Bookmark Beat: EP 20

Design's role in decision making

This month, I'm sharing bookmarks ranging from the state of the tech industry to an archaeological revival of ancient Greek music. I also reflect on what role design might play in companies whose product development processes don't really need to center the user.

Instead, I look for other ways to employ our skills (and, hopefully, keep us employed).

Want to know what podcasts and music I'm listening to? Or maybe you just prefer a realtime feed of my latest bookmarks… if so, check out the “I am” page on my website.

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“A” Section: This Month's Bookmarks

Why it seems like the sky is falling for digital design, and how to come out of the storm stronger by Jan Takacs

“Navigating the current storm will require significant commitment towards reinvention well beyond design. Here are some of the key recommendations based on the latest insights, observations and practical experiences to help make better critical career decisions at this time.”

The Great Flattening by Stratechery

“What is increasingly clear, though, is that Jobs’ prediction that future changes would be even more profound raise questions about the “bicycle for the mind” analogy itself: specifically, will AI be a bicycle that we control, or an unstoppable train to destinations unknown? To put it in the same terms as the ad, will human will and initiative be flattened, or expanded?”

John Cleese on Creativity In Management by video arts

“In this lecture-style presentation, John Cleese claims that creativity is not a special talent. People are either in an ‘open’ or ‘closed’ state of mind. The closed mode enables people to apply themselves to tasks with vigour and concentration; the open mode is more relaxed and conducive to creative thinking. Cleese talks about how leaders can induce an open mode in their team members and establish confidence in them to accept that there is a succession of learning steps on the road to total quality.”

Founders Need to Be Ruthless When Chasing Deals by Steve Blank

“That’s when the real learning started. It was more than OK with me if they said they weren’t ready to sign. Or they told me there were other groups who needed be involved. I was now learning things I never would have if I just showed up with a prototype.”

Raised from the dead: The Doves Type story. by typespec

“And so the mission to destroy it, beginning with the punches and matrices on Good Friday 1913, began. On an almost nightly basis from August 1916 the ailing septuagenarian dumped the type into the Thames, wrapped in paper parcels and tied with string; ‘bequeathed to the river’ as he put it in his personal diary. Every piece of this beautiful typeface, more than a ton of metal, was destroyed in a prolonged ritual sacrifice.”

React, Electron, and LLMs have a common purpose: the labour arbitrage theory of dev tool popularity by Baldur Bjarnason

“React and the component model standardises the software developer and reduces their individual bargaining power excluding them from a proportional share in the gains. Its popularity among executives and management is entirely down to the fact that it helps them erase the various specialities – CSS, accessibility, standard JavaScript in the browser, to name a few – from the job market.”

Actually Using SORA by fxguide (feat. shy kids)

Air Head still needed a large amount of editorial and human direction to produce this engaging and funny story film. I just feel like people have to SORA as an authentic part of their process; however, if they don’t want to engage with anything like that, that’s fine too.'”

Rediscovering Ancient Greek Music (2017) by Oxford Digital Media

“First choral performance with reconstructed aulos of reconstructed ancient scores of Athenaeus Paean (127 BC) and Euripides Orestes chorus (408 BC), with the evidence presented and explained by Professor Armand D'Angour, Jesus College Oxford.”

“B” Section: What role do designers play in making decisions?

I have a hard time in big companies. The further away I am from the actual exchange of value (i.e. our product for our customer's money), the more uncomfortable I feel with my work. At startups, I'm used to talking to users, designing a thing and seeing that thing get used - or not. Often times, that “thing” is something that the sales team wanted to get “new logos” or “expand in current accounts.” So if I see new logos or bigger renewals, I know I must have done something right. But the larger a company grows - and the longer its contracts with customers - the less likely I am to find a cause-and-effect relationship between the things I'm designing and the things that make us money.

Over time, the “thing that makes us money” is less likely to be a killer feature and more likely to be a predatory business model.

Who needs “an easy onboarding experience” when a government has mandated that your software be used to complete compliance tasks? Why build those missing features to “prevent churn” when your customers are locked in to a 5-to-10 year contract with hefty early termination fees or an extremely difficult migration? What's the point of selling more product if you can increase your stock price by just laying off 20% of your staff or forcing them to quit with an RTO mandate?

What should we do instead?

In these contexts, I don't think we can advocate for the user, the customer or any human on the other end of our interfaces. Because even if they were standing in the room next to us, their opinion wouldn't matter. They're stuck with our product, no matter what we build.

So if the growth of in-house design teams was actually caused by seeing design as a “competitive advantage,” what happens to those same teams when competition decreases? What role do they play on a team full of business strategists, lawyers and a burnt-out engineering team who is just trying to keep the lights on?

I think the answer revolves somewhere around designers being more involved in decision making. Engineers may have the knowledge of the underlying system while sales, product owners and the executive have context on how a company fits in the current market. But those who are closest to the customer are more likely to have a pulse on how the underlying sentiment of a user may change the market.

Why do designers have to do it?

I believe designers have the unique ability to transform information from user interviews, customer support data and competitive analysis into a series of possible futures that other teams can evaluate. Speculative design extends our skillsets beyond the here-and-now. It allows for us to determine what small (and possibly slow) changes we need to now in order make to prevent an urgent crisis in the future.

It's possible that due to the factors outside of our control, brought on by late-stage capitalism, no conversation about “possible futures” will be entertained since “it's not happening right now… so why worry about it?” But businesses want to mitigate risk. Designers have the ability to surface those risks and communicate possible solutions to prevent them from happening.

If anything, it'll give us something to do while we wait 6 months for that feature we designed to actually get built.

Coda: Books I'm reading

Here's the books I've read (or am still reading) this month:

  • Someone You Can Build a Nest In was a gross, queer and deliciously heartwarming novel. Despite being a shape-shifting flesh monster, the main character was relatable and hilarious. This book definitely had a positive impact on my life.
  • This Is How You Lose the Time War was a bit too full of itself for me to really feel connected to it. The last quarter of the book was really solid and I think they stuck the landing… but I think it would have been better as a short story.
  • The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires takes place in the same town as My Best Friend's Exorcism but, instead, deals with the mind and mayhem of being a southern housewife. I felt a lot of affinity for Patricia Campbell and loved rooting for her and her friends as their lives (and their book club!) was infiltrated by a nasty vampire.
  • I'm also now switching off between The Silmarillion and War and Peace as my “long reads.” They are currently competing to be completed first!

Got feedback? Let me know what you think in the comments on Substack (or just send me an email).

Catch ya next beat 🥁😎🥁