In this episode Scott and I will be talking with our guest, Sid Parihar, about the importance of incorporating design from the start and how to work with a designer.
Sid worked at Apple for the last eight years as lead UX designer and now has his own agency where he works with startups helping them design their products. This is our second part of our discussion with Sid, so if you haven’t listened to episode 22 where we talked about how to embrace design to improve your products.
Robert: In this episode Scott and I will be talking with Sid Parihar about how to incorporate design into your culture and your products. 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 Robert Dickerson.
Scott: And I’m Scott Davis.
Robert: Sid worked at Apple for the last eight years as lead UX designer and now has his own agency where he works with startups helping them design their products. This is our second part of our discussion with Sid so if you haven’t listened to the first episode, which is episode 22 where we talked about design as a fundamental way of building products, go back and take a listen to that episode first. I want to talk a little bit about giving people a sense of working with the designer. Our listeners are entrepreneurs, people that are developing products. I want to see if you can give us a sense of, let’s say I have an idea and i come to you, I know you’re starting your own design agency. What kind of things do you look for in that initial meeting and working together with people building products? I mean do you like to see sketches of what they’re interested in and kind of start from there? Do you like to see more details the better?
Sid: Yeah, so this has been an interesting transition for me because I was telling Scott earlier about how I’ve been a corporate laky most of my life, I actually, I kind of get a spectrum. I’ve had people who’ve come with very vague ideas of what they want and I think I’ve had people who’ve come with, defines 40 page keynote presentations with designs that they’ve put together themselves. Honestly, I think they’re both amazing. I know that sounds like a slightly cop out kind of answer but, again, a big part of your job again as a designer is to be able to empathize and understand where your client is coming from. Every person has a different way of expressing themselves. Some people are better at picturing things inside their head. Some people are better at picturing things on a piece of paper. Whatever that might be.
You just try and work with what it is. Now of course having said that, there are certain projects you feel more passionate toward yourself than maybe certain others depending on your own interests and where you’re coming from. What I look for in projects, I mainly just look for the people and whether they’re flexible and whether they’re people who have at least a basic understanding of how important or how useful design can be to them and their organization because you do need to have that sort of common ground. You’ll still have to do a lot of work in educating them and helping them see and understand why design is so valuable so that they continue to give you freedom and they continue to rely on you to kind of map out the project direction but I think you do need a certain initial level of understand that that’s important.
Which, often you do have because if they’re coming to you and looking for design services, somewhere along the line they’ve learned or understood that okay this thing called design, I may not fully understand it, I may not grasp it, but there are people out there who are good at it and I know I need to have it in order to make my product better or stand out from all the other competitors that I have. That’s kind of the main thing that I look for. From that point on I just kind of help them understand that the more they’re able to lean on that, the more they’ll have the possibility of coming up with something that is unique or different or new and something that stands out. I think where it becomes a little challenging is the time aspect sometimes. I think sometimes people do come in with slightly unrealistic expectations. They kind of want the next Apple level product but they want it done in like three months.
Scott: Or like three days.
Sid: Yeah, three days. I say Rob raising his hand there, but it doesn’t work like that unfortunately.
Scott: That’s interesting because we’ve been talking recently in our mobile app series about what the costs are for the development side of things and the anticipation, what I use the expectation for people in companies is that it shouldn’t cost that much and it should be very quick but they don’t understand that all of these things take time and when you start talking about design it’s no expectation there. I think you were starting to go down that direction, do you feel that there’s an unreasonable expectation or a lack of understanding in what that should be and does that hurt products that are being made because it’s been short sided?
Sid: Yeah. First of all I don’t think there’s any malicious intent behind it but it’s like anybody who runs a company. I almost imagine, you know like in Hollywood movies often you’ll get this general character. When there’s some big like …
Scott: Nicholas Cage?
Sid: Yeah, Nicholas Cage always. Always Nicholas Cage and he’ll kind of walk into a really high pressure situation and there are people tapping away on keyboards and hacking into systems or whatever it might be and he’ll come and ask this, “Where is this thing that I was looking for?” And they’ll say, “Well that will take another three days.” He’ll say, “Well I want it now. I want it yesterday.” You kind of sit there and think to yourself well yeah that’s a great thing to say but it just doesn’t work like that. I wish we could invent time travel.
Scott: There’s actual friction in the world that prevents us from completing things.
Sid: Exactly. The funny part about it is that, and the reason I kind of bring that silly old anecdote is just the fact that that friction is what causes you to make great things in the first place. If there is no friction, there is no need for new wonderful things that will make our life easier. The whole reason why we build these kind of products is because we’re trying to remove some friction somewhere and designers and technologists I think, the ones who are most adept at coming up with great products are the ones who actually use that friction to their advantage.
Scott: Without friction there’s no change.
Sid: There’s no change, exactly. Absolutely right. It is in the grinding of those gears that the new ideas come up. Like you and I have been in enough meetings to know that sometimes we will start with a super vague idea of where we want to go but after a lot of friction we finally end up somewhere where we all go, “Oh my gosh. That’s it.”
Scott: It feels like we just did that yesterday.
Sid: Yeah exactly. The reason behind that is because you need to let that process kind of play out. You can’t cut a baseball game short to two innings and expect a result out of it. You have to play the game and it’s the same with making products. I think sometimes what happens is, and this kind of goes back to what I mean by designers isn’t this thing you tack onto the top of the whole process. It’s something that has to be a part of what you do from day one. You can’t think that you’ve done all the work of building a company, building a product, then kind of come to a designer at the end and say, “Oh, by the way now can you like design this.” I mean maybe they’ll be able to put a nice coat of paint on it or something but it’s not actually going to get to the heart of solving the structural issue.
That’s one of the things I really always encourage people to understand is that for a lot of people design means the visual of the aesthetic whereas, to a designer the visual of the aesthetic is actually one small part of a much bigger hole. Designing means, it just means thinking about everything, the aesthetic, the function, the business side, all of that, and it all informs how you approach something. The one thing that I know that we were extremely good at at Apple and the companies that have been a part of, they’ve come up with groundbreaking solutions or really come up with things that kind of move things forward, are companies that have had the function of design and technology and marketing and all of those things. All there right from day one.
The most important thing, and I know you’ll hear this from like business leaders and top leaders all the time, it still comes down to the team at the end of the day. You have to assemble the right team before you guys can kind of jam and do something great. You’ve got to put the band together first. You’ve got to have great people inside the kitchen before you can start making amazing dishes. Without that it just isn’t going to happen so being able to focus on assembling the team and then giving the people who you know are good at their job, the freedom to just like come together and jam and go through that friction process and seeing that whole process through is the best thing you can do.
One of the things that I always try and remember when it comes to building great teams, that I remember going back to our earlier question, I was reading an interview with this man called Michael Mower, who’s the chief of design at Porsche. Now I love Porsche’s, just beautiful beautiful cars and I studied automotive design when I was at school so cars are like something that I just innately love and adore. They’re like rolling sculptures on wheels. Anyway, so I’m constantly reading about car based news or whatever. There was this publication who had done an interview with him and they asked him this question about, like what is your job, like what do you do exactly as the chief of design of this very iconic company?
He said, he kind of gave an interesting answer. He says, “We have this design studio where all my designers work and other people who are associated with the project. A few engineers, a few marketing people, and we have the studio where we’re able to put everybody in the same space and here’s what I do, I put all those people in that space.” Then he says, “We have these two big doors at the front of that studio and I walk out those two doors, then I close those two doors behind me, I lock it, and I then I stand there and make sure that nobody else can walk in.” He was talking metaphorically of course but what he was trying to say was is that his job as a leader of that time, the leader of the future design direction of Porsche and their products, is to make sure that he assembles the right group of people and then gives them the space in which they can just do their thing.
Scott: It’s the old startup analogy of you’re an airport operator, just pave the runway, make sure it’s good, and get out of my way.
Scott: Tell them to do, tell them their vertical.
Sid: Exactly right. Yeah don’t get in their way and just let them do what they do best. Of course you have to be heavily involved in that process but you have to be involved in the sense that you’re always building that protective bubble for them and in practice, I have really really found that to be true.
Scott: It’s a respect and trust that allow that to happen.
Sid: Absolutely right. Now finding that talent of course is the really difficult part but that’s the way it is.
Robert: I was curious about how, you know there’s the existing patterns that users are familiar with when using your email or doing certain things, so I’m curious how you balance that when you’re working on a new project or you’re starting to brainstorm about a project. How you balance those existing patterns versus kind of allowing your creativity to develop kind of new styles and new patterns that you want people to learn that might be better, right?
Sid: Yeah, absolutely, and that’s a challenge I think that technologists face all the time. Sometimes those new ways of doing things come from a cool new technology that’s been developed, like multi-touch or something like that. It’s a constant process of evolution. It’s true that you’ll find two kinds of people I feel. There are people who are very kind of change averse. People who don’t really want to learn new habits or once they’ve become set in their ways they kind of just want to continue down that path. It takes a great deal of momentum to deflect them away from that. I’m sure there’s like some law of physics that sums that whole concept up beautifully but then you have people who just like love diving right in and love trying new things out. I actually don’t think it’s a bad thing that some people are a little bit change averse. I actually think that balance is super important.
That you need to, so there is this concept in design and in product development called future shock. I don’t know if you guys, if you’re familiar with it but the idea behind future shock is that you can introduce something into the market that’s so advanced, that’s so far out into the future that it ends up failing just because of the fact that people have no sort of past reference to connect with this new thing of the future. It would be the equivalent of taking somebody from today’s world and then dropping them in the world of like 2639, centuries out into the future. It just, you will be completely disoriented so a big part of introducing people to new ways of doing things is also being able to understand what they already know, or what these existing mental models are and actually using that as a vehicle to then help them understand what this new thing is.
I’ll give you an example of that, the iPhone. The iPhone is a great example of that. The iPhone was something that was really far out into the future. It had this new interaction technology in the form of multi-touch and to anybody completely unfamiliar with that kind of technology, it could have seemed very alienating at first. Even though we think of it as being very intuitive today, the truth is if you go back to the world of when the iPhone was first introduced, it actually wasn’t that intuitive. I mean cell phones were still very difficult things to use. Smartphones, especially. One of the ways in which Apple was able to familiarize people with the usage of this multi-touch device, just by giving them a hint that things can be tapped and touched, is not by putting up a message on the iPhone and saying, “Oh, by the way just tap here to do this or whatever.” Because again none of that exists inside a persons head.
We’re still coming from a world where people are still used to pressing buttons so we have the latest iPhone software today which doesn’t rely on heavily on shadows and stuff like that but the first versions of the iPhone interface did and there’s a very very good functional reason behind that. It’s not an aesthetic thing. I mean the aesthetic just was a final expression of the function you wanted to achieve, which was to make it feel like a touchable button.
Scott: To give it texture.
Sid: To give it texture, exactly. If you were able to make the button on screen look as tactile as a button you would find on a wall, like a switch, then you were able to subconsciously sort of explain to people how that thing works because now you’re suddenly taking this new thing and connecting it with how people know the world works.
Scott: What’s interesting about that is, Rob you have kids and I do as well, my three year old, he uses his iPad all day long. He’s been using it for a year and a half. I’ve got a one year old, who a couple months ago picked up my wives phone and started swiping through screens. Whether that was learned by watching us do it or it was just this innate natural thing to want to touch and swipe, it just occurred to me how brilliant Steve Jobs, yourself, other members of the team that worked on those products were in creating something that was so natural that we didn’t know could be natural. It just blew my mind that a 10-month-old kid can pick up a device and know exactly what to do with it.
Sid: Yup. I completely agree and that’s the real genius of it is just that once you’re able to bridge that, just that initial gap, just that first moment when you look at something and you kind of stare at it and think, “Okay so what do I do now?” The moment you’re able to finally take that first step and touch something or swipe something, that’s it. Instantly all the dots connect inside your head. I can almost imagine like all the neurons inside your brain lighting up and just knowing that, “Oh okay. I get this now.” It’s so much more intuitive and easy to understand from that point on.
Really what a lot of time is spent on for designers is helping people make that initial connection, just that first like half a step and then most of the work from that point on just kind of becomes easy because if you’re able to connect all those, or help people connect all those dots quickly, about how something should work, like how something like multi-touch should work than they get that. Then from that point on, everything else becomes this kind of easy gentle slope from where you can, “Oh I’ll go tap on this. I’ll go swipe on that and I’ll do this. I mean I don’t know what this thing does but let me just put my fingers on it and see what happens.” That learning curve associated really drops. You still have to constantly like push for easier and easier ways of interacting with things but even with the most seemingly easy way of doing things, you still have to work out that first, just kind of helping people form that initial connection with how it should work.
That’s where a lot of this kind of intuitive feeling comes from. It’s that feeling that a person gets when they finally are able to figure it out and say, “Oh, okay, now I get it. Now I see why this works the way it does and this is not that different from how I know other things to work.” It’s like when I’m using an iPhone, I know we don’t actively think about these things but when you’re using an iPhone and tapping away on things, it isn’t that different from going and flicking a light switch. It is much more tactile, even though you’re doing it on a screen that’s flat and just kind of changes its shape based on the app that you’re loading. It’s really quite phenomenal to imagine that we’re able to give people this canvas which can be anything anytime but the way you’re connecting that is by drawing on people’s already familiar mental models of how things around them work already.
Scott: The sense I get, if you look at Tom Hanks in the move Castaway, did you see that?
Sid: Yeah I did. Great film.
Scott: Tom Hanks, he lost all this weight and spent some time on a remote island to actually see what it would be like mentally to be in this scenario so this happens all the time. Actors put themselves in these scenarios where they’re actually experiencing the role that they’re about to play and I did that to an extent. I know baseball very well. When I used to do baseball apps I would go to the stadium and listen to conversations that people were having to get ideas on what features I wanted to implement and I get the sense that one of the things that sets you apart as a designer is your desire, not your job, but your desire is to put yourself into a different mindset to help you design an experience. Whether it’s a restaurant app or it’s a social app or whatever it is, you want to put yourself in that mind of the user and is that something that you see a lot in the design space or are you an exceptional example of that?
Sid: Well I don’t think I’m an exceptional example of anything to be honest.
Scott: I just got another $20 [inaudible 00:19:58]
Sid: It’s funny because I do love Castaway and I think Wilson should have one best actor. Personally, definitely, I think Wilson was the best thing about that movie and looking at Scott’s head, actually I’m reminded of Wilson.
Scott: Very good. Very good.
Sid: No, I hope it isn’t exceptional. Okay like some egotistical part of me wants that to be the case, but I would love to live in a world where every person has a fine tuned sense of what’s intuitive and live with a lot of empathy. I think a lot of the ways in which I try to approach design, the way I like to think about it is, because what you’re describing is empathy basically. The term for it is kind of that sense of being able to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, understanding what their issues are, what their needs are, what their designs are. The more you’re able to inhabit that, the more you’re able to, to use an analogy, method act, you’re able to kind of become them, and then you can use your expertise in a certain area, like technology or design to craft solutions for that need.
In a nutshell that’s kind of the whole process of design but I think the whole world would be a better place if all of us, like approach everything with a great deal of empathy. I think a designers job just happens to depend on, well I should say, a good designers job and their ability to do something well depends on them being able to be very very empathetic. That’s something I actually have spent a lot of time deliberately teaching myself how to do. Yeah I’ve had sleepless nights where I’ve just been sitting there wondering. I’m just like, “This must be making people miserable. Like I need to give them something better,” or, “Oh my gosh, I wish I could improve upon this thing I worked two years ago because looking back at it that’s just not good enough.”
The really strange part about it is that whenever I hit that point where I think something is as simple as it possibly could be and as intuitive as it could be, guaranteed somebody comes along who proves that that is not the case. Somebody out there who, even if you give them the simplest, easiest product out there, it will prove to you that it is not as easy as you think. It’s much easier than maybe how things used to be, but it’s still difficult for some people and that’s when I always try to take a step back and think, instead of patting myself on the back, try to kind of take a step back and say, “See, this is why you need to be empathetic because there is still somebody who finds all this technology stuff way too hard out there.”
Scott: My parents.
Sid: Yeah, no, absolutely, and parents and grandparents are often sighted as kind of an example of that. I think one of the best things I’ve also done for myself is try and make myself as much of the sort of [inaudible 00:23:01] if you can when it comes to technology. I’m a very tech savvy person in the sense that I love new technology, I want to play with the coolest new stuff all the time, but I also … Obviously as I know that, it helps me make things better and it helps me be more involved or better involved in the things that I’m doing but some part of me wants to completely disconnect from all of that as well because it helps me better inhabit the mind of the person who’s not from the world of technology.
A lot of time, a lot of my career has been spent making things that anyone can use, that the last thing you want is to put a barrier between that person and the thing they want to achieve be the technology piece. You’re a musician, you want to create great music, that’s all that matters at the end of the day. The technology should enable that. If it’s getting in your way than it’s not doing its job right. So much of the history of technology unfortunately has been that getting in the way process. That’s where designers I think are particular useful is they help remove a lot of those barriers but it’s a constant uphill battle. You can never kind of get to the point where you think, “Ah well this is definitely the perfect state. This is now easy enough.” It’s never easy enough.
That’s where putting yourself in another person’s shoes really helps. There’s a little corollary I just want to add to that that in the past, I used to try and put myself in another person’s shoes. Like I say, “Okay, well,” funny, I actually used to do this thing where I would try and like imagine or picture the person I was designing something for. Like I’d always try to boil it down to one person and I think this kind of started happening when I kind of went into the corporate world, where you would be faced with big numbers and they’d say, “Oh we’re designing this for an audience of 100 million people.” I can’t picture that. I don’t even know what 100 million people looks like. You lose that sense of connection with the specific person using your thing.
At some times I kind of started doing this mental exercise where I started imagining one person I was building this for. This person would be the most prototypical user of the product. This was a person who would always find it very difficult to use technology. I would always go for a person who needed maximum hand holding basically and then I would imagine that person and then I would pull a stock photo of someone online, just some man or some woman and I would give them a name to kind of humanize them. I call them like Ben or something and then I would print out a seven by five and then frame it up and put it on my desk like it was a family member.
Sid: Yeah exactly. I would say yeah this is the person I’m making this for. The funny thing is over time, that person more and more has become me. I have become a sort of composite sketch of all of these people that I’ve imagined. Now I often go into these things saying, “You know, let’s just design something amazing for myself. Something that I would just absolutely love and would love using everyday.” If I can do it really well for myself than there’s got to be other people out in the world who want to make use of that as well.
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.
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 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.