The artist as critic, the responsibility of a modern designer

15 February 2017

This month’s meetup was hosted by Valtech, a digital agency where experiences are engineered. Our speaker Jasper Hauser talked about what he has learned during his 15 years of experience in product design and especially the stories of his work at Facebook were inspiring. Valtech welcomed us into their office lunchroom in Utrecht with prosecco and a delicious Chinese diner.

 

With his talk ‘The artist as critic; the responsibilities of a modern designer’ Jasper took us on a journey through the biggest lessons he learned. The design landscape has changed severely from ‘I think it’s pretty’ or ‘it’s a feeling’ to having a real influence in developing products and using talent in looking ahead, fantasising about how it could be in the future. Designers know the creation process, it’s what they do. But how they do it has become different as the role of the designer is changing.

 

So what are the most important things, Jasper has learned? Using information and making decisions. You will need to do those two things the most when making products or being a start-up.

  • Using information gives you the insight what problem you are solving. Information substantiates your idea, your gut feeling, your hunch. Is it a good idea to put money in? Information gives you a goal: which problem are you solving? And it gives you a framework within which parameters you are solving it. Talk to your users. “Feedback is a gift” is one of the mottos of Facebook’s organisation.
  • So how do make (better) decisions? That’s not easy. In making decisions it’s important you check in with each other on a regular basis to check if you are still going in the same direction: did we assume the right or the same things? The decision making process is never a straight line with a few moments on that line where you decide things. In worst case scenario it’s more like a muddle of wool. If you are doing a pretty good job at periodically making decisions it might look something like this, see picture.


 

Besides these two important main issues Jasper had, of course, more insights to share with us. Like interest bias. Everybody has it. You work with your perspective on the world. You look at how things should be done, from your role or profession and that’s fine. But you will become a better designer/developer/project manager if you know you are biased. It gives you a broader perspective and enables you to listen and understand that while working on one thing, different angles tackle different issues along the way. That way you bridge gaps, which makes you create a better product together. If you don’t check in with each other and don’t use information and the talent of your team to plan and formulate why you do what you do and what problem you are solving; you are most probably just wasting (a lot of) money.

Empathy! You need empathy when you’re designing for people. Have you ever designed a product that you didn’t use yourself? Most of us have. But you need to understand what it is you need to solve.

If you are designing for multiple cultures or for the whole world, like Facebook is, you need to research diversity. You don’t design just for your own kind of people. For example: Facebook noticed whole continents were struggling to use their product. They went out and researched why. They found out that in some continents it costs people an entire month’s salary worth on internet costs just to download the app. That explains why those people didn’t use the product! So Facebook launched “Facebook Lite”. A Facebook app made for countries with limited access or very expensive internet. This product went from 0 users to 300 million users in 3 years’ time. This would have never happened if they hadn’t acknowledge that different live in different contexts, or for different reasons and had researched it. So talk to your users and consider feedback a gift.

Another important thing is to be able to decide not to go through with an idea. Many people have trouble making the decision to stop and keep on going for the wrong reasons. If your problem isn’t a problem for enough people or you are not the right person to solve it or the technique doesn’t allow you to solve it properly or …. whatever reason. You must be prepared and bold enough to acknowledge your idea is not worth pursuing.

And what is the relevance of big data? When you have a lot of information, you first need to have defined specific questions you want answers to. Otherwise all the data in the world has no value.

 

Of course there were questions about how to get a job at Facebook 🙂 Jasper explained the process. You can apply very simple and you don’t need a diploma. You have to ‘pass’ three 45-minute phone calls to get invited for a full day of workshops and sessions with colleagues. Also this day you will have to pass. They only hire the ones just as smart or even smarter than themselves. It’s a tough process. This hiring process (which Jasper helped build) asks you to show your skills.

We also learned about the organisational structure of Facebook, which is the same as almost every other Silicon Valley company. There are three main disciplines: project management, engineering and designing. Each is equally responsible for the the product, for the decisions and for its success or failure. To be able to work so freely, you need a top that supports this autonomy of its employees. And you need the best of the best doing what they love to do!

 

Jasper loves to share what he has learned in Silicon Valley and wishes more people would come back to spread the skills and knowledge they have learned overseas. He feels it’s a shame not enough people do that.

After Jasper’s presentation and the questions we enjoyed some of Valtech’s wine, beer and other soft drinks with snacks. The discussion with each other and with Jasper continued until we actually had to leave the building. It was a great meetup. Thanks to everybody for joining a good conversation!


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