Digital brainstorm – interaction design round table

Lynda Relph- Knight
Round table chairmanLynda Relph-KnightEditorDesign Week

Emily Pacey
Edited and written by Emily PaceyFeatures editorDesign Week

The iPad has turned communications design on its head. Clients from all sectors are clamouring for apps even if, as is arguably the case for professions such as law or accountancy, Apple’s ’lifestyle’ tablet isn’t the device of choice among its audience. But with business-focused brand Blackberry and others entering the fray, we can expect demand for an online presence to escalate even further. The dissemination of data has now gone way beyond the website.

Add to this the proliferation of social networks and you start to see the challenge facing interaction designers. Brand-owners are realising that they can stand or fall at the hands of social media. Brands can reach into the corners of their customers’ lives, addressing them in a highly focused way, but that same audience can hit back and instantly if a product or service fails to meet expectations or crosses the line of what is deemed to be good or ethical practice.

Against this backdrop, we brought together eight creative luminaries working in interaction design to debate the issues they currently face. The themes thrown up are explored over the following pages, but a couple are worth highlighting here.

First of these is how designers are responding to increased demand and the reversal of the traditional client/consultancy relationship. Where once the designer might respond faithfully to a brief doled out by the client, their role is now more as a guide through the mass of communication options available and as an intermediary between the client and its audience. Designers have long been perceived as champions of the people, but never more so than in the digital arena.

The second theme relates to the perceived mismatch between what colleges are teaching interaction students and what the industry requires.

Government cuts are ripping the heart out of some colleges, but this could bode well for interaction design since it offers a chance to make a change, especially since practitioners are calling for a return to basic design skills like drawing and modelling rather than purely software skills.

Both of these themes are echoed elsewhere in design, making interaction design less of a black art. Good designers should always put the audience first, integrating delight in form and function, while crafting designs that do the job, but provide an inspiring experience.

The round table panel

Mark Elwood is founding partner of 101, a digital start-up formed in January as a breakaway from ad agency Fallon. Elwood, a designer, was previously head of art and design at Fallon, where he worked on projects including the rebrand of BBC Radio 4 drama series The Archers.

Fred Flade is design director of digital consultancy Poke. Flade has 14 years’ experience in digital communication, working with clients such as Skype, Panasonic and Orange and Virgin Racing. Prior to joining Poke in 2010, he co-founded digital design group De-construct in 2001.

Piero Frescobaldi is creative partner of creative production company Unit 9 and his professed passion is to ’craft captivating and engaging experiences’ for online users. He is the recipient of awards from Cannes Lions and D&AD, among others.

James Hilton is co-founder and chief creative officer of AKQA, a world-leading digital design and marketing group, with offices in London, Amsterdam, New York, Shanghai and Berlin, among other cities. He recently won the Grand Prix Cannes Cyber Lion for AKQA’s work for Fiat Eco Drive.

Warren Hutchinson is creative director of Someone Else, an experience and interactive design consultancy allied to branding group Someone and launched late last year. He was previously global design director of Universal Music and head of multi-channel experience design at LBI.

Steve Price founded Plan B Studio in 2000 as ’a vehicle to create rich interactive experiences for brands’. His work for clients including Poker Trillion and Howies spans logo and branding design to creating fully integrated CMS websites as well as design and layout for printed literature.

Alasdair Scott is co-founder of The Bright Place, which designs, builds and delivers apps and content for mobile devices. He has been involved in interactive media since 1987 and reports being ’still excited about it’. He has also presented TV series for Sky on the creative use of technology.

Terry White is ’worldwide creative suite design evangelist’ for Adobe Systems, where he ’leads the charge of getting customers excited and educated about Adobe’s Creative Suite Design Premium products’. He is also founder and president of Apple users group Mac Group Detroit.

Clients are clamouring for Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, blogs, iPad apps, mobile websites and all else digital. But they’re often driven less by informed consideration than by a desperate fear of missing out on the latest ways of talking to their customers. Here, the knights of the round table on interaction design argue for working with clients to form a discerning digital strategy. They lay some blame on digital groups that oversell rather than guiding clients to the appropriate platform for their brand.

Elwood: There are so many different platforms on which to talk that brands are finding it very hard to say, ’Our message needs to be defined and so we need to be seen in this particular place.’ Instead, there is this schizophrenic ’Should we be on Twitter or Facebook?’ issue, which means that clients are trying to talk in lots of different places.

Price: Sometimes, as a designer, you can end up having quite difficult conversations with the savvier clients, because they come to you with an arsenal of questions, like ’Why can’t we use Flash on our mobile site?’ or wanting to make an app when it is not really appropriate to.

Hilton: Clients just want cool stuff. But as the saying goes, ’Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’. There are a lot of creative consultancies that say to clients, ’you need a Twitter stream and you must have a Facebook page’, but why? Digital groups have a lot to answer for.

Scott: The responsibility of the consultancy is to be firm with the client and point out what each platform is good for. We can explain to clients what consumers do with these devices, and so funnel the client in the right direction.

I love those meetings where we walk in and there are three of us and ten of them, and every single client has an IBM Thinkpad and a Blackberry, but they are talking about wanting to do an iPad app. We encourage people to first live with and understand the platform they want to build the app on. I think a lot of this stuff comes from clients with kids saying this or that is the coolest thing ever. Clients currently have a bee in their bonnet about mobile, and next week it will be something different.

It is the consultancy’s responsibility to tell the client what consumers actually want, because we are much closer to the metrics than a lot of other people. There are things that appear to be hot buttons for clients that consumers don’t want and won’t use, so it is a question of looking at what each platform does really well and then not polluting it with stuff that it doesn’t do well.

Hilton: What it comes down to is an effective use of a client’s budget, plus relevance. If you can get high scores on both, then that is the right answer for you.

The group also agreed that a consultancy’s second duty to its client is to provide enabling support as digital products evolve and grow.

Hilton: Half of our job is to educate our clients about the environment that they are operating in, so they can make the right decisions themselves.

Hutchinson: You can create an app, but then you have to support it in life with operating system updates and feature updates, and so on. I had a discussion recently with someone who was talking about how consultancies throw guidelines over the fence for clients to implement. Doing this shows a shallow understanding of the situation, because enabling your client to take ownership of the app represents a quality delivery. There is not enough of this.

Clients are only one half of the equation for designers and arguably the less important half. Brands agree that what really matters is their audience, with which they are seeking to communicate as effectively as possible. Trends are moving towards increasing the personalised aspect of digital communication, while customers are demanding a flawless journey from billboard to mobile to check-out. Designers are playing a changing role, becoming ’relationship counsellors’ between brand and consumer rather than just providing visual content. This requires different skills.

White: In creating quality across multiple screens, you have to consider viewer expectations. If I see a billboard with a URL on it, do you expect me to write it down and look it up at home? No, I expect to be able to be able to pull it up on my phone immediately, and for the experience to be as great on that device as it is on the billboard. And while the design of that mobile site is important, what is even more important is that the consumer is not limited in some way because of missing content on their mobile device.

Scott: But it is about using each device in a way that it works best. So, when I am out and about, I have a flaky 3G signal, but at home I have super-fast broadband. I don’t want my mobile device to stutter and say ’sorry’. I just want it to give me the still, or even better, to offer me the choice of a still or of waiting five minutes for the clip to download.

I realised the power of mobile phones on 9/11. I was having a breakfast meeting that morning, when everyone’s phones went off almost simultaneously with text alerts coming in bearing probably the most powerful message I have ever received. And what those texts did was to drive us to seek out TV screens to see the pictures.

Hutchinson: The measure of quality for a brand in the digital arena has changed from consistency to coherence [between different platforms in a user journey].

Hilton: The skills required [to create a good digital design and marketing strategy] are a sound working knowledge of human psychology. I was recently asked what I do, which is hard because I guess we do quite a lot, however, in design and creativity it is all about the eyes. But, in fact, I think you need bigger ears, in order to understand what it is that you are meant to be designing. I answered, ’I suppose I am a relationship counsellor, and the relationship is between a brand and a consumer. The brand is using language that the consumer doesn’t really understand and vice versa, and I have to allow these two people to communicate seamlessly so they can sort their problems out and have a far more beneficial relationship, and, ultimately, have better sex.’ We sit on the interface between clients and their audience, helping them to understand each other.

Flade: A lot of the required skills haven’t really changed. It is about being able to listen to people and to understand what they do, what they like and what motivates them. I find it really comforting that the skills needed are still the same.

BUDGETS

  • Budgets need to be carefully considered as clients demand more from their digital consultancies than just a website
  • Warren Hutchinson of Someone Else observes that the demands of high-quality digital design and marketing involve ’forensically understanding customer types, contexts and channels’. However, he adds the caveat that this is ’an incredibly difficult thing to do in the context of declining budgets’.
  • Client expectations about what they can get for their money are rising, partly due to the actions of some design consultancies. According to Adobe’s Terry White, ’Clients are saying, “We want more for less, we want everything we already have plus the new stuff, and all for the same price”.’
  • James Hilton of AKQA points out that ’designers don’t need to work in a completely bespoke way all of the time. Look at the environments that already exist, including Facebook and Twitter, and use them intelligently to the client’s advantage, rather than just always making an app.’

EDUCATION

AS WELL AS CREATIVE TALENT, GRADUATES NEED COMMERCIAL SKILLS AND PASSION

The (poor) quality of digital design graduates verges on causing designers to rend their hair in despair. The digital design profession has found graduates to be woefully ill-educated in the basic rules of graphic design, their courses having focused almost entirely on learning html and software programmes like Flash.

Steve Price, of Plan B Studio, runs design workshops at colleges and jokes that two recent teaching experiences pleased him, ’because they made me feel the competition coming out of colleges isn’t going to take a job off me. I’ve met designers who do motion graphics, for example, and all they do is sit on After-Effects.’

AKQA’s James Hilton complains that ’students are simply not fiscally aware. They come out of college not understanding business. It’s astonishing how many interviews there are in which you ask the graduate how much money they want and they shudder in embarrassment.’

All around the table agreed that the most important qualities for a digital design graduate are creative talent, knowledge of the commercial world, intelligence and passion. Some believe that the situation is finally improving.

’There was a time two or three years ago when basic design elements disappeared completely from digital courses,’ remembers Fred Flade of Poke. ’But you need to give people an understanding of what good design is and what it takes to understand a brief and come up with ideas. Thankfully, a lot of colleges have reacted to that insight.’

Warren Hutchinson of Someone Else was keen to remind those in the industry that nurturing graduates is its responsibility. ’What you need are bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, creative, passionate people just gunning for a job, but the industry should take a role in bringing talented designers into the commercial world instead of just saying that education doesn’t do enough,’ he says.

COLLABORATION

CLIENTS CAN BE DIFFICULT, BUT THEIR CHOSEN AGENCIES EVEN MORE SO

Of all design disciplines, digital designers are increasingly willing and able to work as part of a team either with the client, other designers or specialists. The technical nature of interaction design and its link to product design means that despite attempts by consultancies ’to offer all the skills in-house, nowadays every second meeting or so is collaborative’, according to Piero Frescobaldi of Unit 9.

Mark Elwood, of advertising and design group 101, recommends that designers do not drag their feet on collaborations, but enter them wholeheartedly. ’With openness to collaboration, the whole design process can be opened up to best-in-class partnership when you need it. But to be good at collaborating, you need to be open to taking advice and to people making changes to your ideas.’

While everyone around the table was enthusiastic about working with other designers and developers that they have chosen themselves Steve Price of Plan B Studio says that he chooses his collaborators by asking, ’is this person really intelligent and do they know what they are talking about?’ the luxury of choice is not always available to designers though, as clients often have other agencies they prefer to work with.

The concensus was that more taxing than working with a difficult client is having to collaborate with the client’s other chosen agencies.

’There has been a lot of forced collaboration, with clients saying, “Well, we actually use this agency for our digital marketing”, says Elwood. Alasdair Scott of The Bright Place adds, ’And everyone has a “nice-off” in front of the client, but once the client leaves the room the daggers come out.’ In the worst event, this situation has resulted in client-snatching, although Elwood reports that ’this has calmed down now, which is great’.

Warren Hutchinson, of Someone Else, gave a mature analysis of the situation when he reminded the group that, ’There is no ivory tower. When you are delivering things through lots of different channels, you need to be able to work with your client through life. With digital, everything is measurable and tuneable, and the thing you deliver at the start is probably not what it ends up becoming over time. So, collaboration has to include how you work with the client as well as being about who you are working with on the delivery of something.’

Illustrations by Gluekit

Art director
Sam Freeman

The round table was set up by Design Week with Adobe Systems Europe

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