[0:00:05.2] GS: Hello and welcome to another episode of This is HCD. My name is Gerry Scullion and I’m a service design practitioner based in Sydney Australia. In this episode, we caught up with the wonderful Barbara Spanton from Ottawa in Canada. Barbara is a UX Lead in Shopify and in this episode, Barbara is joined by Aman Braich, Principle Designer for Intuit Australia and Mark Catanzariti who is also a cohost of this podcast.
We discuss the industry’s obsession with the redesign, very interesting stuff.
But before we jump in, however, as this podcast is recorded in the Sydney CBD, I’d like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land where we meet today and pay respect to their elders both past and present.
I’d also like to acknowledge any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people who may be listening in today.
Also on this episode, we have a giveaway, a e40 voucher from mrthinker.com. Mr. Thinkr is an online shop specialized in tools for service designers and design thinkers. To be in with a chance of winning the 40 Euro voucher, all you have to do is email in the keyword “blueprint” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first person in gets to win the gift voucher. So let’s jump straight into this episode.
[0:01:21.9] GS: Okay, we’ve got Barbara Spanton on the show and Barbara, thanks very much for joining us.
[0:01:28.4] BS: Thanks for having me.
[0:01:30.0] GS: Barbara, let’s kick off by telling us a little bit about yourself on your involvement with human-centered design?
[0:01:36.0] BS: Sure, my involvement with human-centered design I think started long before we were calling it that. I started off in industrial design more than half a lifetime ago and I was in Ottawa, which at the time in Ottawa Canada – nobody besides us but we called that Silicon Valley North.
It was actually quite a hot bed of high tech, long before other parts of the country caught up. So I was coming out of industrial design right after the workforce. I kind of had these options to go work and you know, the typical product design agencies and so on. Or these really cool things I could do in the world of software and it was just incredible to sort of dabble in that field at that point. To enter this field where there was no precedents and kind of just figure out how the heck would we design email for mobile phones back in the late 90’s.
It was just incredible to be in this world that was just emerging and had no precedence and I was kind of forging the way as we went. Yeah, I kind of went all the way in and I haven’t looked back.
I currently work at Shopify, I’m the UX lead on one of the teams there. I’ve been there for just under a year.
[0:02:39.9] GS: Also, on the show this week, we’ve got Aman Braich. Aman, tell us a little bit about yourself?
[0:02:46.6] AB: As Gerry mentioned, I’m with Intuit to those of you who are probably in the US, you’re probably familiar with who Intuit is, a huge company over there but I’m helping them build their brand over here in Australia.
What they do is they help individuals and small businesses with financial health and prosperity and building out their businesses and operations themselves. Helping them tackle those issues that they’re there to deal with coming to an Australian market.
[0:03:10.1] GS: Alright, cool. Aman, Barbara, thanks for joining us. Let’s start off the discussion today. I know I was speaking to Barbara, we actually met at UX Scotland this year, was one of my highlights meeting Barbara.
[0:03:22.3] BS: Thanks, you’re one of my highlights too.
[0:03:25.8] GS: Today’s topic is about disposable design. Barbara, maybe tell us a little bit about what you want to discuss about disposable design?
[0:03:33.1] BS: Sure, this is a topic I’ve been kind of working my way around the last couple of months. Around this sort of urge, we have to just throw everything out and redesign things from scratch. I’ve sort of started this rant over the Christmas holidays last year when I was trying to replace a light bulb in my microwave oven.
And despite – I won’t tell you how many hours, how many different screw drivers, how many trips to the hardware store. I actually couldn’t do it, I had to replace the damn thing. Because you’re not supposed to replace the bulb, you’re supposed to replace the whole microwave oven.
I think that’s you know, we sort of scowl at other products that do that in our physical world and then we go ahead and do that with our own projects, we kind of approach a problem and we’re like, “Why replace the light bulb? We just gut the whole thing and replace it.”
I started watching how often I do that in my own work, why we do that and how to maybe stop doing that and what opportunities exist if we spend less time redesigning and throwing out perfectly good things.
[0:04:28.1] GS: I’ve noticed that it’s a big problem in my life. I kind of definitely stopped over the last maybe five, 10 years, I’ve become a lot more aware of that. I think as in industrial design, as we discussed before we came out of the show today as industrial design, we’re primed and we’re modelled to be creating products and at some point in your career, you probably stop. I’ll say, “Well what are we doing, are we going to just put all this stuff into a landfill in the future?”
What can we do to prevent this from happening, why should businesses care?
[0:04:56.7] BS: Yeah, I think there are some really obvious and smart reasons to care. There’s a huge cost to being overzealous and sort of throwing out entire existing systems and redesigning them. There’s the obvious time and resources that teams spend replacing a perfectly adequate thing, reimagining it, rethinking it, rebuilding it. That effort itself is a huge waste.
I think we also have to think about the people who are going to be using it and the lost productivity on their ends, right? They’ve got to learn to use this whole new thing, probably change their habits, we’ve probably asked them to change their mental models and flip things around on them. You know, because it’s better right? What’s the loss and productivity to them?
Are we actually doing more harm than good? I think the biggest reason is I think that the missed opportunity to solve real and new bigger challenges, instead of just iterating on ones that are kind of solved already. I think those are probably from a business perspective, three of the huge reasons why we’ve got to be a lot more careful about what we’re spending our time on.
[0:05:52.9] GS: I know, well, what I’m really keen to understand about that, how this would change the day to day workings of a typical design software project? If we were to take disposable design into consideration which is a digital realm, why would designers care and why would businesses care about disposable design?
[0:06:13.1] BS: Yeah, I think it does. I think there are so many projects or goals that we might kind of put off because we just don’t have the bandwidth. I mean, no matter how big a company.
Which is a bit ridiculous and we’re putting off something because we don’t have the bandwidth for it, right? Then we end up finding the time to, and the resources to update or revisit or reimagine an existing thing. I think it’s because there is something appealing about the well-scoped problem that we already understand and it’s almost like this opportunity to go back and fix the things you did wrong, we’re really drawn to that.
But also, it’s this, I don’t know, reason to not do that bigger, harder thing that we keep sort of pushing off because we don’t have the bandwidth, right? If we just said, “Let’s not fix these things for a little while and let’s just spend all of our time on these big items that we’re a lot more reluctant and afraid to tackle, how far could we get on those, what could we be doing, what changes can we be making?” Right?
[0:07:14.4] AB: This year, UX Australia, we were looking off to Mike Montero. Mike Montero in Canada?
[0:07:20.4] BS: Yeah, we know about him.
[0:07:22.6] AB: He’s an absolute weapon on the stage.
[0:07:24.2] BS: I think we actually – we can still hear him up here sometimes when he’s talking.
[0:07:29.1] GS: I felt him in my head and in my heart at the same time, he was a bit of a revelation, he’s very in your face which was great but he made a huge impact on stage by saying about, “We are the gate keepers for the corporate cultures, we don’t have to do that work.”
It folds back on to the responsibility of the designer to say no and that’s something that often gets lost. Especially in the junior, mid, senior level in organizations where they kind of feel like they’re told they have to do that. I think in regards to what you’re saying about disposable design, it definitely resonates with Mike Montero’s mantra.
How would someone at that level, what advice could you give them to go back to the business and say, actually, maybe we should do it this way?
[0:08:22.2] BS: I think a big thing that could guide practitioners at any level when approaching this kind of work is just asking ourselves, “What are we fixing?” Right? Is this something, first of all, that it’s a big enough problem to fix?
Are we doing this because you know, it’s been three years and “Oh man, purple’s not the thing anymore.” Are we doing this because somebody never liked how we implemented it in the first place but it’s actually been working kind of okay? Or are we avoiding a perfectly good solution because there’s some kind of stigma around it because something that happened with that project?
That’s I find comes up very often when you look at a way of solving something and then was like yeah, we already did that but it didn’t work, right? I think just asking ourselves a bit more often, being super clear on what is the impact of the work that we’re doing, asking ourselves what we’re actually going to achieve if we do as well as we possibly could with the work that we’ve scoped out for ourselves.
What are we not doing if we choose to do this and that’s the big part, right?
[0:09:22.0] AB: Okay, it’s almost like adding an extra metric to…
[0:09:26.3] BS: The opportunity cost of doing this thing, right?
[0:09:28.8] GS: That’s really interesting. Maybe something like sustainability could be added to the metrics for success for a project.
[0:09:36.5] BS: Well, I don’t know if it’s sustainability, it’s like, what are we not doing if we do this thing, right? Sure, let’s make sure that there’s value to what we’re doing and there’s impact and it’s worth our time and effort. But what is the other thing that we’re not doing and what would the impact of that be. Often, it’s harder to sort of define that down because while it’s easier to zero-in on the familiar, right?
We kind of shy away from the unfamiliar because how can I define the impact of a thing that I’ve never even scoped or worked or worked on before, right? Then we kind of come back to the familiar and say, “I can make this thing better and we can measure that and we can track, maybe that’s it.”
This obsession we have with metrics, right? I can show that this is better than it was yesterday.
[0:10:15.8] GS: Okay, how would you apply that to your day to day or your next project in Shopify? What are you going to do differently now that it’s in our consciousness?
[0:10:26.7] BS: I mean, it’s easy to say, look at all of the things you possibly could do which is completely impossible because there are so many things we could do. But I think it’s – when we often kind of put these sort of pie in the sky, “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” ideas sort of neatly back on the shelf because that’s just you know, not in the scope or not achievable or whatever.
I think those are the things that should not be going back on the shelf, right? Kind of those sort of future ideas that it would be great if we could fix this big challenging, messy problem or fix a certain flow that’s clearly broken. But we keep kind of shying away from it, right?
I think it’s figuring out – See, I’m not even making sense there, right? Because I think the things that we could be working on are things that we haven’t even given ourselves time to think about, right? Because we’re kind of zooming in on the familiar, right? Maybe I don’t have an answer. How do we –
[0:11:11.6] GS: Maybe this just changes your mindset. If you’ve got a different mindset, it opens up how you apply things to a new ideas framework. It allows you to work more meaningful things in the BAU.
[0:11:30.6] AB: When it comes to tackling a project like this with all this methodology, is there anything you need to consider when it comes to BAU, actually operating on this project? At the very end, is this something that needs to come into mind earlier on? Or that sustainability or you have to change the way you work or something, that you need to consider to actually make this work in the long run?
[0:11:47.2] BS: Maybe it comes down to, one of the elements might be, around being a bit more granular at what, where we focus our time and our efforts, right? As you look at a body of work, finding all the things that still work and that are still good and that you can totally hang on to and that people wish you would just hang on to and leave them as they are right.
Maybe being a bit more conscious about what can be left as is and then –
[0:12:11.2] GS: Do you think it’s less about the project and the delivery and more about the mindset? That’s what I’m hearing, it’s less about the business and it’s more about the individual designer’s mindset?
[0:12:26.7] BS: Yeah, I think so, because I’m not really hearing any kind of methodology coming out here, right? I really think it is about the mindset and keeping, finding what’s good, keeping what’s good, preserving that and letting it live its full life, whatever that might be.
Finding ways to sort of patch up existing things that are good with new parts that need to be incorporated. It’s really hard to make those things fit together but maybe it’s worth it.
[0:12:53.4] AB: Yeah.
[0:12:53.9] BS: Maybe it’s worth trying to make these sort of mismatch pieces come together in a good way.
[0:12:58.4] GS: If it is about the designer’s mindset, what can we do better as an industry to raise the awareness, any ideas? That’s open to the group.
[0:13:09.4] AB: I mean, it’s definitely a difficult one to – businesses, in general, do move. Like when we get a lot of traction and stuff we design, it’s because it gets bought in by senior business leaders and then you actually get to apply to a product and then you get it live and it gets to go out to users.
The difficult thing, I think the challenge really is, is winning this over with the senior stake holders and management and leadership because as soon as they pickup on to it, you can start to get it down to market faster and more effectively. I think that’s the real battle that always needs to be won with designer mindsets and actually getting it live into a product. That’s making sure you take people on with you.
[0:13:40.6] GS: Yeah, absolutely. As much as we’d love to think that designers are going to rule the world, the board and the C level still see the bottom line. It’s educating top and bottom to be aware of the impacts of redesigns, is that fair to say?
[0:13:57.4] BS: I think so. But I think there are also the ones that are often most attractive to the redesign, right? Because it’s something tangible that you can put your finger on and you can imagine before going down that path where you will end up. Which by definition, makes it maybe less worthwhile a project. If you know you’re going to end where you’re going to end up and it’s probably not that far from what you have right now, maybe that’s you know, a bit of a sign that it’s not necessarily worth it, right?
I think that’s part of what often happens, you’ll get a lot of buy in for a refresh of the existing thing because the existing thing is trusted and it’s been proven it works.
[0:14:34.1] AB: Is it fair to say that I guess what you’re kind of getting at is that the redesign is sexy and you know, the C level thinks it’s sexy, this is something that they can hang their hat on, put their finger print on where as maybe it’s better off to just focus on what the actual problems are? If something’s really hard to do but you know, that it’s causing a problem focus on that rather than kind of repacking and packaging it up and it’s still having the same problem even though you’ve got a shiny new website?
[0:14:57.4] BS: Exactly. I think what we often end up doing with sort of a refresher, a re-designer and an overhaul is we just repackage the same problems into a new package and often the motivation behind doing these things are shallow, right? Like, “Oh it’s been done, it’s dated I might as well replace the whole thing.” That’s the kind of thing you hear and those efforts, yeah it sounds like we just carry over the same problems and present them in this year’s style, right?
I mean re-design often encompasses a hell of a lot more than just visual. So I am not trying to suggest that’s always an aesthetic thing. But even if we do a re-design and we restructure workflows to whatever, to the way we think of this work right now yeah, how do we find out if we are actually making it better? How do we find out if efficacies are gained?
[0:15:47.9] AB: The problem here is there is no actual negative impact to the success of the delivery of a project with this mindset. It’s more around the collective use of our time to be working on things that are worthwhile.
[0:16:03.4] BS: Yeah and sort of asking ourselves why are we working on this?
[0:16:07.3] GS: So should we all just go and work for companies that tend to work on social good?
[0:16:15.3] BS: Well sure, that is easy to say right? But I think it’s funny because I was deciding whether to go work at Shopify or not. I’m like, “Really? Commerce, shopping? Is this a thing I really care all that much about? No, so I go for it because that’s where I was as I was thinking about taking the job. But then you look at a company which seems on the surface to be dealing with things like shopping and commerce that maybe I really don’t care that much about.
But just beneath that, you have this layer of this entrepreneur. This is this person who has left their nine to five job that they hated or maybe it’s more than nine to five. Maybe it’s something they have kept them away from their families or kids or whatever and they are trying to make a living out of their passion. They are trying to make a life for themselves. They are trying to do something. They are trying to give me an alternative from going to Walmart to buy mass produced junk.
They are trying to make a life for themselves and provide some kind of a product that they really believe people need, right? And when you hear stories of these entrepreneurs who are trying to make something of their lives, I don’t see how that’s really all that far from working in some kind of social good. I feel like I am helping these people who ultimately want to make their lives different and make the world different for other people.
[0:17:23.7] AB: Absolutely. It’s funny that you mentioned that because that is actually a lot of the same reasons as to why I joined Intuit to help out these small businesses is that in a lot of these cases you’ve got these people risking everything to go and pursue their passion. You just want to do absolutely everything to support them along that journey. One of the great things I saw at coming to Shopify itself, you guys do these amazing piece around I think it’s called at 150 Canada?
Or something along those lines where you actually highlighted some business that really risked it all and then gone out their end and really made this thing their own and in commerce as you mentioned. But it’s a really powerful and passionate story because of the story tells of the business itself.
[0:18:01.4] BS: Yeah, the ‘Built by Entrepreneurs’ I think it was.
[0:18:03.7] GS: That’s the one, yeah.
[0:18:04.6] BS: Yeah, it was beautiful. I mean I got goose bumps watching it, right? There are so many stories, behind every merchant there is a story that on the surface sounds pretty simple but then you actually get into the details and their stories are amazing. These are people for who I think I am doing a lot of social good, right? So no, to answer your question Gerry I don’t think we all quit our jobs and do that but I think we applied that kind of mentality to the work that we do, right?
It’s not about how do I make this person more money although in many cases, that’s one of the metrics people are worrying about, how do I take the crap, are there other ways that they can focus on what really drives them.
[0:18:42.1] GS: Yeah and that goes back to the last podcast about the culture and the importance of good leadership to foster that type of thinking. I know that last statement, that we should all just quit our jobs because I know that’s what people will be thinking and I’m just playing devil’s advocate, Of course, I totally agree with you with what you’re saying about Shopify as an example. I believe they are creating tools to empower and enable the betterment of the husband or wife or living in rural NSW and rural Canada to be able to make a living.
So let’s go back and let’s think a little bit about the impacts if you don’t have this mindset what do it might look like in an organization. Do you have examples of anything of that?
[0:19:22.9] BS: Yeah, so a number of years ago I was brought into work on this re-design as people like to frame it, of this Central Bank software. So there is people, if you have ever been in a Central Bank, that was my first time, there are people who are basically locked in these rooms counting out stacks of money and they can’t leave the room until everything is accounted for because they can’t be trusted apparently. So they have this software where they sort of enter every single of these measures of whether it’s a stack or a bag or they have all these words that I had to learn.
But essentially you are counting money and saying how much money you had, how much money there is before you enter the room. After you enter the room and money gets moved around this giant enormous building. So this product as we were looking at it broke every single rule that we as designers would think about like every hero stick was broken in this thing, right? I mean you looked at these screens, there was absolutely nothing parceled about them. If you look at all the contents – completely impossible to understand at a glace. The density was insane. The actual targets of these things that you have to click on were totally tiny. It’s the super step by step process, you know if God forbid you were a click counter, you would have gone completely crazy. So we are just thinking, “This is easy like we can fix this thing. We can only make it better, anything we do is better than what this four people are dealing with right now.” So luckily we had lots of research plans.
But we do a bunch of redesigning and create this whole information architecture that makes ton of sense, and we simplify these screens and blah-blah-blah. What we hadn’t realized going in was what this horribly complicated and messy, in-dense interface with providing that we essentially tried to strip out of it. It was a very physical manual work that these people did. They never actually looked up the screen, you know?
That screen was not for looking at, it was kind of if something happened to go wrong and you know I didn’t hit the tab key the right number of times that never happens. The rhythm these people are in where they just tap-tap-tap-tap knowing which cell they are in. They are just basically using their tab key and their keypad with the numbers. They don’t even look at the screen. The screen is basically there almost like a ticker tape to sort of work their way back had they made a mistake, right?
So here, as we were trying to make this thing easy to understand at a glance and be able to actually have large enough targets for you to be able to click on them. They are looking at us as if we were the biggest idiots in the world because if you have to pull your mouse out, that’s a huge hassle. right? So they had this very tactile way of working with this product that we –basically everything in this told us to break it, right?
And so I mean this you could look at as sort of your typical project of, “Oh just do your research and make sure you don’t make decisions that harm the product and make it worse than it used to be.” But I think our instinct of what we evaluate as being bad and worthy of redesign were completely off right? And so the source of things we ended up changing were actually almost nothing. We ended up creating really good reports that people could look at.
People who are not in this room who were not using the product and that was actually what the need was. So the person who said, “Hey I can’t understand this screens when I look at them.” That was true, right? This person could not understand the screens when you look at them but that was a completely separate need, right? So creating great reporting for these products so they could sort of why observe what is happening in this room summarize shifts, how people’s productivity is going on.
That was the actual thing that we need to solve right? And we were able to leave everything as is for these people, who quite frankly, were happy with what they had. Does that make sense?
[0:22:59.0] GS: Yeah, so Aman’s got a question he wants to feed in?
[0:23:02.1] AB: Yeah, I just want to add on to that point is that like I remember someone telling me this story as well about how – it was about getting people out in the country or rural areas, cochlear implants. Yep, I remember they’re like a camera – I can’t remember the company that went to for it. But what happened was they wanted to build this really sexy app essentially, like a lot of the companies did at the time. But the reality was what they needed was people to actually go out to the country and inform people on how cochlear implants actually work. Like with literal pamphlets.
And people actually driving out to people’s houses to do it. But the company itself didn’t really buy into the fact because it wasn’t like this sexy app, like it was supposed to be done. They completely ignored the problem itself because they wanted to kind of do the whole redesign process and kind of jump on this wave.
[0:23:45.3] BS: Well and that’s just it. Because often these things stem from a legitimate need. Like the legitimate need in your case as you were describing is communicating and spreading awareness and there are many ways to do that. A sexy app is one of those ways, it may or may not be appropriate, right? The problem that I was legitimately trying to solve was, how can this manager understand what is happening in the room that you’re supervising, that she is supervising?
And sure, we could change everything for the people doing the work so that the manager could glace to the screen to an extent, or we could just create a separate thing for this manager, right? I think that’s part of it, when you go and identify the problem. I think we are for the most part pretty good at that. It’s perfectly okay to say, “Hey the thing we thought we had to fix is not the thing that we have to fix.” It’s okay to leave this thing as is, or figure out what could be left alone.
[0:24:34.4] AB: Yeah.
[0:24:34.6] BS: I think that’s what we don’t do enough.
[0:24:36.7] MC: Barbara, what’s the one professional skill you wish you were better at?
[0:24:40.0] BS: I am a giant hypocrite because I really suck at follow through. It’s a long time problem for me. I am really great at starting and prioritizing, planning and sculpting and all that stuff. For a long time, I have hidden behind this like, “Ooh I am not a details person,” excuse, right? But what this means is that I don’t really finish things really well and the most horrible way to be wasteful and not sustainable in design is just by not finishing stuff in the first place.
It’s just completely unfair to my teams, to users of my products. I think that is something I just can’t do this anymore, you know? And as I am listening to myself of wasting time, being efficient, having an impact. Leaving a whole pile of half-baked stuff is not a good way of having an impact. So I think that’s a big one I’ve got to get better at.
[0:25:25.8] MC: So the same question would be, what’s one thing in the industry you wish you were able to banish?
[0:25:31.3] BS: Assholes with superiority complexes.
[0:25:35.0] MC: Anybody specific that you would like to call out?
[0:25:36.6] BS: No, no, no I don’t think I need to do that but just the egos, the know it all’s, this kind of sense that anyone in our industry knows it all. Usually I find the people who have these kinds of qualities, they tend to attract fans who idolize them and it makes them even worse. I just think they all need to ditch their superiority complexes and be a lot more humble.
[0:25:56.2] MC: Okay, so this might apply to the next question. What is the message that you give to an emerging HCD talent for the future?
[0:26:04.9] BS: Well that would be a good one, be humble I guess. I think one thing I find emerging young people in the industry tend to obsess over a bit too much is finding the right tools, the right process, the right methodology and this obsession with, “Am I doing things? Am I following the right approach?” That seems to assume that there is one approach. That there is one right tool that there is one right methodology which I found to be completely not true.
What I think you are better off doing is trying on all the different tools and processes and methodologies that you possibly can. Copy people, learn from people and as you try more and more different ways of approaching things, different tools, different strategies – you will be better at assessing when one is working and when it’s not and then they can switch to a different one. So yeah, I think just try all the things and you will be good enough at using all of them is probably something –
[0:26:55.1] MC: Just do it and see how it works.
[0:26:57.6] BS: Yeah just develop your intuition because that’s the tool that will always be reliable for you.
[0:27:02.1] GS: So Barbara thanks for being on the podcast and Aman, thanks so much for joining us.
[0:27:07.5] BS: Thanks for having me.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:27:13.6] GS: So there you have it. I hope you found that conversation helpful. We’d love to get your feedback and thoughts on this topic. So to join in on the conversation, go to thisishcd.com and register to join for our Slack channel where you can get in touch with Barbara herself or myself or Mark or Aman. We use a Slack channel to help shape the future episodes of the podcast as well as share interest and design related content every single day.
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