Skills that Designers Need to Thrive on

Author: Debprotim Roy, Founder & Chief Executive Officer at Canvs

Each New Year talks about newer trends in design and engineering, some stick while some pass. 2020, however, given it’s the start of a new decade was assumed year of importance and makes us aware of how far we have come from where we were 10 years ago. Mobile computing has changed the landscape as we have seen. Artificial intelligence has come into mainstream consciousness, user experience is not a spend you park for post MVP releases anymore. Designers have a seat at the table. Having a seat at the table means you have to respect the responsibilities that it brings. The unique challenges that this decade brings us are mostly driven by tech and its potential in the coming years. As builders of products that manifest businesses in the eyes of a user, Designers have faced challenges that have served as changing goalposts for a while. You are tempted to introduce the fresh new trend in UI design, but does your engineering team need it? Will they hate you for introducing something nice that’s time-consuming or chide you for not mentioning it earlier?

Being someone that has been working with various distributed teams towards building products for Indian companies like Aditya Birla Capital, ICICI Bank, etc, and being a Product Designer myself, here are some of my thoughts around some skill-sets that we as designers need to sharpen for 2020 and the times that are upon us.

Remote Collaborative Capabilities:

Remote Collaboration

As the industry shifts towards newer pastures of unfettered access to talented people, it becomes uniquely important to be someone who understands the nuances of remote work. Remote work throws new problems to the pre-existent mix of modern problems for designers. Remote work is only partially solved by access to hardware like a functional comp, network access, and software like design, comms and productivity tools. The remaining piece of the problem is shouldered by nuances of self-awareness, interpersonal skills, and the willingness to work remotely. Some of the best-known companies in design like Automattic, Buffer, Invision, etc today work with fully remote design teams. Such opportunities are out for grabs, but to make it work we as designers need to viscerally adopt the challenges of remote work. Challenges like working in a team joined by mostly asynchronous communication, insufficient face time, frequent communication breakdown, the general lack of direction due to the absence of immediate peers around you, are all new problems that go unchecked when one jumps to Remote. They all hit back once we’ve spent a few months in a remote environment. A recent study of remote work done by AND CO and Remoteyear mentions how remote work is especially favoured by those who have spent time doing it compared to those who have been new. According to the report, people who’ve worked remotely for 7+ years were more in favour of working forever remote compared to remote freshers. Similarly, people with only a few months in remote were more likely to lose motivation as compared to long term remote people. If you want to increase your bandwidth of work this year, (as is the case with most designers going independent) or want that coveted role which allows you to stick to your current place, the answer is remote. And if the answer is remote, there are a few check-boxes you’ll need to think over before jumping ship.

An Understanding of Code:

Understanding of Code

One of the longest-running arguments around design has been the need for Designers to talk Development (dev). Is it necessary for a designer to code? Perhaps not. How about understanding the technical underpinnings of the product they are designing? It’s 2020. Tech is eating the world and design is a major part of products that run today’s user experiences. If a design team within a company chooses to not collaborate with the tech team in any fashion aside from watercooler conversations there’s a good chance the team’s outputs are unactionable good looking high-fives in the name of work. Being able to ship a production-ready website is not a requisite for a modern designer. Being able to talk the tongue of the team that shall deliver that product, is. To establish a shared method of communication between the tech and the design team, the design team must be able to talk in terms of the actual delivery mechanism of the product, tech. How are the pages rendered? How does CSS alter UI states, what JS libraries can you utilize to implement(say) an animation, how do you alter the current page’s code to achieve desirable results? These are some of the basic questions that all designers face now and then while dealing with products that go live. The product that users experience isn’t as much the designer’s creation as it is the resultant of the combined effort of engineering and design. If you as a designer want a certain specific experience delivered, you’ll need to sit with the engineering team and make sure that happens. For that, you’ll need to understand the limitations of what you built, how much time it shall take to build, and what degrees of freedom are accessible to you while designing it. A pathbreaking experience delivered by a fancy animation is something everyone loves, but it can’t possibly take a month’s build in a 2-month dev cycle.

Future-Proofing Yourself:

Future Proofing

Data Friendliness, Machine Intelligence, Computational Design, AR, etc. : Although flying cars were promised to us by the movies, and only a few of us humans are working on it the new decade isn’t anyway looking dull when it comes to technical expectations. The obvious creators for technical evolution are engineers, designers, and sometimes artists. To find a place in the rocketship that shoots you to the frontier so you are relevant when the decade shapes up, you will need to keep up with it’s evolving requirements. While Classical Design and Design Thinking have brought us to where we are today, Computational Design is what shall shape our point of view when it comes to design driven by vast troves of data. ( see John Maeda ) When you have access to data that can help you design a feature that shall affect millions, you should know how to model on top of it to crunch through a multitude of possible permutations. Computational Design shall be your ally if you want to belong. While chatbots have made their way into the mainstream markets way ahead of the end of the last decade, it’s still painful to see how little thought is put into “AI-chatbots” that are on production today. The nuances of human expectations from automated responses are carefully established by years of experience in Design. The multi-layer RNN you build on top of the 13gb Wikipedia text data is awesome but your designer shall need to describe the behaviour of the bot when all it says is “I don’t understand” within a fancy chat window. Design is how it works. It’s imperative for designers to acquaint themselves with the subtleties and nuances of products that pitch bleeding-edge tech like Deep learning, Augmented reality, etc. Users care about the experience while businesses today are mostly burdened by the build necessities of the tech.

Being Integrators and Cross Thinkers:


In India today, if one isn’t uniquely unaware of the times, most businesses both new and old have started to take design as a very serious component of their business. You will be impressed to find companies being on a design hiring spree today who yesterday typically pushed product design as an expert’s job to an external firm and skirted responsibility for its product’s experience without thinking of its consequences. Designers today, irrespective of how they are situated with businesses have to talk to all relevant parties before making design decisions. That means you need to talk about sales, business, tech, data, and of course consumer behaviour. This is core to the process of Design. On top of it, many systems involve components that are heterogeneous in interactivity. A designer might find himself/herself working in a system that manifests on one end as a mobile app while on other ends as a human support team, an automated chat assistant, or a hardware device hosting an interface on it. The designer shall need to have an in-depth understanding of all these subsystems to be able to define a consistent and robust experience around them. A brand stands for all of its manifestations and consumers know that. So irrespective of what the touchpoint is, the promise of the brand is directly judged by the customer’s experience defined by the agency of products. Designers build that experience. Marrying heterogenous subsystems to build full-fledged product experiences is something that is becoming commonplace as we see tech percolate all aspects of our lives, online or “offline”.

Innovation Awareness:

We all as designers have gone through that phase when we defined a part of our job as “problem solvers”. It’s a huge promise. One that dies the moment responsibility is shirked. However, while working with designers the expectation has always been to find a face for solutions. You design something to meet some need that’s facing a problem of delivery. That unique position comes with perks and responsibilities. Being the one that solves problems means you are the one that probably knows best and the most. Problems are often solved with a mix of critical thinking, knowledge, and experience. All of these three can be learned. Knowledge is especially the one that we have very easy access to, today. Today, when a team faces a challenge that can be solved by a product, it automatically comes to the product manager, designer, and engineer to solve it. As it should. They need to be aware of the options that they have when they solve problems that are unique to our times. If a business is promising a chatbot that talks like a human, there’s very little chance that you shall be able to deliver especially given how Text generation isn’t where we’d like it to be. If a business team asks you to make an immersive web experience that involves an interactive 3d view, as a designer you should know you will work with something like an OpenGL on some level. Modern problems have modern solutions, but one needs to be aware of the agencies of such solutions to be able to implement them.

Humility and Empathy for the User:


We have seen the usage of the term empathy in design so extensively that it seems like it makes the designer look like a good human being. As designers, we are obsessed with the products we design and deliver. Clients often are so as well. It’s easy to forget what proportion of her attention the user of the product shall award your product with. In the flow of a build, it’s easy to forget that our product if at all it is used shall be a smaller part of the user’s life. Assuming the center stage in a user’s daily life is a sign of mass hubris within a company. Today users are inundated with data streams in various manifestations. Products that are designed should keep that in mind. When you design a modern product you should not in any situation create “dark patterns” that get the extra buck from the user just because she tapped on the wrong option presuming something else. That kills trust, as it should. If you trick users, they will know it and they won’t take kindly to it. Users today have way more things going on in their minds when they use our products. It’s easy to get something wrong. Don’t capitalize on it. Build a relationship of honesty with your user, it’ll take you a long way. Similarly, don’t assume importance. Throwing 20 notifications at a user in a day shall only make them feel annoyed at your product. You will not “register” in their mind, at least not in a way you’d assume.

As the decade has set in, the past few years have unfolded a multitude of challenges that all businesses face while building their products. Customers’ expectations have evolved, build processes have changed and the landscape for most jobs has become more competitive. Most concerns about staying useful are solved by staying relevant. That’s true for us designers as well. We need to embrace change and not look at it as a challenge. Change brings
opportunities for those who capitalize on it. Fortune does favour the bold and it takes some boldness to weather a continuously changing play area.

About the Author

Debprotim Roy Image

An entrepreneur, strategist and a creative, fact – based thinker, Debprotim Roy is the Founder & Chief Executive Officer at Canvs. Embracing the core values of integrity, innovation, and growth, he is credited with building Canvs from the ground up and is an integral part of all business functions within the company.

In his role, Debprotim leads a young and growing team at Canvs, providing all aspects of leadership, and in doing so is continually analysing business models, building new processes, and systematising structures to develop a holistic service for his clients and partners .