From plastic to pixels

I wrote several months ago now about the changes I’ve seen in the product design world over the last decade, and of my gradual move into the world of digital interfaces in response to demand from clients. Since then, I have taken a leap in that direction and left Kinneir Dufort to start a new role this month as Lead UX Designer for GL Garrad Hassan, which means an exciting transition into full time digital interface design work.I was discussing the move whilst visiting a friend in London recently and was asked what a UX Designer is, as there seem to be a whole collection of similar job titles floating around at the moment. UX is a shorthand for ‘user experience,’ although I could easily have been called a user interface (UI) Designer, Interaction Designer etc. The terms are relatively interchangeable and bear subtle differences, not dissimilar to the terms product and industrial designer, either of which i have been happily answering to for years. I like the term User Experience Designer though, because it reflects the holistic nature of the thinking required. Having been schooled entirely in the craft of physical, product design, the move from plastic and metal to pixels would have been inconceivable to me when I graduated ten years ago. What changed?

As we all know, today there are an exponentially larger number of digital devices about and more everyday activities conducted via the internet than say, ten years ago. Often it is no longer enough for a product to stand alone. To be successful and effective it must be part of ecosystem, expected to be connected to a broader network of products and services that support and upgrade it over time. The designer then, can no longer define the entire user experience by controlling the design of just the physical product. The experience is now shaped just as much, if not more, by the surrounding family of apps, web portals, updates and customisable elements, often referred to as the ‘digital wrapper.’ These are ideas which barely existed when i was learning my craft in a busy university studio, but which are changing the way we build new products, and have been slowly but surely changing the way I work.

Industrial designers, as I wrote some months ago, are at risk of losing their relevance in some sectors unless they can contribute more to the design of the digital wrapper, so we need to adapt, learn new language and new ways of working. As daunting as it sounds, I believe it’s relatively easy for designers to adapt in this way. It never ceases to amaze me that the skills and processes i was taught as an undergraduate appear to be applicable to more or less anything. I owe this in part to the good people of the University of Northumbria. In ten years I’ve rolled up my sleeves hundreds of times to design everything from toys to surgical tools to musical instruments, and it seems to work every time. The core skills of the designer are unbelievably versatile. The move into digital interface design is a large step, but just like product design, asking the right questions, having a solid creative process and putting the user first will yield great new ideas.

GL Garrad Hassan are a well established engineering consultancy, specialising in the world of renewable energy, which primarily means the design and monitoring of wind farms, with recent expansion into other areas like wave and solar. To do this, they use some unique software tools, created entirely in-house, and for which I will be helping the twenty-strong software team transform UX design.

GL follows its own tailored version of an agile development process. In the software world, this is a formal and well organised method by which small teams of developers take identified user needs and translate them into working software features in a series of fast paced, two week work phases. With hundreds of tasks to perform and several people collaborating on the same code, the process demands a strict discipline of organisation, tracking and accountability. The short sprints, as these work phases are called, allow the team to stay flexible and react quickly to drifting goalposts and new challenges. As GL Garrad Hassan’sfirst designer, my first challenge is to find the best fit for UX design in the agile process.

It’s early days, but already the software development team and I are finding our skills complementary, and are seeing some promising results from experimenting and brainstorming together. I have been surprised too, to see how well the agile process keeps a complex project on track, and lets the team respond quickly to changes. The product design world, which deals often with fuzzy and fast changing project briefs, might learn a thing or two here about organisation!

The next challenge is to better integrate as a team and I look forward to seeing what we can achieve in the future as things get slicker and faster. I can see some truly exceptional UX on the horizon.

Matt Corrall