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WHAT THE SPACE RACE CAN TEACH US ABOUT MEETING DESIGN CHALLENGES

Our Director of Design, Matthew Ovington, spoke at UX Cambridge recently about the behaviour and qualities – the ‘right stuff’ we look for in designers. His talk pulls from all the things he has learnt building and leading design teams over the past 15 years, with the goal of communicating some of the qualities and attributes he has found to be leading indicators of individual and team performance.

 

‘The Right Stuff’ is the title of a book by Tom Wolfe. It describes the hard-to-define quality (or “stuff”) possessed by the greatest pilots. It included things like courage, commitment and nerve.

I wanted to frame the talk I gave at UX Cambridge on soft skills around two topics that have always fascinated me — space exploration and the golden age of jets. If the pilots who blazed a trail during Project Mercury possessed the right stuff then what personal qualities enable designers to take on big design challenges? And why do otherwise skilled designers sometimes succumb? Is there a “right stuff” for designers?

There are many qualities, but I’ve identified six qualities and their extremities. The extremities are important because they frame the qualities. Commitment without limit becomes unhealthy over commitment. Empathy for users has to include empathy for co-workers.

The diagram below illustrated the qualities and the extremes.

1. COMMITMENT

Commitment is simply doing what needs to be done. Just as the seven Mercury astronauts were committed to their mission, a designer has to be dedicated to doing what needs to be done. It’s easy to be committed to the idea of a big sexy project, but humdrum groundwork often comes with the territory. Determination and perseverance are required.

At one extreme, it’s possible to be too committed. Signs of over commitment include designers working too late or becoming snappy with stakeholders and colleagues. In the extreme it can become a form of mania and damage both physical and mental health. At the other extreme, there is a lack of commitment or disinterest.

2. CONFIDENCE

The second quality is confidence. Designers need to have the confidence to be challenged. Clients, stakeholders and the team need to have confidence in the ability of the designer. It’s OK to say “It depends” or “I don’t know, let’s find out”. It’s a sign that you know when you don’t know, which is also reassuring.

Overconfidence is dangerous. Many industries require deep subject matter expertise and sometimes designers don’t use SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) to their full benefit and proceed with only surface knowledge or personal experience. They fail to acknowledge the depth of complexity behind business models or industries and this can lead to disaster.

3. EMPATHY

The third quality is empathy. How often do we hear about the importance of “empathy with the user” from designers who then treat the views of product managers, engineers or senior leadership with contempt? We need designers who can relate to different perspectives on a project and understand the motivations and priorities of different stakeholders.

A level of maturity is required. Too often we see designers take up adversarial positions and focus on representing the user rather than educating other people about users behaviours or motivations.

It takes patience to bring people along on the journey. Realising that other people have a different world view is what empathy is all about. Empathy also relates to the next property — self respect.

4. SELF RESPECT

In the early stages of Project Mercury there was a lot of conflict between the astronauts, engineers and scientists. The engineers and scientists regarded astronauts as payload, little different to a chimp.

However, the Mercury astronauts knew their value and were clear on the part they played in the success of the programme. At the time there was huge public interest in the astronauts. In their own words:

“No bucks, no Buck Rogers”

Without the astronauts there would be no public interest. With no public interest there would be no political incentive. With no political incentive there would be no funding and with no funding there would be no programme. The astronauts had to elbow their way into the conversation about capsule design, fighting for manual controls, a window and an escape hatch.

Designers have to know when to stand their ground. Courage comes from self belief. Influencing people is far easier when you believe in what you’re doing. Of course, designers have to be careful that self-worth doesn’t become self-regard. Too much self worth can morph into arrogance or self-importance.

5. DECISIVENESS

The fifth quality is decisiveness. Decisiveness is more than just decision making. It’s about making good decisions quickly.

Managers have their part to play in making it safe for designers to take risks but designers have to play their part too. Indecisiveness can take many forms — fretting over data, failing to re-apply existing insights, the desire to start with a blank sheet every time. Designers need to know when to adapt existing processes to the situation. Rigid adherence to processes (especially outside processes that may be in vogue) can waste huge amounts of time.

Equally, designers need to be careful not to be reckless. Making changes without measuring the impact of the changes is the definition of reckless.This is something I’ve witnessed first hand when a senior designer wilfully ignored qualitative and quantitative data relating to a piece of micro content because “it didn’t work” in their design. Their primary concern was their portfolio.

6. BEING GROUNDED

The final quality is that of being grounded or centred. In the “experience economy” designers can feel like they’re at the centre of the universe. It’s a great time to be designer. 

Designers who work with cutting edge tech, or on worthy problems or at the coolest new start-up are idealised. Yet lots of designers (and their idols) work in humdrum fields like finance, insurance or the public sector.

There is a damaging tendency towards either utopianism or cynicism which leaves designers ultimately unhappy with themselves and disengaged from their work and the valuable contribution they make. The best designers understand that they are a part of the success — they don’t beat themselves up and don’t let it go to their head when they get to work on something special.

In summary, these are the qualities and the extremities:

  • Committed but not jeopardising physical or mental health, positively engaged.
  • Confident in their ability, not apprehensive or overconfident.
  • Empathy towards others, not engaging in culture war, not apathetic to the concerns of co-workers.
  • Respecting themselves, their value while not being an ass.
  • Making good decisions quickly — not hiding behind process, or being careless. Knowing their impact.
  • Being centred — resilience, inner strength, not being put off balance by external factors.

The slides from this talk can be viewed on Slideshare.

Photo credit: NASA

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