How To Embrace Design To Improve Your Products

Episode 22

In this episode Scott and I will be talking with our guest, Sid Parihar about how design isn’t a function, but it’s a fundamental way of building products.

Sid worked at Apple for the last eight years as a lead UX designer and how has his own agency where he works with startups, helping them design their products. We’ve broken our conversation with Sid into two episodes. In this episode we’re going to talk about the evolution of design and how to incorporate design thinking into your company.

Find us on Twitter @The_Scott_Davis or @RobDickersonJr

Transcript

Robert: In this episode Scott and I will be talking with our guest, Sid Parihar about how design isn’t a function, but it’s a fundamental way of building product.

Scott: This is the Stretch Goals Podcast, where each week we’ll share insights and lessons learned based on our experiences as entrepreneurs. We’ll challenge you to create ambitious goals as you start and grow your business. I’m your host, Scott Davis.

Robert: I’m Robert Dickerson. Sid worked at Apple for the last eight years as a lead UX designer and how has his own agency where he works with startups, helping them design their products. We’ve broken our conversation with Sid into two episodes. In this episode we’re going to talk about the evolution of design and how to incorporate design thinking into your company. Sid, welcome to the show.

Sid: Thanks for having me.

Robert: Sid, tell us a little bit about your background in design and what types of projects you’ve been working on and what you’re doing right now.

Sid: Yeah. Well I’ve been working, yeah in the design field for like the last sort of ten odd years, a little bit more than that now I guess. For most of that time I worked at Apple, where I worked on a bunch of different projects. Largely kind of focused on the mobile side of things. Just got involved with some cool projects that people kind of use. That’s kind of what I do. I basically kind of lead what they call UX design, which is not really like a big favorite of mine, to be honest. It’s kind of like a little industry, jargon-ey sort of term. I just like to say design. My job happens to kind of focus more on the combination of aesthetic and function side of things, so how things work and how things look. Also a big part of it is also how things feel as well. The kind of sum total of that is often referred to as UX, or experience design.

Scott: What’s funny is that I’ve had the pleasure of working with Sid in different capacities over the last couple of years, and I typically am not a person who will recommend people, but Rob, you haven’t seen any of Sid’s designs I don’t think. He just thinks about things in a very intuitive and natural way. The way that that extends to mobile and web, and even print, is different than anyone else that I’ve ever seen. Typically people think about like they’re going to design, they’re a print designer or they’re a mobile designer, but they don’t think about everything. The way Sid’s brain works, it thinks about everything, and that’s kind of how you and I are when it comes to software and engineering. Sid is really the yin to our yang, and that’s why when people say, “Hey, I need a designer for a mobile app.” I’m like, “I know exactly who you should talk to.”

Robert: Well that feeds into something I wanted to talk about, I think, with you Sid. Just kind of the evolution of product design. Companies now really are building cultures around design, and people are really thinking about, in terms of their product development, incorporating design through the whole aspect of things. There’s so much you have to think about now. You’re talking about UX design, you have mobile apps, you have web apps, you have responsive apps. You have things going to TV’s and stuff like that. Talk about how you’ve seen the evolution of design, maybe in the last couple years, and how companies are starting to embrace that more.

Sid: Yeah. Actually that’s an amazing question. I think the thing that would kind of help with that is a little bit of historical context. I was very lucky, I had a sort of classical design education. A big part of that is kind of just learning about the history of design and kind of how we got here. For a lot of the post-industrial revolution history of the world, we’ve become very good at like making manufactured items. At some stage we became very sophisticated as a species at making glassware and furniture and cars, and all kinds of other things.

I was very lucky, I have an education in learning traditional product design. With technology design, things are kind of different, similar but different I should say. Similar in the sense that you’re still using the same process, the same techniques, the same thought process, understanding how something works and how to make it beautiful, how to make it approachable and pleasurable to use. All of those things are still at the core of what you’re trying to build. Then the medium is completely different. You just have this like blank canvas, especially in software, you can just do anything with. You’re not constrained by the use of a certain material, for example.

There are limiting factors at the end of the day, yeah. I know we all want to see Minority Report like interfaces flying around, but there are certain technological limitations to that, but I’m sure we’ll get there someday. Especially like in the movies, you can imagine these things because you have an even more blank canvas. You can just come up with whatever you’d like. Someday that’s going to kind of be the future. It’s like, I think people use the analogy of like the Star Trek communicator a lot, don’t they? The communicator is the modern day cell phone basically.

The way I like to approach design and the way I like to think about it for any kind of new product, is just sort of understanding that you’re building this because you’re trying to do something good, or make something good, for someone somewhere. I think that’s kind of the key to kind of get to a point where you have to understand that you’re not just building this for the sake of building it, you’re doing it because somebody somewhere will find it useful. At its very core, that’s kind of what a lot of “designing” is about. It’s about being able to be very empathetic with the person who will be using it, and kind of build it around them.

The reason I mention that is because that’s traditionally one of the things that technology companies haven’t been very good. They’ve kind of lacked that level of empathy. Something that the world of, say automobile design, so car design, kind of mastered a long time ago, was knowing that a lot of the technology in cars was kind of becoming standardized. Everything had an engine and cars had to be built out of certain materials. We sort of figured a lot of that out. That the way you could appeal to people and kind of get a competitive advantage over other companies, was by building a product that kind of played more to your emotions. You come up with really beautiful, sexy looking cars, with engines that are even more powerful and make a beautiful sound. That’s all part and parcel of the thrill of owning something, of using something.

That’s something certainly, coming back to that question of the evolution of design and technology, it’s something that tech companies really didn’t understand. In a previous life, like before my time at Apple, I used to work at IBM, and things were different there. You could tell there was a still a corporation. From what I’ve heard things are different, so again, I never mean to say anything negative about anyone. I know IBM themselves, they’re a very design-centric corporation these days as well. Back then that’s not really how it was, because that’s just not how a lot of tech companies went about doing things. Apple really sort of bucked that trend. They were the ones who were able to introduce and familiarize the rest of the world with what it meant to design something well and incorporate that feeling of, that sort of feeling of beautiful and joyful into their products. The funny thing is, they’ve been doing that pretty much since the inception of the company. They’ve been doing that since like the late 70’s, early 80’s. Minus a little period in the middle during the 90’s.

I think the world kind of never caught on because Apple’s success in the last few years has kind of made people stand up take notice of, “Okay, why is it that they’ve been so successful?” Obviously Apple hammers home in designers a message of great design all the time. Suddenly you have companies saying, “Oh what is their design stuff all about and how can we incorporate it into our corporate structure? How can we make this something that will help us find more success?” In terms with anything. If you want to be a successful company and have a successful product, you have to be amazing at technology. You have to be amazing at marketing. Equally you have to be amazing at design, because people want to have cool stuff. They want to be able to say, “Oh, this is something that makes my life better.” Or easier, or helps me spend more time with my kids and take some of the burden off from other tasks in my life. I think that’s where design can play a really crucial role.

Scott: We’re just picking your brain and we want to share what you’ve learned with ourselves and our listeners. You touched on one thing that I had a question about. You said you had the fortunate experience to have a great design education. Do you feel like design is something that’s either in your or it’s not, or can it be taught? Is it a mixture? How does, in your mind, how does it work?

Sid: Yeah, that’s a really, really good question. I can’t remember who I was having this conversation with, but I feel like somebody sort of brought that up a couple of days ago. I remember vaguely. Do I think it’s something innate in you? No, I don’t think so. It’s probably maybe like if you were to go into the history of like biology and how humans evolve and stuff. I actually think, if anything, I think creativity is innate in us. I think the one thing that every human possess, from birth, is creativity and the ability to come up with new ideas and think up new things. I just think as a society sometimes we do an absolutely terrible job of fostering that. You’ve got young kids, right? You would want them to grow up to be very creative people, no matter what field they choose for themselves.

Scott: Sure. Yeah.

Sid: I think that’s super important. I think if anything, I think we sometimes spend a lot of time thinking about the question of, okay well … Because people say this, don’t they? They say, “Oh, you know, I’m just not a creative person.” They say that all the time, and that’s just not true. There have been studies after studies that have been done, that have shown that humans are actually more creative just out of the box, than they are not creative. If it’s not encouraged or developed over time, then that’s something that can kind of fall away from you a bit.

Again coming back to your question. I think where I got lucky was the fact that it was something that was encouraged in me from a kind of relatively young age. I was very fortunate to have parents who were very design and style oriented and stuff. They understood that, that a more sort of creative education was important for me, so they pushed me in that direction. Always encouraging me to kind of find my own path as well. That’s where a traditional sort of design education came in really handy.

What your education is kind of buying you is just being able to do it in a more sophisticated way. Being able to do it better. Being able to understand some of the concepts more deeply. Does it necessarily make or break whether you’re a creative person? I don’t think so. I think it’s the kind of thing that any person in a corporation, any entrepreneur, any CEO of a budding startup, anybody can incorporate that, but it does mean sort of resetting the way you think a little bit and being able to kind of look at things, just kind of approach things from different angles.

Scott: Sure. What I heard is Rob, you can be a designer.

Sid: Yeah.

Robert: I try to be.

Sid: Absolutely, and I highly encourage it.

Robert: I mean the thing that I always find is striking that balance between technology and design. Creating something that’s perfect versus, something we’ve talked about in a previous episode is getting it launched. It’s kind of like you wan to be creative, but you also have a deadline and you also have to get things launched. That’s really kind of something I struggle with in my own design work and then when I hire other designers as well, is kind of projecting of how much time do we have to get this design done versus, we need to get it out there.

Sid: Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s that saying, great artists ship as well. It’s true, that they do. I think also, just I think I’m very fortunate in the sense that certainly thinking about my own evolution as a designer, when I was kind of younger in my career I think, I was much more about the sort of purity of the design process. I used to think of it as this kind of separate track that you kind of bring into the culture of a company. That’s where I think the biggest amount of changes happened in my thinking, is that it’s not a separate thing that you do when you go somewhere. It’s not a separate function. It’s something that just is innate to the way you work.

Scott: Did you have, or do you think that designers have an innate style, like an artist, that carries into their design that they apply to everything? If so, how did Apple either change or influence that style in you?

Sid: Yeah, absolutely. I think there is a ability to foster some kind of, I mean you have to as a designer, as a young designer you’re always encouraged to have your own style. When you look around you, like we’re in New York City today, when you look around you you have all these different buildings of different eras with different styles. Some are art deco, some are modern, some are post-modern. These are all different styles that you have, and different architects who are basically designers of very big things. They have their own approach and they subscribe to different schools of thought. You will, I think naturally, at least in my case and I can’t speak for anybody else, but at least in my case I always find myself gravitating to certain types of styles than others.

Apple played a huge role in that, absolutely. Apple was always this kind of shining beacon of sort of modern, kind of the German, Scandinavian design ethic. I was again very lucky, because I was educated in Europe. In Europe, you’ll notice where it’s different from America sometimes, is the fact that design is not something you think of as a separate thing. Design is just how your whole life runs. You either do it right and you do it well, or you don’t. That, in essence, is kind of how you see things. That’s where a lot of my philosophies around design have been informed. That’s what I loved about Apple, because I got the feeling by looking at their stuff, when I was a young man. Whenever I looked at an Apple designed product, I always got the feeling that somebody really thought about this. This wasn’t an afterthought. This was something that was part of the DNA of the thing that was, the product right from the start.

Scott: Something that you said that is interesting to me, I never had thought about it this way, is that design and development are not that different, in a sense, because when I think about what I’m writing or what I’m creating, it’s a holistic vision of the entire solution. It’s not just I’m writing this one part. How does it interact with everything else? Built from the ground up. It takes a certain amount of creativity, which programmers call problem solving, but it’s the same thing. I had never thought about it until just now. Designers and developers are so different. Actually, we’re not.

Sid: Yeah.

Scott: When it boils down to it. That’s very interesting.

Sid: Absolutely. I completely agree, and I know I’m going to sound like I’m being a little like kumbaya philosophical here or something, but I think humans have this amazing ability to find differences between each other. We always want to kind of say, “Oh this is what I do and this is what you do, and I’m different and you’re different.”

Scott: Yes. That separation, yeah.

Sid: Yeah, and in reality I don’t think that’s true, or should be true. I think there’s more overlap in how we do things and what we want to achieve at the end of the day. I know you want to make things that are amazing and beautiful and joyful. That stuff that people will love, as much as I do. It just so happens that our specific areas of expertise and how we approach that is kind of a little bit different. I know that my success heavily rides on being able to collaborate with engineers like you. Because I might have an idea for how things might work, but I know my ideas will be ten times better if I’m able to collaborate with you effectively.

That’s another thing I’ve also kind of, where the evolution I think of me as a designer, and I’ve even kind of seen how the technology industry in parallel has kind of evolved alongside of it. Because I was entering sort of the tech world at I feel just the right time. I was kind of in that transition phase when the tech world hadn’t really valued design, but then started recognizing the importance of it. I’m very lucky that I kind of got in with that wave and was able to bring some of the classic design thinking into that field. I realized that there were people around me who were more from the engineering side of things who were just as passionate about product design as I was. Being able to collaborate with those people is honestly the best part of the job.

Because sort of early on I used to think it’s like, very young in my career. Fresh out of college, “I’m going to go in. I’m going to teach everyone how to do design.” It’s so stupid when you think about it. Now I kind of look back at it and think, that was absolutely, that’s not the way you approach things. It’s a very collaborative process. You’re always trying to find people who are just passionate about building something great. If you can collect enough of those people, I think they’ll all have enough mutual respect to understand that the point of view that somebody is coming from in their area of expertise is crucial to the overall success of the product.

A good engineer like you knows that playing to the emotional aspects of a product is equally as important as playing to the technological aspects. Just as I know that playing to the technological aspects is equally as important as playing to the emotional and aesthetic side of things. One of the best things honestly I ever did, looking back at it, was at school I took several semesters worth of coding classes.

Scott: I didn’t know that.

Sid: Yeah. I don’t use it, admittedly, but the fact is it helps me have a more informed discussion with people, with my engineers.

Scott: You have a basic understanding of the pieces that make up the process.

Sid: Absolutely right, which is why I also love working with the engineers who love products themselves or love design themselves, because there’s at least that kind of common ground there.

Scott: You understand how crazy we are too, for wanting to do that every day.

Sid: Absolutely I do. Let me put it this way. I’m glad I’m not a coder.

Scott: What’s your advice for a startup or a designer who are starting out? What do you do? What do you say to them?

Sid: Yeah. Oh my gosh. I feel like I could give so much advice and it would probably all land nowhere. I really, really think, going back to the earlier point about team building. You have to be able to bring the right people together. I know that’s not easy to do and often there’s a dearth of talent, or where do you even go find them? Whatever, but you’ve got to be able to create that environment where people actually enjoy being around each other. When I think of the fact that I’m sitting here, again kind of going a little meta again. I’m sitting here recording a podcast with Scott. I think of how I met Scott. The fact that we were brought together on a project. The fact that my relationship with you was built up because of our sort of mutual understanding of each other, or a kind of desire to actually be around each other and work on something. Now because of that I’ve met Rob, and my circle grows.

Sid: Exactly. That I think is fundamentally still what any product, any startup, any design, any technology is and should be all about. It’s about the human element. If you can incorporate that into your startup from day one, if you can make it about the people that you’re doing this for and with, then things just, I think there’s a greater likelihood that things will fall in place for you as you go.

Scott: One thing to comment on that. I’ve seen this in the last year. Investors care less about the technology now, and they care more about the team. They will invest in the team more quickly in 2017 than they would have in 2014.

Sid: Yeah, absolutely.

Scott: Because it’s all about that team dynamic.

Sid: Because ideas change, right? Ideas evolve and you can pivot. Startups know the term pivot like they know hello. It’s true though, ideas change, ideas evolve. You’re doing this thing today and you’re starting from this place, but a year down the line you might realize there’s a much better way of expressing that original idea that you came up with, or just a much better solution than the one you initially thought you had. All of that comes out of the team. That human capital. I almost wish companies could be assigned a valuation based on the value of the people inside of it, rather than purely of the chance for an IPO or sales alone. Because that human equity, or that human capital, I think is actually far more valuable in generating, well value, than any product alone can.

Robert: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Stretch Goals podcast. You can access the show notes for this episode and listen to other episodes by heading over to StretchGoals.fm.

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Robert Dickerson

@RobDickersonJr

Robert Dickerson is the Founder and CEO of Mapout a mobile learning platform that uses video courses to educate customers and train employees. He helps companies develop and launch their products.

Scott Davis

@The_Scott_Davis

Scott Davis is the Founder and CEO of MobX, a mobile development software agency. He has 20 years of experience developing software for Government, Finance, Sports and the Telecommunications industry.