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Photograph: Tim Bowditch

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Designing Experience: What we learned about harnessing digital design as a superpower

The capabilities of digital design can sometimes be difficult to comprehend. The terms used can feel like a different language, and the possibilities of developments such as AI can be frightening to some. However at Designing Experience, an event put together by It’s Nice That and Adobe XD, we learned how, as a medium, it can help us communicate with each other more clearly, provide opportunities for cultural awareness, keep up to date with current affairs, and enable us to discover whole new layers of creativity.

Over the course of the evening, the purposefully broad line-up of digital practitioners acted as a guide to deciphering the projects and products we browse digitally. The first of which was Rachel Ilan Simpson, a senior designer at Google, a site we each undoubtedly use repeatedly without thinking about the designers working away behind it.

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Photograph: Tim Bowditch

Rachel’s talk began by enthusiastically reminding us how “design is a bit of a superpower” which, when harnessed well, can help us understand “big, hairy problems”. To demonstrate this stance, Rachel took us back to when Google Chrome was at its peak. By 2016 however, India surpassed the United States and now had the most internet users globally, but Chrome wasn’t clicking with this audience. Google’s team had made assumptions and design decisions based off of their own interactions with the search function, which users operated in a totally different way on the other side of the globe. Showing the audience a three minute clip of a man attempting to use Google Chrome for the first time to no avail, Rachel proved the importance of realising that “the people you design for will have a different perspective from you.”

Building upon this experience, Rachel segued into how learnings such as this have altered the way she encourages teams to work together. By delving into projects predominantly through user research, the designer pointed out how creating an ideal space for fun, exploration and iteration means the planning phase of a project becomes less important, when her team actually creates their work, that’s when they can shine. In turn, design advances and tweaks at Google can often be slight with huge impact; a further example is how Google translate functions appear in different designs depending on where you are in the world. Ultimately proving how her work as a digital designer is driven by the fact that the medium “can help us see each other and others.”4

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Photograph: Tim Bowditch

Next to take to the stand was Lisa Reeves, VP design principal at Barclays, talking us through her past year at the company designing conversations.

Originally working within film and photography, Lisa became fascinated with digital design after a feeling “that UX could be used for a lot more,” she told the audience. This year, in particular, Lisa’s want to use UX design has been utilised through working with AI to create a bot for Barclays, firstly by looking at what conversation actually is. Considering it’s the oldest form of communication, and as Lisa pointed out something we often do without even thinking, Lisa’s insights into distilling conversation into a digital experience were split into numerous learnings. For example, Lisa demonstrated how often the most important aspect is not what you’re actually saying but how you’re saying it, communicating in a way which is decipherable – human or bot!

Still developing the bot at this current stage, Lisa then also explained Barclay’s reason for doing this, pointing out how since the introduction of Amazon’s Alexa four years ago, there are now 12 million voice-activated devices available. Ultimately, summing up her experience of working in this sector of designing conversations as “a privilege to be invited into the home experience and think about design”.

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Photograph: Tim Bowditch

Following Lisa we had two practitioners carving out a very different digital path for themselves in this sphere: James Musgraves and Oli O’Driscoll Joseph from Yes studio.

Working across the intersection of art direction, design and technology, Yes studio’s wide-spanning approach stems from a practice of looking outside of its direct, traditional practises. Consequently, this has informed its belief that the web is “a platform for creative expression and we are passionate about building tools and experiences that assist with the dissemination of visual culture,” James pointed out.

To demonstrate this, Oli and James showed us Yes studio’s ongoing work translating the work of photographers into digital experiences. Using the works of Daniel Sannwald and Dexter Navy as an example, the pair proved that “collaboration is where our most interesting work develops.” In the instance of Daniel’s work, this included developing numerous microsites to demonstrate the many strands of his work. Later the website switched to display more of the photographer’s archive, asking Yes studio to create a website “to make the user a passenger on a spacecraft going through a solar system of his work”.

Through these experimental experiences, Yes studio not only shows viewers its expansive knowledge of culture, but displays the personality of those it is designing for.

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Photograph: Tim Bowditch

Following this, Rachel Wells from Mullen Lowe Profero joined us to share more instances of how digital experiences can facilitate the cultural, talking through a recent project for ArtFund.

At MullenLowe, Rachel’s job as creative director sees her leading a wide team to combine design, data and strategy to “shape the customer’s journey”. For ArtFund’s student art pass – which gives students access to galleries and special events for just £5 – her team’s brief was to design a new website utilising digital “to overall aspects of their business,” she told the audience.

By building upon the already established branding of ArtFund for this sister site, Rachel discussed how using Adobe XD during this process was highly beneficial, enabling the client to directly feed back and the designers to add animation, considering the programme is exportable to AfterEffects.

Taking us through the various iterations of the student art pass’ new website in detail, Rachel concluded by adding how, in digital design, a flat, non-hierarchal team made of different voices, can enable designers to embrace the new.

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Photograph: Tim Bowditch

Finally, our last speaker of the evening, Ben Longden of the The Guardian, was a perfect example of how learning more about digital design can create new opportunities.

Taking a step back to before he was the newspaper’s digital design director, Ben admitted that he truly disliked digital design when he was a fresh graphic design graduate. However, over time and through various jobs (such as designing websites for estate agents), once Ben taught himself to code the opportunities seemed endless.

Now at The Guardian, Ben’s job is largely designing templates for the site and app for a consistent stream of news, which in recent months has included breaking stories such as Cambridge Analytica and The Paradise Papers. The best part of Ben’s job, therefore, is “the stories we tell” and using design to give such articles “the importance they deserve,” he explained. And, by telling stories “in a different way, whether that’s through imagery or interaction, and through experiments,” Ben and The Guardian’s work is of the utmost importance in these turbulent times.

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Photograph: Tim Bowditch

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Photograph: Tim Bowditch

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Photograph: Tim Bowditch