Thinking Outside the Elephant: Part 1
Keep Calm and Kill Memes

Thinking Outside the Elephant: Part 2

Addo Elephant Park, South Africa

This is the second part of a recap that was written over 51 hours at the HOW Interactive Design Conference, then delivered to attendees as a 45-minute closing talk. Read the first part here.

Now, for those of you that know me, I have a penchant for pushing analogies to their breaking point, until they become so absurd that they start to resemble reality. So I'm going to start visualizing for you what kind of world our elephant lives in, and what might be stressing her at this very moment.


What does the elephant eat?

The elephant eats big, gnarly problems.

As you take on projects, ask yourself: How big are the problems I'm looking to tackle? You should look for problems that are valuable. You may be struggling with them right now. Find ways to identify those problems: in your client needs, your user needs, and your needs.

Improve your systems thinking, influence bigger problems. I just love this quote by David Conrad from Design Commission: "Find more valuable problems, make more money." The only way you're going to be able to solve those problems, however, is by becoming a better systems thinker. What we're going to be designing will only grow bigger, just as our problems will continue to increase in complexity.

Look to the work of Donella Meadows, and her primer Thinking in Systems, which is a solid introduction to how you can analyze and design systems. Then, explore and sketch the world around you through the visual language of a systems thinker. This will serve you well in being able to define and structure your content and your designs, paired with your skill in communicating ideas.

Help others change the world. Design with, not for. Above, I'm being very deliberate about the word "influence," for a few reasons.

There are many problems we're trying to change, such as reducing world poverty, or stopping the spread of infectious diseases. We can design ways to help alleviate the symptoms of those issues, with empathy and humility, but the problems change in ways we can't predict.

However, there is only so far our influence can stretch before we need to partner with organizations that have the expertise to extend our design thinking, as interactive designers, into what they create. But we can help people in ways you may not have imagined. This goes beyond just websites and applications, and into us communicating our approaches for non-designers to use outside of our direct influence.

You can communicate your skills and approaches as designers to others—especially those who may be in need—and it can help them transform their world, bit by bit. This only happens by having a servant's heart.

Designing with people, not solely for people, will be a major trend in our profession. It will impact how you fulfil projects, both for businesses and for fostering social change.


What does the elephant poop?

The elephant poops burnt-out talent.

This discipline has boundless opportunity, but sometimes we stretch our resilience so far that we reach our breaking point. Some of my most talented colleagues have migrated to other disciplines or exited the profession entirely.

Part of being successful in the interactive space is in knowing how to set your boundaries and stick to them. I had more late nights shipping websites and apps than all my years of print design combined, until I learned to set clear boundaries.

Even now, when I become excited about a project and want to dive in deep, I have to identify points that I can come up for air, refuel, and remind myself of what I'm most passionate about outside of the world of design.

Know what subject matter falls outside your life as a designer. Design is a learning discipline, and we're always borrowing so much from other disciplines. This can be wearying, but it's also what makes design so rewarding. For this reason, cultivate areas you can garden that feed yourself, not just your work.

"Be a designer, not a martyr," said Matthew Richmond from the Chopping Block. Identify your boundaries. Be deliberate in how far you will stretch them. Over time, your boundaries will shift. Keep yourself attuned to what new goals and priorities might be. Life must be lived first, then designed.


Why does the elephant stumble?

The elephant is running on unstable technology platforms.

Matthew Richmond said it best on Thursday afternoon: "everything's an arms race now" in the technology space.

Standards fragmentation. Platform fragmentation. Device portfolio fragmentation. Content spread all over the place. In 30 to 40 years, we may not have to touch the code? "At that point you, can look back and laugh," Steve Fisher said. I think that's a grail we'll continually reach for, but let's get real about what to do right now.

Cameron Moll had said that it's impossible to answer whether you should choose to use device optimization, or adaptive or responsive design, or create apps. Yes, when you're standing in the front of a room, and lacking essential information. But if you know the right questions to ask, and the answer will emerge.

A simple equation for tough UX choices. This is the litmus test we can use to decide where we should focus our energies: "value > pain." This little equation, by Creative Director Scott Jenson at frog, encapsulates how we can make the right call when presented with tough technology and UX decisions.

How much do people value the content you're seeking to provide? How much content should be exposed, and how? How quickly do people need to access it? How much time do we have to ship it? How much time is required for someone to download and install it and create an account and "get started."

Look at the value of what you'll create from user, technology, and business angles, and an answer will emerge.


How can the elephant run faster?

The elephant can run faster because of agile, scrum, and iterative processes.

We skirted around this until Jose Caballer hit it head on during his case study—though it did turn up on Twitter earlier in the day: "The hardest part about transitioning from print to UI design is adapting to working in an agile environment," said Caroline Wiryadinata.

Who's best at designing in agile right now? Those people mostly aren't in this room. Designers fluent in this working style live in the product, service, and startup communities. Graphic design has encouraged a waterfall process, and in many ways, it's led to better print work—it's kept us from making big mistakes through the process, and being able to craft the best solution for the substrate at hand.

But some of the most competitive veins in the interactive space run on agile and iterative methodologies. And if you want to enter into the world of going agile, you're going to need to be comfortable with iteration. Rapid iteration. Like, I show the client one concept and iterate it ten times change. I start with low-fidelity wireframes and while we're paper prototyping them with users, we're also building the back-end services and generating content. Multiple actors are working together towards shared goals, and thinking about shipping in small increments.

Today's print designers can learn to do this, if they want, but it’s a head shift.

Study the Lean Startup and Lean UX way. In many cases, this type of process may not fit your agency or business process. But know this: if you don't find ways to be more iterative in how you work, there will be someone else that is able to do it faster, and possibly better. Try experimenting with Lean processes. Check out The Lean Startup by Eric Ries and start exploring where in your process you can tinker. Google "Lean UX.” Adapt pieces of their process to accelerate the way you work.


Who's chasing the elephant?

Unicorns are chasing the elephant. Unicorns are riding at our heels.

Do not fear them. They will be our friends.

I've just joined the faculty at California College for the Arts in the interaction design program. When first seeing the work the students were generating at the freshman and sophomore level, I was stunned. These students have a deliberate hybrid sensibility, that balances craft with prototyping skills, research, strategy, you name it. We call them "unicorns" because they are the most desired skill set by businesses today, and also quite rare.

It may seem like unicorns are the real MacGyvers and we're the old fogeys in the retirement home. But I don't see the unicorns putting us out of jobs.

Unicorns can teach their skills to us, and we can teach them something too. This is a huge opportunity, because we have something the unicorns don't: experience. Lots of it, and in areas they can't easily acquire while in school. Because of that, we should see them as great collaborators. And they are going to want to collaborate, because that's the only way any project of scale can get done.

In the next five years, they're going to be the ones that help us learn the skills and behaviours we need. At the same time, we'll be imparting to them soft skills and an awareness of craft and storytelling that only comes from professional practice.


Where's the elephant going?

The elephant is running on data in the cloud and through connected devices.

In the ongoing skirmishes and battles between device manufacturers and developers, there is a silver lining. We are entering into a future of connected devices. We will reach a time that we aren't creating the lion's share of interactive work for use on PCs, tablets, and mobile phones.

This extends our reach as interactive designers into all sorts of devices and objects that don't resemble what we've seen so far in our careers. This goes beyond smart toasters and cars that tweet. It can be for people that are seeking to improve their health. It can be for the mother on a business trip, being able to see that their baby is sleeping safe in their bedroom thousands of miles away.

Matthew Richmond said on Thursday, "94% of traffic is not from mobile." But it's not about PC versus mobile, or tablet versus mobile. It's about the data that our devices collect, and how it's utilized to encourage seamless experiences from the companies, products, and services that help us throughout our lives. At that point, it isn't web or mobile data use. It's about the cloud holding our data, in ways that we can access, with assurance for its privacy and integrity.

We can help design technologies that better understand us. I'm really excited about this future. While each one of us may have worries about our personal information floating about the world and being used by companies and governments, we've already given up half our lives to Facebook. We already see value in it.

Now it's time for us to demand back the kinds of tailored experiences that free us up to better connect with our loved ones and friends, and reflect on what recharges and inspires us.

We can infuse that time back into our life and our work, reinvigorated.


Why do we need an elephant?

We've spent all this time focused on our baby elephant of a profession. I have to pause here, at the end of our time together, and ask why we even need an elephant at all. Is this analogy even necessary?

Well, for one, it makes us easier to focus on what to do. Every discipline needs a thing that we can focus on. For us, it used to be print. There was something in our hands, in our portfolios. You could very easily tell your mother what you did. Now, it ain't so easy.

But I think we’ve been laser-focused on technology through most of this conference, when really this work is about our humanity.

If you are what you make, and we’re always trying to tell people the thing that you do, then are we really just makers of websites and applications?

I think the answer is in what we already say to the world about what you do. You just may not realize it yet.

This is language I pulled from many of your company websites, as well as those of your competitors (emphasis mine):

We solve business problems. We're passionate. We create implementations of ideas. We create influence, belief, understanding, results. We have a proprietary process. We ensures your success. We inspire decisions. We change behavior. Anyone can come up with an idea -- we just come up with better ideas. We create compelling brands. Brand experiences. Brand propositions. Meaningful brands. Increase brand value. We create meaningful experiences. Design can be a powerful force of change.

The future of design is embracing change. Specifically, change, in human behavior.

Design's real opportunity in this coming decade is to step up and acknowledge that design has always been an agent of change. It just took this long for interactive, as a communication medium, to mature enough to make that change visible to the eye. We now have the data to describe it. This definition will only gain traction.

So, if code is our shared substrate, as I said at the start of this talk, then "behavior is our medium," to quote Robert Fabricant from frog.

It has taken us some time to move past the substrate and start talking about the impact we can make. None of this wussy "design can be a powerful force of change" that I saw on a leading design firm's Web site. No conditional language! Design is the force of change. We can own it, today. Interactive has the ability to spread ideas and inspire action, like a gasoline leak that's caught fire. Interactive is the water that has seeped into the space between all other disciplines of design. And, like water, it has the uncanny ability to permeate almost any substance, no matter how solid. However, unlike water, digital will not tear things apart. It will hold them together, and infuse them with new depths of meaning.

This puts us in a new space with our clients. In the past, clients came to us understanding what they wanted to change, and we would use design to try to make that happen.

As we continue to mature design as a discipline, bolstering it with our learnings in research, technology, anthropology, economics, psychology, sociology, any other -ology you can think of, companies will retain us to promote change separate of just making websites and apps. Some of us already live in this world. Hopefully more of you will, if this is a change that you desire for yourself and what you do.

Are designers really equipped to take on this challenge? Not fully. It’ll take some strength training. We will have to work together and gain the resources to pay it off in the long term.

You being here was that first major step. Connecting with each other is the next step. Beyond that, we really can do anything we put our minds towards.

So, let's embrace the elephant in the design zoo, and be fanatical about changing the world.


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