“To move fast, you have to be working together” – Dell VP on unifying tech and design

Justin Lyles, vice president of consumer design and advanced design director, talks inspiration, collaboration and why consumers expect smartphones everywhere.

When Justin Lyles started work with Dell 13 years ago, the landscape of the company was vastly different.

Lyles had joined as a lead designer after working for seven years at Nokia. There, he says he “cut his chops” the European way, working closely with teams in the UK and Copenhagen from his base in California. He gained what he calls a “Eurocentric design approach”.

In the years that have followed his joining Dell, Lyles has seen the company dramatically change. From design team overhauls, to a complete shift of company trajectory, today’s Dell is shaped very differently to the one he joined in 2007.

Avoiding “tech for the sake of it”

Of the changes, perhaps the most dramatic was the one that occurred just over a year ago. Last year, Dell bosses merged Lyles’ 150-member Experience Design Group (EDG) with a group of “future technologists”, forming the united Experience Innovation Group (EIG).

Historically a technology-first company, the reshuffle signalled a change in course. Lyles compares the move to being told to jump in the same pool, after years of being told to swim in separate lanes.

Now more than ever Dell’s focus is on user experience, avoiding “technology for the sake of it” in favour of the human potential it can facilitate through its products. It requires, Lyles says, a much more integrated effort from designers and technology engineers.

“Not long ago, you could have a functional mastery of one area and you’d be fine. You could say: ‘I’m the designer, don’t bother me with any technology stuff’, but that doesn’t work anymore,” he says. “Now we need the technology to match up as close as possible to the design.”

Dell offices in Austin, Texas. Credit: Dell

Experience-led design

With the unification of design and technology, and a sharper focus on experiences, Lyles says the product development process has also seen a revamp. In the initial stages of development – a process that can take anywhere between three and ten years – he notes a distinct shift in priority.

“When I first came to Dell, the first part of any project was very data- and spec-driven, but that’s actually the last part of the conversation now,” he says.

“In this first phase, which we call the ‘experience’ phase, we’re not really designing products as much as just talking about human experiences. For example, how do humans work together? How do they consume media or collaborate with the technology they already have to hand? It’s a collection of our collective experience.”

Identifying key moments in users’ lives that lie at the intersection of design and technology, Lyles says, is helping Dell focus on much wanted innovation. He points to the influence of mobile phones on PCs as an example: “People want always on, always connected, an instant response.”

The Dell EDG team in Austin, Texas. Credit: Dell

Keeping up with user expectation

Translating the experiences into “design language” is the second stage of development. “The PC world doesn’t traditionally do [what phones do], so we need to consider what that means: what the materials we need will look like and what technologies we need.”

Lyles predicts the influence of mobile phones will be the number one challenge designers and technology engineers will have to contend with in the near future. And in this way, he says Dell’s move to experience-led design is particularly useful.

“Users’ expectations of technology are radically and quickly evolving,” he says. “But people don’t think about what’s inside their phones, they just know it’s always on and responsive.

“In many ways all the technology – what’s ‘inside the box’ – shouldn’t matter to the consumer, they care about what that technology allows them to accomplish.”

Some of the various objects the Dell designers have taken inspiration from. Credit: Dell

Inspiration from everywhere

Beyond keeping up with how users interact with their mobile phones, Lyles says how people depend on and use all other objects also serves as inspiration for projects.

There’s the obvious driving force of others’ competitor products, but he says: “other objects serve to inspire us in radically different ways”.

“You’d think inspiration for designing computers would always be from these sleek metal objects, but sometimes it’s how a sculpture has a presence and posture on a table, the vent holes on a sporting helmet or the perfect spheres that make up a lamp.

“As designers we sit around and talk about these kinds of things all the time. Expectations of technology are radically evolving and quickly, so we have to keep up with everything that means, or we’re going to fall behind.”

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