Musings on being a technology laggard and designing for the tech savvy user

I am starting a new job at a global design agency called Frog Design in Jan and along with the nervousness that comes with starting a new gig, I am reassessing my role as a designer. According to me, the definition of a good designer is someone who can come up with simple solutions to complex problems. I was at work a couple of days back and it dawned on me how instead of understanding how to solve problems, I have always worked around them or chosen to ignore them. I am not really creative when it comes to things in my life, for example, if my machine is choking, I just work slower, I forget to update the OS for my phone since it seems to work fairly okay without the updates till I get locked out of an application that needs me to update, I watched analog TV till the cable company cut me off and then I reluctantly switched to digital, I wear my shoes till the soles come off and wear my sweaters till the elbows are frayed. One would call me a laggard in technology adoption lingo and just sloppy otherwise. I would say that people learn to live with new things when the older technology, sweaters and shoes just wont do. However, if I am the person who has always watched television with commercials all my life and formulated a strategy behind doing something fun, like play with my dog everytime a commercial comes on, then I am probably not the guy who is going to come up with the idea for TIVO. That is because I have decided to work around the problem and not on the problem. How do the lives of designers influence what they design at work ?  How can we solve other peoples problems when we sometimes work around our own. I have often wondered about that.

There are people who are naturally creative and then there are people who are taught to be creative. One of the first exercises I was given at the undergrad design school I went to, was to draw the rear of an elephant. I could always draw well but if someone asked me draw an elephant, I would probably draw a side view. But envisioning an elephants backside was tough. It was about thinking in three dimension, that’s what architects do and my parents had chosen to send me to a school that was to make one out of me. Luckily architecture was not that tough, since I went to a modernist school based off of principals taught in Bauhaus, a bunch of it was about the play of straight lines and planes and there weren’t any more elephants to be drawn. The point here is that you can probably be really good at aping the masters of modernism but suck at drawing the elephants behind. One is a learnt process and the other one needs you to use your imagination. I think people who use their imaginations are better designers which brings me back to my first point about solving problems. To draw an elephants behind, I would have to move my focus from the side of the elephant which is how I saw it in my second grade spelling book and consciously move myself to the back of the big animal. The same thing applies to working on other peoples problems and hence designing. You just have to take your lazy ass out of that couch and imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes, someone who is bothered by commercials in their TV shows, someone who doesn’t have a dog to pet, what would you do now in the other person’s shoes? That’s what designers do, look at other peoples problems and try to solve it from the other person’s perspective.

Having started my career in architecture, I now think I should have stuck to it. It is easier to take liberties with architectural spaces and pass off ambiguous spaces in the name of artistic license. Not so much with technology and software, I don’t think any users would appreciate smart ass art projects swimming around in their software when they are trying to organize their finances or buy plane tickets. Being a user experience designer and working in technology is a bigger pain in the ass than I thought. Technology is ingrained in our life and we use it to do practically everything, from paying bills to looking for restaurants to writing blogs like this since a lot of us don’t have hobbies anymore. The point is, being a late adopter incase of technology and trying to design for an increasingly advanced technologically savvy crew of users is tough. If it was up-to me, we would still be wearing a bunch of atrocious looking augmented reality helmets fighting imaginary predators and fancying ourselves to be the future of cyberspace. Cyberspace however looks very different now, it does involve total immersion and interaction but through social networks and mobile technology. Design has humanized technology contrary to my revolutionary futuristic cyborg predictions. The interesting thing about humanizing technology is that you can give people the power to not only interact with it but give them a whole system to work within. So designing technology actually is about solving a problem. For example, book your Zipcar over the internet, put in your location, find a parking lot close to your house, use your magnetic key card to open the car, use your mobile phone app to increase or decrease the number of hours of use and look for security numbers to open parking lots to return the car. The user uses multiple technologies here to solve a problem, which was to get from place A to B. By the end of it technology was used as a means to an end and not the other way round.

This brings me back to my point of people adapting to anything if it serves the purpose. Before the phones has the capacity to store numbers, people memorized phone numbers, calling someone meant knowing their phone number, watching TV meant, dealing with commercials, using a computer meant being tethered to a physical space. My concerns about being a good user experience designer with a track record of late adoptions in technology have been laid to rest. If I need to buy the latest and the greatest, I will buy it, till then I will make do with technology that works for me since being a designer shouldn’t involve changing my life, like being an actor shouldn’t mean living a role when the actor goes to bed or eats dinner with his family. My creative memories as a child are not about playing video games or the Wii, they are about drawing endless imaginary scenes with chalk on the cement floors of our house in Madras. They are about watching my brothers build stuff out of random containers, boxes, bottles, that my mother used to keep for us to play with after she had used up whatever was inside the bottle or the containers. Chalk, cement floors and random lids and containers kept us pretty involved and entertained, they were a means to an end. We learned to draw and build without using a computer, without any real toys and without any real fuss. I would like to think that designing for people is like that as well, its not about using the latest and the greatest, it about using the most appropriate, if you are given a project to design a toy that can teach a child to draw well, remember chalks and cement floors have their magic too. Technology does come first but only to the technologist, not to the designer and certainly not to the user.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>