go fast on your own, you can go far together. So invest time in building your network, take advantage of the wisdom in your local community, and get a coach or mentor.

2. Good designers hope to be proven right. Great designers want to be proven wrong. You learn much more that way.

3. Think by making. Understand by listening. Learn by shipping.

Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta

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