The theory of our evolution, finally arriving at today’s digital product designer.
Okay! So, you’ve heard my rallying call in A Higher Calling: From UXD’er to Digital Product Designer. Thank you for all the support! Especially Don Norman, taking the time to engage (on the LinkedIn post of this same article) and offer truly encouraging & kind words of support. Super grateful.
I’ll say this on record, again, this won’t be easy. You’ll be leaving behind the cozy comforts of what you’re used to and venturing into the unknown. But the first step in a journey of change is more of a leap—a leap of faith. Joseph Campbell, American author of The Hero’s Journey, reminds us that prior to any big journey, the hero has to first hear the call to adventure, recognizing that there’s something more out there.[i] I’m pulling for all designers—not only my digitally minded colleagues—to hear that call. The call to fulfill our modern designer calling: to be architects of creativity, assembling sparks of connections through skillful problem solving.
From where I’m standing, this is our time. We’re finally marking a long-awaited coming of age. An evolution that’s been twenty-five years in the making. Let’s take a gander at how we arrived here…I’ve got a theory.
Theory of Evolution
“You can't really know where you are going until you know where you have been.” [ii]
The product designer’s family tree winds through artistry, craftsmanship, and industry to eventually extend a new twig into the digital age. There in the pixels of the mid-nineties, traditional software architecture and the business of technology would begin to deliberately fuse with the core competencies of design, officially kicking off a twenty-five-year succession of milestones that collectively evolved us into a branch of product designer particular to the modern digital realm: digital product designer.
Disclaimer: Despite validating my assumptions by surveying peers and connecting the dots via research, I am aware that this evolutionary perspective is heavily shaped by my own professional experience. (For the sake of street cred, I’m 38 years old.)
Milestone 1 : Goo-we! The sophomore years of personal computing gifted users with operating systems that offered a unified graphical user interface (GUI) or, as our software elders referred to it, the “goo-we.” Classically trained software engineers, developers, and architects leveraged their systems skills in applying the basics of spatial awareness to create a visual, interactive workspace. One Wired.com article reminds us of the epic Microsoft vs. Apple court battle: Steve Jobs pitted against Bill Gates, arguing who stole whose GUI or if a GUI could even be stolen in the first place.[iii] Both Windows 95 and Mac OS 8 would make it to market with a user friendlier framework complete with customization, actionable hierarchy, self-contained windows, and themed sensibilities that reflected the familiarities of real-life offices. A newly emerged specialty—user interface architecture—while rooted in traditional software practices, had flexed user awareness through a design-minded muscle. Planting the seed for the future digital product designer.
Milestone 2: Web Rules. Queue the AOL 56k dial-up connection. The dot-com boom represented the design discipline’s official shift into contemporary digital. Graphic designers leveraged their Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees into tech-savvy roles and were christened “web designers.” The early job responsibilities spanned branding, visual design, and their respective HTML implementations. Not surprisingly, the web designer approached the digital page with the same editorial lens as a paper page, laying out a magazine-like grid to structure the information and control the presentation flow. But this age-old, common-sense approach would prove incredibly difficult, given the inadequate capabilities of early front-end tools. Tim Berners-Lee’s strict laws governing the new wild web—semantic web standards—demanded that the web designer keep within the limited guardrails. Jay Hoffmann, creator of the History of the Web project, makes the case for David Siegel’s 1996 book Creating Killer Websites as the rallying cry for web designers to liberate themselves from adhering to the letter of web standards in order to prioritize visual design—even if that meant using hacking techniques.[iv] Despite being at fault for using excessive spacer gifs (guilty as charged!), the web designer had found a foothold and was asserting a strong belief in good visual communication.
Milestone 3 : Get Flashy. Enter Macromedia Flash. In its infancy, the multimedia platform was exploited for glitzy, animated entrances. But from the vantage point of the web designer standing on a very flat web, that self-contained Flash shell was evidence that the World Wide Web was round. It was impossible not to envision future possibilities, which of course wouldn’t actually be possible until 2004. Macromedia would have to debut ActionScript 2.0—a no-holds-barred, object-oriented programming language—to pair with studio software before Flash could move past simple animated movies to powerful stand-alone applications. At a milestone along our path, Flash imprints the value of entertaining your guests (aka site visitors) and engaging participation.
Milestone 5: An Apple A Day. Unbeknownst to us mere web mortals, a major digital inflection point was on the horizon—Apple would launch the iPhone in 2007, and subsequently the App Store in 2008. This radical innovation opened the door to any brand, in any vertical, that wanted to put a thin slice of their digital offering at our fingertips. Only a few years later, Apple’s 2010 launch of the iPad rocked the landscape again, by increasing the screen real estate to dimensions comfortably situated between the size of the smart phone and the classic desktop monitor. Traditional software, once weighted down by its heavy desktop anchor, could now have a portable, slimmed-down companion. Within a year, a tsunami of competitor touch tablet devices would crash into the market. We watched our familiar web quickly disintegrate, as we faced screen size fluidity and increasingly complex requirements. The web field began to separate into design-minded versus code-minded. Those of us who were design-minded shook out as technology, or “tech,” designers claiming roles in user experience (UX) programs as user interface (UI), information architecture (IA), and mobile specialties. Any graphic designers still moonlighting as web freelancers began to gracefully bow out of technology gigs. Steve Jobs had single-handedly decreed the worth of the new digital offerings rooted in absolute design, to serve the ultimate customer experience. This catapulted the tech designer to a new level, taking on more substantial work.
Milestone 6: Experience This. UX is by no means the new kid on the block. Don Norman, a super smart guy, once at Apple, coined the term in the early 90s.[v] Norman defined “the user experience to encompass all aspects of the end-user's interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”[vi] If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, that’s one very broad user-focused umbrella. In a recent retrospective article titled “A 100-Year View of User Experience,” published by the Nielsen Norman Group, author Jakob Nielsen explains why the web platform boom motivated executives to better invest in UX programs. Nielsen, another super smart guy and longtime business partner of Don Norman, points out that with traditional software, the buyer first purchases the product and then has access to the experience. On the web, the sequence is reversed. The customer experiences the product before payment—making the user experience the gatekeeper to the money. Money was the motivator.[vii] It’s all about getting that paper.
That motivation skyrocketed with the arrival of smart devices. This period drove an explosive interest in a modern take on all things UX, and importantly demanded a higher level of design expertise. The practice of UX would officially rebrand as user experience design, or UXD. This was a new dawn that felt fitting for tech-savvy creatives. Can you remember trying on that new, mysterious user experience designer job title? So, fresh.
Soon, however, these UXD’ers became pixel bound. Overly focused on the tactical aspects of the user’s experience: the user interface and the respective usability of that interface. Nevertheless, user experience design would be the significant phase that moved us closer to the future of the digital product designer.
Milestone 7: Houston, We Have Problems. As UXD programs became more adaptive, our practice expanded to formally fold in design thinking processes. Established in the 1960s, but repopularized within UXD by programs like Stanford University’s “d.school,” the design thinking process guides structured brainstorming sessions to craft solutions for all types of user (i.e., human) problems. As it turns out, the user’s got real problems—beyond just the interface. Who knew? The UXD’ers renewed a declaration to truly become the end user’s fiercest advocate. It was the designer and user against the world… including against the business. This re-centering design work on all thing’s user left business needs by the wayside. The past years, we’ve experienced the harsh backlash. A very real tug of war between the needs of the business and the needs of the user. Years ago, in 2015, designer Nikkel Blaase penned the popular article “Why Product Thinking Is the Next Big Thing in UX Design”, published on Medium.com. He offered that product thinking represented the overlap between the UXDers and their business counterparts—encouraging that thinking this way would forge a better relationship between two.[viii]
Milestone, Now. As the UXD and business tension has intensified over this past year or so, UXD’ers find themselves gravitating towards something bigger. They’re ready to embark on the transformative pilgrimage to become digital product designers. A demanding journey. User experience designers (UXD, UI, IA, IxD, etc.) will shed their go-to pixel-based habits and expand outward from an exclusive focus on the user and near-term tactical output. A hard-earned rite of passage that is only completed when the designer has an evolved product game and strategic maturity—emerging as the bridge that connects design-to-business.
Once we’re all converted, christened and blessed as fully-fledged digital product designers, we’ll harness our power by championing the product vision: This is visioneering.
Viva la Revolución
You’re nearly there, right? Here’s what I know for sure: the transformative pilgrimage to become a digital product designer certainly takes the road less traveled—and visioneering is probably less like a road, and more like a dirt path. But the more challenging the journey, the more likely it is to satisfy your inner creative explorer. Isn’t that the way creativity works?
OK, if you’re not inspired to action yet, then this is the tough love part: Are you waiting for an invitation? Stop waiting for that cool project to fall in your lap as a reward for slaving over a week’s worth of red-line spec’ing. Stop asking permission to do your best work. Stop asking permission to improve on the task ahead— or waiting for that quarterly review where someone else will dictate how to improve on you. Aren’t you tired of waiting? Channel your inner Nike ad and Just Do It. It’s time.
Still with me? Awesome. Stay tuned and keep fighting the good fight.
All rights reserved © 2017, 2018, 2019 Laura Fish. The Designer’s Guide to Visioneering.
[i] Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2014).
[ii] “Maya Angelou: America's Renaissance Woman,” Academy of Achievement, http://www.achievement.org/achiever/maya-angelou/.
[iii] Adam Powell, “Web 101: A History of the GUI,” Wired.com (December 15, 2017), https://www.wired.com/1997/12/web-101-a-history-of-the-gui/.
[iv] Jay Hoffmann, “The Web's Timeline: 1994-1996,” The History of the Web, https://thehistoryoftheweb.com/timeline/?date_from=1994&date_to=1996.
[v] Jakob Nielsen, “A 100-Year View of User Experience,” Nielsen Norman Group (December 24, 2017), https://www.nngroup.com/articles/100-years-ux/.
[vi] Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen, “The Definition of User Experience (UX),” Nielsen Norman Group, https://www.nngroup.com/articles/definition-user-experience/.
[vii] Nielsen, “A 100-Year View of User Experience.”
[viii] Nikkel Blaase, “Why Product Thinking Is the Next Big Thing in UX Design,” Medium (July 5, 2015), https://medium.com/@jaf_designer/why-product-thinking-is-the-next-big-thing-in-ux-design-ee7de959f3fe.