Hi, everybody and welcome to Five Questions. I’m Erik Dahl and today I’m joined by both Jon Follett and Jared Spool and we’re going to be talking about design education and building teams with the right skills. Welcome, guys.
Thanks. Yeah, I’m very happy to be here.
Jared, I’m sure everyone knows who you are, but before we get into the discussion why don’t you just tell us a little bit about what you’ve been doing lately.
Lately I’ve been doing the crazy thing of trying to run two businesses into the ground.
I usually had … over 25 years I’ve restricted my hobby of trying to run one into the ground which I’ve been completely unsuccessful at, but this past couple of years we started up a second business in the area of design education and so now I have the experience. Now I’m finding it’s actually a lot easier to run two into the ground simultaneously than it is to just run one at a time.
That seems to be true. Our longtime listeners will know that last year in the winter we had a podcast around design education with Haig Armen and Dave Malouf. I think this topic is something that keeps coming up and I think there’s a reason for that. I think we wanted to explore that a little bit more with you today, not just talk about design education, but also really focus in on what are the skills that designers need for the business world today and moving forward. Where do we see all of this going? Why don’t we just get right into it and I think the first thing that we want to look at and talk about is this idea of a skills gap, right. What are the gaps in the skill sets between what design programs are currently teaching today and what the industry really requires of user experienced designers?
That’s a great question because that was exactly the question that we had when we started the Unicorn Institute project. My partner in crime on this, Leslie Jenson Inman and I, we sat down and we thought okay, a lot of the way that you design a program, so we talked to folks about if you’re going to design a school, how do you go about doing that? Almost always the way a school is designed is a bunch of really smart people who are leaders in their field get together and say education today sucks, let’s start a school, we know how to do this.
They go off and they just say look, we’re going to create this thing. They create this curriculum that’s all about the things that they think people need and then they divide up the curriculum keeping the really fun stuff for themselves and hiring a bunch of adjunct professors for the stuff that they don’t want to have to teach the basics. Then they start this school and they advertise it and because everybody knows who they are they get a lot of people to sign up and it works really well, but they don’t think about who the customer of the school is in terms of the graduates that come out. They think of the customer as the students because in essence that they are, they’re the ones paying for the program.
When Leslie and I started we both came from a different place. I was coming out of this world where I was dealing with our corporate clients who were telling me that they’re just not getting what they need in terms of designers, designers are getting harder and harder to hire in general and designers out of school just weren’t meeting the needs that they were looking for. Leslie who had just spent years getting her E.D.D. which is the education equivalent of a PhD in teaching web design, she was frustrated that the standard approach to design hasn’t changed in 20 or 30 years and that it didn’t seem to be fitting what she was seeing her students needing as they were coming out of … she was at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga and that the students weren’t … she was having to go beyond the curriculum she was given to actually produce students who would meet the needs of the companies that were trying to hire them.
We decided to sit down and tackle the problem in a radically different way than programs are typically tackled, which is we decided to go to the hiring companies first and say what is it that you need from people you’re hiring, what do you want? We decided to focus in on the specific of a title called user experienced designer, which is this generalist approach to design. One of the things that we found was that the companies were very hungry for this. With only a few exceptions everybody was ready to have designers, they really wanted generalist designers to come on. They felt very restricted by having everything siloed.
The information architects were one type of designer and visual designers were another type of designer and interaction designers were yet another type of designer and that people could only do one thing and they were stuck in those roles. We started by looking at and asking the question how would you start to create programs that were generalist designers, generalist experienced designers? That in itself proved to be an interesting challenge and guided the way that we approached everything. What we realized is at the core we have to have a curriculum that teaches folks to really be able to tackle all of the elements of design.
We’ve divided experience design up into eight categories and those are interaction design, information architecture, visual design. Copywriting we think is an essential skill of an experienced designer, being able to both write microcopy such as the stuff you’d put around a button or at the top of a form, or being able to write persuasive copy to get someone to choose an option or understand it quick or understand what goes behind what’s this link that’s next to a sophisticated option, so copywriting is key. User research is a critical component of this. We think that information design is very critical, information design which includes things like data visualization and being able to represent data very well.
Even just presenting, if you’re Dropbox, presenting a list of files and indicating what’s shared and what isn’t and things like that, that’s a key component of this. Design process management, being able to deal with the fact that we have to iterate fast and we have to work very quickly and a component that we call curation and editing which in essence is understanding how to say no to elements of the design that might show up. Being able to say no, that’s not what we want or that’s not good enough or that’s going to make things too complex and to be able to keep a razor of simplicity around. That’s the eight categories that we think are the core of experience design and the curriculum that we’re thinking of is one that focuses on those eight categories.
Yeah, I tend to agree that user experience designers need to have all of those aspects although I would add another to that which is this … and I don’t actually know how to really articulate it other than to say some forward-thinking vision, some ability to understand new technologies as they surface because I think what’s brilliant about what you’re doing, Jared, is that you’re asking what the companies want today. I think companies also don’t really know what they’re going to need tomorrow and this gap that you’ve identified is the long-term results of just not knowing what they’re going to need tomorrow which has come to a head in the design industry, but yeah.
A lot of the things that we’re doing … there’s a lot of schools out there that are set up very well to produce a designer that can be a solid design leader, a particularly creative director type or something almost immediately. They’re set up to produce the next Johnny Ive
or the next Paula Scher
or the next, I don’t know, who you think of as a great designer. They are in good position to produce these folks and so they’re producing these folks who are looking at the leading edge of technology, they’re looking at stuff that’s coming down the pike, they spend a lot of time looking at the academic research of stuff that comes out of places like KAI where you can see the future coming at you five, ten years from now if you pay attention to it and those schools do a very good job of that.
We decided early on that we didn’t want to actually work in that space, that we don’t need to do that. We need to produce all the people who are going to work for those people, who are going to actually do the design work. They don’t necessarily need to be five-year visionaries, they don’t need to be futurists, but they do need to be able to adapt to new things really fast. There’s a difference between being able to look into the future and say oh, my gosh, speech recognition is on the horizon, we need to get our groove up on understanding how we’re going to interact with speech and being at that forefront.
We’re not going to spend that much time playing in that space with our students. Instead our students are going to focus on what are the things that are now available. So now we have the toolkit that has an API that let’s us do telephonics and phone stuff and some speech detects and some speech recognition. Okay, given that toolkit, how do we play with this, what could we do with it, what is it that we could build into the application? It’s a today thing, it’s very much a today thing. It’s not five years coming down the road we need to do this.
If companies need that and companies do need that, I agree with you on that, they can get those resources from someone else. At some point, whenever you’re designing something you have to say what you are and what you’re not. We decided very early on that we were not going to produce these visionary designers for the future, we were going to create all the people who were going to work for them to execute today and produce a group of makers and executers who can really finish the project and get it fit and not be just in the mode of playing with the toys of the future. Does that make sense?
Yeah, that’s an interesting take on it. Sorry, Erik, I cut in on you.
No, it makes perfect sense and I think it’s important that you’re making that distinction and that’s an active choice around what this project that you’re doing, right, you’re saying it is this and it’s not this and I think a lot of people don’t make those active choices to say this design effort isn’t this other thing, so I think that’s interesting. I think that there is a need for that group of designers that you’re looking to help produce, but even within that group … when we talk with clients a lot of times and people that are just needing user experience design help, a lot of times they’re looking to build internal design teams, right. They haven’t had this capability internally, they’re trying to grow this UX capacity as an internal design team. I think that takes a design leader to be in there and I’m not sure that someone coming straight out of a school can do that.
In those situations we see a lot of times that those UX designers, not only are they doing a lot of tactical work to actually make this stuff real, but they’re also doing a lot of facilitation, right, a lot of listening to the different groups within the organization, whether it’s understanding business needs or understanding technology needs or understanding user needs and how do we synthesize all of these things together. They really need to play a leadership role and almost a change agent role of how can our company be more designerly. I guess, I’m wondering do you see the people that you’re looking to educate and the people that would come out of a program like what you’re describing, to be able to be those agents of change or is that still going to be on the shoulders of somebody else?
No, no, so I mentioned that we have the eight core user experience design skills that we’re building the curriculum around, but there’s also a set of design skills that we think are really important that are more soft, more soft skills. The research came for this when we started talking about hiring managers. We asked a question and when I threw the question into the research I actually expected a completely different answer than what we got. I thought it was going to be a simple question and I didn’t think it was going to really turn everything on its head.
The question was simple, it was imagine the best designer that you’ve ever worked with on your team. What separated that designer out from everybody else? It was interesting because to Jon’s point, I thought we might get some, that person could see into the future and knew that these technologies are coming this way, but they actually didn’t say that. I also had this sense that the answer we were going to get was something like oh, they were amazing wizards with Photoshop or they knew how to handle media queries like a Ninja or they were just stunning with the way they could conduct user research techniques and yeah, get data.
What was interesting was that it wasn’t that stuff either. What it was was they came back and the hiring managers were all consistent, we talked to, I don’t know, about 60 of them and at major organizations like the New York Times and G.E. and J.P. Morgan Chase and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and all these different folks. Even though we were in all these different industries, we were across non-profits and government and commercial and we got a very consistent answer across all these hiring managers and it basically was five things.
They told us that the best designers are storytellers, that they can talk about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and what’s driving what’s going on in a way that people just sit up and listen and go yes, I get it, that’s what I want to be part of and that storytelling was an essential part of their design skills. They told us that the best designers were amazing at critique. They were amazing at receiving critique and being able to take it in and one of the phrases that kept coming up was that these people were passionate about design, but just passionate about their own designs. They were also amazing at giving critique, at being able to say to somebody that’s really good, but I think we could do better and really bringing them in. The thing that was most amazing, that they thought was really the best skill was taking people who had not been in a solid critique process before and bringing them into the process and having them be able to give constructive, affirmative critiques that makes things better.
Another skill that they told us separated everybody from the rest or separated the best from the rest was sketching, being able to take an idea and render it in a form that other people look at and go, I completely get where you’re coming from. Yeah, that’s not quite going to work for us because of this, this, and this thing that I couldn’t explain before, but now that I see this I can or that’s going to work perfect, right. Being able to render that, whether it’s on a whiteboard or the back of a napkin or using a tool like Actor or in HTML or working in a browser or whatever the platform is, being able to sketch an idea out quickly such that everybody can see it. They told us that that the best folks can present, they can stand in front of a group and they can get their ideas out and they can share where they’re at and they can really communicate effectively, whether it’s in front of peers or stakeholders or even users and clients.
Finally, they told us that the best designers could facilitate, they could take a group of people in the room and they could pull out of those folks the requirements and the needs and the constraints and the context that the design has to happen in a way that you wouldn’t get if you just said okay, everybody write down all the context we have to work in today. Be able to actually do activities and run meetings and do game storming stuff and bring that stuff out. We think that that’s a core piece of the curriculum that has to be there and it’s going to have to be reinforced throughout the period of learning, so that when the students come out of the school they are completely skilled in storytelling, critique, sketching, presenting and facilitating.
Yeah, I think that’s really interesting and I’m not really surprised to hear those things. When I think about, if I reflect back on what do I look for when I’m hiring designers into the studio and I think that that’s consistent with what you’re saying, right, all of those things. I think in addition to that there’s this sense of, at least that I look for is curiosity and playfulness. People that are always open to learning new things and aren’t stuck with this is the way we did it last time, so this is how we’re going to do it next time, are always looking at the problem that’s in front of them and trying to figure out new ways and adapt methodologies and create new methodologies and new design patterns to evolve, ideas and evolve concepts.
As well as then systems thinkers, people that aren’t looking at individual problems as one off situations, but how do all of these problems fit together and how do we solve it in a systematic way. Then problem finding, right. How do we identify, not just how do we solve this problem well, but what exactly is the right problem to solve, so I’m curious to know if others were saying those things as well or is that something that you weren’t hearing?
It’s something that we’re hearing, but again I think things come in levels and I think what they’re looking for is definitively folks who can learn and who are excited about entering a design space and a problem space that they’ve never been in before. That drives that curiosity that you talk about and gets them to look at that system stuff. You’ve got to keep in mind that being able to see a bigger picture of things requires that you really first master the micro. You have to be able to see the interactions within a micro environment before you can see the systematic elements of the macro environment.
What we’re thinking is while that macro is interesting, being able to look at the micro and then look at what the micro … what’s happening at the edges of the micro because in essence experience design is about activities, right, using your camera, offloading the pictures onto the machine, uploading them onto the net, sharing the pictures, right. We’ve got four distinct activities, maybe five we conclude commenting on the pictures and discussing them, right. You’ve got five activities, but then you’ve got the experiences that happen between those activities, so now you can start to draw that journey map of what actually happens between all of those things.
You have to get the activities right, you have to be able to do those well, but then you have to be able to look at the connections between those activities and say where do the experiences go up and down and what’s happening. The thing is that if you can’t focus on the activities it’s very hard to focus on the space between the activities, so you have to bring this in piece by piece by piece. It would be wonderful to say that we could create an educational institution that would produce students who come in, look at problems, instantly know how to solve world peace by changing this one registration form and make the world better that way.
At some point, you’ve got to sit back and say okay, what’s more important? Being able to see world peace, but not being able to actually make a usable registration form, or being able to make a usable registration form and work towards world peace in the long-term one little chunk at a time. What we were hearing in the research was that people were very frustrated by having folks who were actually coming out of schools, who were big thinkers, but not able to do the small things. They were not able to just produce a bunch of comps or get a working prototype or just create a form that was easy to use because the school focused on big systems thinking problems, design thinking, that big sort of let’s just tackle all the world, let’s reinvent the world.
Part of the problem is that a lot of schools today just focus on the design piece of the problem. They look at … the homework assignments they give are come up with a new design that’s going to help some disadvantaged group, right, that’s the assignment they get. Suddenly, we’re seeing these projects and I’ve seen a lot of these design projects that are things like a sustainable alarm clock for the homeless. What do we need a sustainable alarm clock for the homeless for? Well, homeless people need to get up for something, I guess, and the materials should be recycled and sustainable. They’re like okay, that’s great, but how does that help a Wells Fargo bank, to make sure that online banking isn’t such a disaster?
We decided to focus on that piece of the puzzle and say okay, we want folks who can seriously design a form and do a great job on a form and make the interactions on that form make sense or give the copy on the form perfect, but we also want them to be able to build a form. They need to understand how an MBC model works because if they have a model view and controller they need to understand that they’re in charge of the view and that that’s what the designer does, but they can only change the view based on what the controllers give them. The controllers are all based on how the model works and so they have to understand enough about the model to be able to communicate with the Dev Team to be able to actually say hey, can we change the model to work this way? No, we can’t, okay, can you give me a controller that does this, this, and this? Okay, you give me a controller that does two of those things, fine, I’m going to make the view based on that, right.
That’s where we’re focusing, is being able to have that level of conversation confidently and understand okay, there’s a database behind this and it’s going to have to drive some sort of calls out of that database and API. On top of that API we can build the interface we want to build and create designers who can work at that level very comfortably and switch from one technology to the next, switch from one style of MBC to the next, to be able to work in different front-ends and have all that under their belt.
Yeah, right on. I think that that idea, like you were saying you can’t look at the micro without fully understanding the micro even to the point of what you’re describing of having literacy and materiality of the things that we work in and understanding what are the physical constraints in the technology that I’m using, but also what are the social or business constraints, what is the design team. Yeah, it’s technically feasible to do this, but within the constraints of the business model that we have and the design team … or the Dev Team that we have. We can’t do that or we can’t execute on that certain model, so having the designer be able to understand what those constraints are and be able to have those conversations, I think, absolutely.
Designers, I’ve seen the same thing coming out, interviewing kids coming out of other undergrad or graduate programs and there’s these huge sort of we’re going to solve the world and we’re these big systems thinkers, but they can’t execute on a very simple task to actually make it manifest. I do see that, I think the idea of systems thinking is important and in terms of understanding and being able to facilitate a conversation around are we creating a systematic solution, so that you can create five, ten forms that are usable and in and of themselves a good solution, but then systematically they don’t all fit together and I’m having as an end user to relearn how things are done each time. We’re not looking at when we’re making micro interaction changes. How is that impacting the whole system that that interaction is working in and being able to zoom back and forth between the micro interaction and the macro system impact and be able to play in both those spaces simultaneously. I think someone at least has to be playing in that space.
Oh, yeah, no, no, and I’m not suggesting that we’re not going to look at that, we are definitely going to look at that. There’s a difference between if I’m looking, with Wells Fargo, if I’m looking at the interface that one of their mortgage officers uses to work with a customer and all the different points of contact that they use as the customer, that’s different than me redesigning the banking system.
Yes, understood, completely understood.
Right, and so when I’m saying big thinking, I’m talking about … it’s amazing to hear the chatter that goes on at some of these design schools where every problem is of universal scale, where they’re not just going to solve world peace on earth, they’re solving it throughout the federation. We’re not going to go for world peace, we’re going to go for really good design and we’re going to go for really good designs starting with the lowest atomic levels of interaction and then grow from there. Be able to look at how design works from the perspective of a) how you sit down and look at the context for which use happens, so if people are bouncing between five dialogue boxes, then yeah, every single one of those dialogue boxes needs to feel like they were designed by the same people for the same purpose and that’s the context of use. That’s a very different problem than how do we fix homelessness
Or how do we get healthcare to work universally and that’s what we’re talking about.
Right, I’d like to see if we can shift the conversations slightly to … I think as part of being in the design field, one aspect of it which can be very intimidating is just the increasing amount of complexity that we have to deal with, whether it’s from assistance design perspective or from just the fact that there’s five new tools to use or new technologies that are constantly in flux. I think if I can recall back to when I was coming out of school, one of the things that I was not prepared for was just the constant change and I wanted to get your opinion, Jared, on how we can train the next crop of designers to be able to manage the complexity that’s inherent in our industry.
That change is key and so we’re tackling this in a couple of different ways. One of the things that Leslie and I came up with was that we’re leaving … the curriculum that we’re imagining is a two-year curriculum. There are a lot of these programs out now like General Assembly and stuff that do stuff in 10 weeks, 12 weeks, but we don’t think you can actually train somebody to be a skilled designer that way. You can learn particulars, you can learn how to do particular methods and techniques, but you can’t get the big picture of design, you can’t practice it over and over again.
The curriculum that we’re looking at is very much one that is long-term, so it’s this two-year program and one of the pieces of the two-year program is that we’re leaving the last six months of the program undefined until it’s really uncomfortable for us as the people running the program to leave it undefined. The idea of leaving it undefined is that we want to have the companies that are going to hire these students to help us define what that should be, so somewhere around the 12-month part we would go to them and say okay, what are the big things that you need that are coming down the pike?
This is a big change from existing educational institutions. If you’re an accredited program one of the problems is is it takes three years to get a curriculum change pushed through accreditation. Three years in our field is a huge amount of time. There are no accredited programs today that are teaching responsive design because responsive design is within the three-year window. If anybody’s teaching responsive design they’re doing it outside their accreditation. We realized early on that we can’t go down the accreditation route and it turned out that when we worked with the hiring managers on this, it turns out they could care less about whether the programs that students are graduating from are accredited, they just want them to have the skills.
If we can demonstrate that they have the skills that they need, then they’ll push aside the notion that the program has to be accredited and they’ll accept it that way. We decided that that’s the way we’re going to do it, so we’re going to let the hiring companies help us define things like responsive design or whatever the newest thing is. If we start a program the summer of 2014 let’s say, then the spring of 2016 is going to be undefined for quite a long time. At the end of 2015 we will go to the hiring companies and say what is it you really need now that you’re not getting and we will put together a program in that six months that will cover those materials.
That’s one key piece, but the other key piece is that we’re going to focus on the skill of learning. Today you have to be a lifelong learner, you have to constantly be able to use resources and frankly it’s the easiest now it’s ever been. You can go online and you can go to the Google and you can type in a key word and you can find anything you need. You need to learn a new programming language, it’s there. There are interactive tools, there’s now Treehouse and Udemy and all sorts of things that will teach you a new programming language. If you need to learn a new library for like a jQuery type thing, you can go out and learn that pretty fast. You can get code examples, you can download GitHub libraries.
We’re going to focus on constantly giving the students things they have to learn to focus them on the skills of learning and say okay, here’s something brand new, how are you going to teach yourself that? Here’s something else brand new, how are you going to teach yourself that? The basic tools and things, they’re going to have to learn how to teach themselves and that will be a key part of the curriculum. Between that and keeping the curriculum open we now have a way to make sure that the students come out of the program ready to work with the latest skills and technologies and can adapt to new technologies as they come down the pike.
I think that’s a good thought for us to bring our episode of Five Questions to a conclusion, just about run out of time. I want to thank Jared Spool for joining us today and talking about design teams and design education and we’ll look forward to having you back on the show some time soon.
Absolutely. If folks are interested in this, we’re putting the conversation about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it over at unicorninstitute.com
which I was so happy to find out that URL was available.
All right, so yeah, if you’re interested in learning more, unicorninstitute.com
. Thanks again, Jared.