The role of design

Lately I've been really contemplating on the role of design in the tech world.

Almost every other day, we read articles about how designers should be at the intersection of X, Y and Z. Every other day we dress ourselves with fancier terms such as problem solvers, user advocates, product designers, and so on.

But when it comes down to it, what is really the unique set of skills that a designer is bringing to the table?

I don't personally buy the problem solver concept. Everyone on a good team should be a problem solver. Just because you're an engineer doesn't mean you shouldn't question if the product or feature you're building is solving the right problem.

I don't buy the idea of a user advocate either. Again, any good team member, especially the product person, should be an advocate for their users. At end of the day, the whole team is building something useful for the user, not just the designer. And anyone on the team should be enabled to talk to the users either through casual or formal research methods.

So what is the actual unique skill set a designer can bring to the table, leaving all the bullshit aside? Below are some very personal thoughts of mine. As someone who strives to be a life long learner, these are just my very humble opinions based on my 4 years of professional experience in the field.

1. A master of patterns. As an interaction designer, the one thing that should be given is you should be a master of patterns. Knowing the trade offs of a list vs grid, a hamburger menu vs exposed nav, an labeled icon vs unlabelled one. These should come natural to you. And you should be able to not only make decisions like these on the fly, you should also have very good reasons for choosing one over the other for that context.

I might have a lot of "product" and "interaction" designers flipping their tables after reading this one, because it might sounds like a very surface level problem. Yet it shouldn't be the job of the PM to figure out labeled vs unlabelled icons throughout the app based on his/her personal preferences. The designer should REALLY know all the best practices and different applications out there, and really make the decision based on the goal of the design.

2. The explorer. A picture is worth a thousand words, but a picture is also a lot less time consuming than writing things out in code. As a designer, I see it as our role to explore as many solutions to a problem as possible. 

The early stage of any ideation process is the best time to make pivots and changes. Before pouring hundreds of hours of engineering brainpower and time, the team should try out different paths and figure out which one you should actually go down. One of the strengths of design is the ability to quickly visualize a version of the idea, get people playing with it, and iterating from there. I can't imagine how much longer it would take if engineers decided to build out every design exploration or early idea the team have came up with. With design and the advent of prototyping tools, designers can quickly turn ideas into tangible experiences, and quickly gage the effectiveness of different solutions.

3. Third but not least, bridging the gap between technology and human experiences. This one might sound like its hanging on the edge of the bullshit scale I've defined earlier, but hear me out.

On the historical scale, modern technology is like a quick flash in the hundreds of thousands of years that humans have walked the Earth. Our brains and natural instincts remain largely optimized for the hunter and gatherer life styles our ancestors have grew accustomed to.

Rapid technological advancement did not come along until the 1500s. Computers as a concept was invented as recent as World War II. Modern touch screen based interactions was not popularized until 10 years ago when Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone.

Now imagine the brain of a hunter and gatherer trying to cope with the ever accelerating pace of change in its environment. To put it lightly, its not easy being a modern human. Its like a computer with hardware from the Pentium era trying to run Windows 10. Or the first generation iPhone with iOS 10 installed (for more recent tech folks.. And you thought iOS 9 ran poorly on your 6plus!)

Along comes the designers. Folks who (should) have a strong understanding of where we, as species, have came from, where our emotions lie, and what makes us tick; folks who have a deep understanding of the capabilities of modern technology; and most importantly, folks who are not afraid to dream up a future where technology is embedded into every aspect of our lives, in ways where our ancient hardware copes perfectly with the modern software (environment, exposure to information, and new capabilities unleashed by tech).