On failure

I’m no longer writing Designing The Future Web. Even after 18 months and 25,000 words, the well of knowledge is filling faster than I can draw from it, and it’s become clear that I can no longer make the sacrifices a book demands.

It would be emotionally easier to let the spark fizzle out, dodging questions until no one thinks to ask them any more. But that seems dishonest. It’s right that I should admit failure with the same fanfare as I undertook the project.

Although my research and ideas have resisted being captured in words, they’ve made me a better designer. They’ll still allow me to tell my story and influence the profession through my work.

However, I do plan to publish some of my ideas. I think I have something to contribute, and after so long hoarding opinions for the big reveal, it will also be a relief. At the very least, expect blogging: joyful tracts with occasional idea-flecks.

Failure is embarrassing, of course – but it can also clear the path to other kinds of success. My editor and publisher have both been fantastic, and I thank them for the support they offered me. Now, I’m looking forward to looking forward.

Cennydd Bowles
Line management by numbers

Here’s something I was taught a few years ago about how to adjust your management approach. I’m paraphrasing slightly.

Score your employee out of ten for:

  • Current motivation
  • Experience in the role
  • Skills

Then look at the lowest number of the three.

  • 0-3: adopt a tight, management-heavy approach until performance picks up.
  • 4-7: take a supervisory, mentoring approach.
  • 8-10: occasional coaching is all you’ll need. These are the good times.

It’s a useful shorthand that reminds you to keep a keen eye on someone who’s green, sub-par, or struggling, and allows you to step away as they find their wings.

Cennydd Bowles
A changing tide

(Some half-thoughts based on hunches and radar blips. Go easy.)

I’m starting to feel that we’ve reached an inflection point in digital design.

Specialisation and consultancy were the dominant trends of the last 5–10 years. Experts thrived in high-profile agencies or lived comfortably as independent consultants, while in-house design teams were largely seen as downtrodden, pulled in too many directions, and unable to establish themselves as genuine authorities.

But now the polarity is reversing, and I sense a drift toward centralisation. It is the hybrid designer – not the specialist – who is most in demand, and every capable visual designer has picked up interaction design fundamentals. The specialists’ differentiation and competitive advantage is shrinking. The result is a swing toward direct intervention rather than consultancy, and companies that value breadth and flexibility over individual expertise.

Judge for yourselves whether you think the evidence is strong enough. Peter Merholz – formerly of Adaptive Path, the original UX supergroup now boasting a much-changed lineup – recently listed some noted interaction designers who have made the transition, and we’re all aware of Facebook’s aggressive pursuit of design talent in recent months. Perhaps my joining Twitter is another illustration of my hypothesis. I also speak with many senior interaction design agency staff who dream of the ideal startup role, or of transitioning into product management (which I suspect is far more challenging than most anticipate).

A great agency is still a strong asset to the industry and its clients, just as a bad agency is still harmful – and there are undoubtedly counter-examples to my evidence. However, one thing is clear: the design industry’s focus is no longer on agencies. It is on products.

Perhaps this is a natural evolution. Now that clients understand the value of design, it’s entirely logical for them to build their own capabilities. And maybe we’re also experiencing the limitations of our previous approaches. Responsive design and Agile have forced us to re-evaluate our methods, and we’re finding there are simply no tactical short-cuts for cross-channel and service design: the entire company itself must be designed, which demands internal influence. Money’s certainly a factor too; stock options and acquisition deals can be hard to resist.

But I also wonder if there’s a deeper motivation: a collective mid-career crisis, if you will. A household brand in our portfolio no longer appeals. No one wants to make another campaign site or Groupon clone. Instead, I see a community questioning whether it’s had the impact it dreamed of in its idealist youth. The ‘make the web better one site at a time’ mindset is really just treading water at this point.

One reason I found last year’s Brooklyn Beta so compelling was that I met many attendees who were struggling with this angst, as I was. The sense of shared cross-examination was palpable, and the unspoken conclusion was clear. If we truly believe in the power of design, it’s our duty to apply it where it can have the biggest impact.

I’ve been thinking a lot about scale recently. How can we amplify the effects of what we do? I see three methods:

  1. Example & education – sharing ideas, successes, and opinions through case study, mentorship, speaking, writing.
  2. Leadership – assuming positions of authority in organisations (executive level, internal champions), or in public office (politics, pressure groups, professional associations).
  3. Reach – finding ways to increase the number of users/citizens our designs affect.

I see many recent changes in the design community mapping to the latter two goals. We’ve never had any problems with Example and Education, and long may that continue. But I sense a new attitude of buckling down to change entire organisations, to increase public and governmental awareness of the importance of our work, and to seek out opportunties to affect the lives of millions. This is music to my ears.

A lot’s been written about the alleged decline of client services, and plenty of people are now rushing to its defence. As always, “it depends” is the only reliable answer; context is the key factor in deciding whether to work for, or hire, external consultants. But I do wonder how the agency world will respond to this shifting community focus. How will they manage to stay an attractive option for designers and organisations who are increasingly internally-focused?

There is another possible interpretation: namely, that I’m projecting my own assumptions onto behaviour that could be interpreted any number of ways. But I spy a pattern – however faint – that’s worth further examination. Am I onto something, or just seeing ghosts?

Cennydd Bowles
Joining Twitter

Self-employment has been a great experience. I’ve worked with excellent clients, learned to swim in the deep end of business, and enjoyed the flexibility to balance my time as I wish. I could be comfortable doing it for many more years. But who wants to be just comfortable?

Later this month I’ll be joining Twitter as a senior designer, working on the evolution of Twitter’s apps with the London team. It’s Twitter’s first full-time design position in Europe, and as such has huge potential – and undoubtedly some intriguing challenges.

To me, Twitter is more than just a technology company. It’s a company that is shaping global culture; but one that also appreciates the ethical implications of its work. In short, it’s an irresistible opportunity.

For the next few months I’ll join the curmudgeonly ranks of commuters, until I move up to London later in the year. I’m planning to stay active in the British and European design communities, and will continue work on Designing the Wider Web. Oh, and I’ll finally get to visit San Francisco, and spend some time with one of the best design teams around.

But of course there are plenty of unknown unknowns, and my excitement is mixed with gentle terror. I’ve no doubt it’s going to be fascinating, difficult, rewarding work. Wish me luck.

Cennydd Bowles
My life as a unicorn

Last year, the UX uniform I’d worn for a decade started to feel like a straightjacket. I wasn’t learning as rapidly as I once did, and my work had plateaued. I felt I was coasting, and falling victim to dangerous nouns like boredom and arrogance.

I think the UX industry has found a local maximum; undeniably comfortable, but somewhat short of what it could achieve. I voiced these concerns at the 2011 IA Summit, suggesting that corporate recognition wasn’t the endgame, and that the community should refocus and magnify its efforts on the world’s most pressing problems. One year on, there’s very little I’d change about the talk. While the UX industry has been very successful, and I adore the friends and peers who make it up, I worry it too has begun to coast.

UX no longer felt quite like home, and I yearned for open waters. So I dived in. Moving away from the labels and language of UX, I adopted the title Digital product designer. Great experiences are still my objective, but I wanted to explore beyond the boundaries of what the UX role had become; to use my interest in writing, typography, brand, and graphic design to enhance my work. Not a wish to generalise so much as a wish to specialise in more areas. In particular, I’d come to view the gap between UX and visual design as arbitrary: “You take the wheel, I’ll do the pedals”.

Over the last year I’ve spent long hours studying graphic design, learning more about its techniques and tools, and creating a new role for myself that combined my interaction design expertise with my new visual design skills. In popular digital parlance, such a designer has come to be known as a ‘unicorn’: a rare, flighty being never encountered in the wild. It’s a cute label, and a damaging one. It reinforces silos, and gives designers an excuse to abdicate responsibility for issues that nevertheless have a hefty impact on user experience.

There are of course different flavours of UX person. From the design-heavy position I occupied, the leap to digital product design has been feasible. The mindset is virtually identical. A senior UX designer with practical knowledge of the design process, excellent client skills, and an understanding of ideation and iteration already has many of the key skills required in visual design. Someone whose strengths lie more in research or polar-bear IA may find the gap a bit more daunting.

I’ve found I now have a deeper involvement in a product’s lifecycle, from inception through concept to the end product. I feel far closer to the product than I did previously. This has meant I’ve been taken more seriously on issues of product strategy, seen less as a user-centred advocate and more as someone who can bring a client’s vision to life, and shape a complete product over time. I also can’t deny the ego-massaging pleasure of presenting work that elicits an immediate ‘wow’ – something a wireframe could never do.

I was already well-read about the theory of graphic design, but improving my technical skills has taken no small effort. I’m still working hard on my sketching and visual facilitation skills, but thankfully the software knowledge has come easier. Forcing myself to finally master design software has been a blessed relief. For all the flak Adobe get, Fireworks or Photoshop are so much better suited to UI work than Omnigraffle – although of course they too have serious limitations in an era of fluid design. I’ve also started to experiment with print design, and have enjoyed poking my fingers into more of the Creative Suite.

I’m creating fewer of the classic UX deliverables, and have tried to forge a wider variety of tools for each situation. If the situation demands visual detail, I’m able to pull together a detailed comp. If we need speed, a sketch suffices. For interactivity, I’ve been knocking together scrappy image map walkthroughs, or more solid HTML prototypes. I’ve also spent a lot more time worrying about words and labels, and have again been reminded of their importance in design. I firmly believe that any designer who overlooks the importance of copy, thinking it someone else’s job, is missing a powerful way to improve his work.

But I still have plenty of angles to figure out. My design process has become more pliable, which confers both benefits and disadvantages. I still practice UCD frequently, but I’ve also become more familiar with ‘genius design‘. There’s been lots of expert opinion and less recourse to the user, although in part this is also a property of the startup market I’ve been working in. My clients appear to have enjoyed this flexibility of process. Certainly some companies still believe UCD to be unnecessarily bulky; and it can be hard to disagree (hence the rise of Lean UX). I genuinely don’t know yet whether taking a more fluid approach to process has led to better outputs – I’m still evaluating – but it has certainly broadened my viewpoint.

In moving away from UX, I’ve taken a hit to my reputation. Previously I was fortunate enough to be seen as someone near the top of the UX field; now, I don’t fit so well into established mental models. Some members of the UX community have noticeably edged away from my views, and I don’t get added to the same lists or invited to speak at the same conferences now. I expected this, and have no problem with it, but I do feel sometimes that I’ve lost the safety in numbers that an established community offers. It’s also been difficult at times to explain my angle and how my service differs from others’. However, this has upsides. I’m no longer hired as a UX-shaped peg to fit a UX-shaped hole; instead, my clients hire me for my individual skills.

I’ve also had to fight against expectations of speed, from both clients and myself. Time moves more slowly at the quantum levels of pixels, and my broader remit has meant that my work takes longer. It’s made estimation and project planning trickier, and has also raised issues around pricing. The obvious response to my shift would have been to raise my rates. However, I no longer have a clear market rate to price against, and I’ve been very conscious of not asking for too much while I was still making the transition. Right now I’m undercharging. That will change in due course.

So was my move the right one? For me, yes. I’ve found a far deeper appreciation for the craft of design, and I’ve rediscovered the excitement that had started to ebb away. In this period of massive change in the digital world I feel more flexible and valuable, and I’m positive that I’m a better designer as a result.

However, the digital product design role isn’t for everyone, and I shudder at the thought of this being seen as a manifesto, roadmap, or one of those odious ‘[Discipline X] Is Dead’ posts. Specialisation is still highly important, and many projects will be better off with separate UX and visual roles, rather than chasing unicorns. But personally, I’m glad I made the leap.

Cennydd Bowles
Ephemeral ennui

I still love what I do. But on days like today, when I’m woozy and tired, it gets too much.

The grinding of definitions cogs. The all-new responsive adaptive interaction experience. Do Ninja Brogrammers have a collective noun? Change the world! The promise, the plateau, the privacy violations. Five Things Designers Can Learn From X Factor. Make it like Pinterest. Update the firmware, then wait for the bug fixes. Do Not Reply To This Email. Klout scores and expanding Instapaper waistlines.

It’s an exhausting treadmill. No wonder ours is largely the domain of the young.

I still love what I do. But every now and then I have to remind myself that these ephemera – the words, the whirlwind, the white heat – don’t matter.

What matters is making beautiful things. Always.

Cennydd Bowles
Low-budget responsive design

Today I’m at Responsive Summit, a last-minute gathering of some folks who are interested in responsive web design and its effect on our industry. It’s obviously a topic close to my heart. Martin Beeby has been live-tweeting some snippets of what’s been said, including this one:

“If you have a client that won’t pay for responsive design, get a client that will.”

This quote has, unsurprisingly, not gone down well on Twitter. Responsive Summit has already been accused of being an elitist gathering. The website was tongue-in-cheek but the joke perhaps fell a bit flat, and the attendees are generally a high-profile bunch. So quotes like this, facile and arrogant, make for easy targets.

The quote originated from something I said. I can’t remember my exact words – I’m rushing this post out over lunch – but let me give some context, so you can judge for yourself whether it was as dumb as it sounds.

One of my fellow attendees was explaining to the group that her client budgets generally didn’t allow her to practice RWD, and she was having a tough time explaining the business benefits.

My response was that our is an industry with overwhelming competition at the low end. Everyone’s neighbour’s kid can bash out a site for £100. Companies like 1&1 will sell you a templated site for not much more. However, the companies that are typically practising RWD on large client sites operate at the top end of the market. They’ve carved out a niche as craftspeople creating bespoke solutions. The time and budgets they’re afforded allow deeper work, including some of the detailed intricacies of thorough RWD.

So my point was that, providing you have the skill, it can be easier to find market space and freedom to practice newer techniques by heading up the value chain, not down it. If you desperately want to practise responsive web design and your budgets don’t allow it, you have two options:

1) Do it anyway. This is an attitude close to my heart, and formed the bulk of Undercover User Experience Design’s ethos. There’s been lots of talk today of how RWD has already become a natural part of many people’s workflows.

2) Negotiate higher budgets. This may require working with different clients.

Some people have assumed from the quote that the Responsive Summit has decreed that RWD is the only way a site should be built, and that we should ditch any client who doesn’t drink the Kool-Aid. This is definitely not the case. We’ve already spent a fair bit of time agreeing that for some clients, RWD is a waste of time and money. But if you’re insistent you want to do RWD, you’ll have to either take the resultant budgetary hit yourself or find someone who will fund it.

So that’s the story behind that quote. The day so far has been smart, thoughtful, and useful – it would be a real shame for someone to judge it because of one out-of-context soundbite. Hopefully we’ll be able to share some more of the discussions so that people can build on them, and argue against them, in their own ways.


Cennydd Bowles