We talked to two designers working in different contexts, Andréa Crofts and Minh Dao, about these topics. Andréa is a product manager at League, where she leads the product design team in creating experiences that help customers live healthier lives everyday, through a customer-centric health benefits platform. Minh works as a designer at Element AI, the world’s largest artificial intelligence (AI) research lab, building AI-driven products for organizations. Both designers have experience working on projects that bring new innovations to people through digital products.
Why staying up to date on technology matters
The first question on our minds was why it matters for designers to keep up with technological advances? For Andréa, the framing of the question needed to be broadened. “It’s so important, but I think it’s not only about staying up to date on technology, rather staying up to date on the world and how it’s changing. If all you’re doing is reading about the latest programming language but you’re not out there experiencing human things in the world, you won’t be able to tell compelling stories in your work.”
From Minh’s perspective, it comes down to being able to design effectively, and support clients or the people you work with. “When I was consulting last year, most of the questions I got asked were around things like smart recommendations, algorithms, and AI. It’s very typical for people to expect product designers to be able to answer questions on these topics and be able to design solutions with these in mind.”
Of course, this raises a question of how deep you should go in your understanding of these topics. Minh says this all comes down to knowing enough to have effective conversations with those you are collaborating with. “It’s about having enough understanding to vouch for what this technology enables for the end user, and why it matters to the experience. You don’t need full technical knowledge, but you do need to be able to negotiate with your team and drive the value through into the thing that we eventually build.”
Challenges when designing for new technology
Working on projects that involve new technology brings with it challenges for designers and teams. At ElementAI, Minh experiences this first hand. “Our customers often want to use AI to make sense of their data and automate getting to insights from the data. Working with AI is a new context, and we need to figure out where everyone fits and what a good process looks like.” While the design process can serve as an overarching guidepost, to solve these problems there is a need to work with people from really broad backgrounds, like engineering, academia, research, and design. “There is no cut and paste process that can solve these problems. It requires a true multi-disciplinary approach, and we can’t reuse old methodologies.”
There are also limits to new technologies, even ones that seem like a silver bullet to problem solving, like AI. Even when you understand what users want to achieve, there are constraints driven by the sophistication of technologies. Minh shared an anecdote about working on IBM Watson Analytics several years go. “We were focused on using natural language search queries to make sense of large data sets, so for example a coffee franchise manager wanting to ask what the best selling coffee across all locations in a particular area was. Even though we knew what we wanted to achieve, the technology was very limiting and there were issues. Working at the cutting edge of new tech means there are also limitations based on how mature a technology is.” This is where you have to be able to prioritize, and negotiate what’s possible with the underlying user need in mind.