Interview: product management, cross cultural design and entrepreneurship

The publisher of the Chinese edition of Simple and Usable recently interviewed me, based on questions sent in from readers.

The questions covered the relationship between design and product management, cross cultural design and advice for entrepreneurs.

(I’ve been amazed by the popularity of Simple and Usable in China - it's been reprinted 7 times and they’ve sold 18,000 copies of the Chinese edition. 谢谢!)

You can read the Chinese version of the interview on the publisher's website, or the English version, below.

Your book Simple and Usable is not only read by designers, but is also on the must-read list for product managers in China. It that so elsewhere? In your opinion, what are the reasons for that?

Ten years ago, the product managers I met tended to focus on 'marketing' issues like price points or 'finding gaps in the market'. Today, product managers pay a lot more attention to design. Modern product managers seem more like 'design strategists'. The need for designers and product managers to work together has never been stronger.

When I was planning the book, I wanted to address both roles. The first sections ('Why are we here' and 'Setting a vision') are focussed more on the kinds of questions a product manager needs to ask in setting a design brief. The 'four strategies' are about how a designer can answer the brief. I believe that the most effective product managers and designers are the ones who understand both sides.

So I'm glad that the book appeals to both audiences. One of my goals was to help designers and product managers to work together more effectively by helping them share a vision of simplicity.

What inspired you to write Simple and Usable?

My fascination with simplicity began with my love of science. In science, the deeper you go, the simpler everything becomes.

I remember sitting in a university lecture on electromagnetism. Up to that point, I'd spent years learning about electrical circuits and magnetic forces and memorising dozens of equations and rules. The lecturer explained that there was another way of looking at it and distilled all those years of learning into four simple equations - Maxwell's Equations. They're famous in science because they cover everything there is to know about electromagnetic forces, and yet they're very simple. Each equation is a subtle variation of the others - scientists call them beautiful.

Sometimes people tell me the world is complex and try to use this as an argument against simplicity. I think of the way that science takes the complex world around us and packages it in a few simple equations - ready to be unpacked again later.

Great design is like that: it takes the complex problems of the world and distills them into a simple object or a piece of software. A knife or a spreadsheet are simple designs that can be used by anyone to tackle an infinite variety of problems.

You introduced four principles for simplicity in Simple and Usable. Do you think these principles are universal enough to be applied to other cultures? How about China?

One of the delights of my job is that I get to watch users all over the world - across Europe, Asia, North and South America and Australia. In my experience, the four strategies do appear to be universal.

I think that the differences between European writing and Chinese characters make people believe that interfaces need to be completely different. Mostly, that isn't true - my colleague Tan Chui Chui has written and presented about that at a number of international conferences.

Of course, people in different cultures tend to have different knowledge and skills. This means they have different expectations of design. So what feels simple to someone in China may not feel simple to someone in France.

So you need to begin by understanding your users. Once you know how they see the world, you can use the strategies - remove, organise, hide and displace - to simplify things for them.

For people who are interested in user interaction design, what books would you suggest them to read? And is there a particular order they should read them in?

As the field is growing there are great new books being published all the time. So any list I come up with will be incomplete and I can only really tell you about some of the books that influenced me, in more-or-less the order in which I read them.

Forget all the rules about graphic design including the ones in this book (Bob Gill). I read this book when I was at school. Bob Gill was a graphic designer who was very influential in the 60s and 70s. His book is about how to find the simplest, most powerful way of communicating an idea. He uses very few words and lots of wonderful examples of his own work. Lots of designers say 'you need to understand the rules, so you know which rules to break'. I think that's wrong. Bob Gill's book shows what's important is to understand why you're breaking a rule. It's out of print now, though it used to be very popular - I bought a copy a few years ago on a second hand book website. I don't suppose a Chinese language version was ever published. I'd love to know if there's a Chinese equivalent.

Computers as Theatre (Brenda Laurel). This is another book that influenced me early on. I have to say, it's not the easiest book to read, but Brenda Laurel talks about how writing software is like staging a play. Since then, other people have written about the role of 'storytelling' in design, but I think Brenda Laurel's book is deeper and more perceptive than anything else I've read. Today, when I recruit designers, one of the most important things I'm looking for is an understanding of their role as 'theatre directors' and the role of users as a 'participating audience'.

About Face (Alan Cooper). I'm a big fan of books like The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, which teach people the rules of grammar and composition - how to write well. About Face is the equivalent for user interface designers. Everyone should read this book.

Envisioning Information (Edward Tufte). This book isn't really a textbook, it's a series of lectures. You can't 'dip in', you have to read each chapter from beginning to end. Once you understand that, you discover it's full of great ideas and examples. Tufte's idea of the 'data:ink ratio' (try to express as much information on the printed page while using as little ink as possible) is a great rule for anyone trying to simplify the way they present information to users.

You have been through some major transitions in your career, from BAe Systems to publishing, some of them even seem to be a little irrelevant. Were they useful and which one would you describe as the most important?

I've been very fortunate - in each of my jobs, I've been able to follow the things that were interesting to me and so when I look at my career path, it feels more like a straight line than a zig zag.

When I was at university, I studied physics. But I was interested in people and computers and so I took side courses in psychology and programming. And this was at a time when computers were being used for publishing for the first time, so I experimented with desktop publishing and writing.

Then at BAe, they decided that my interest in psychology and computer programming meant I should work in the Human Computer Interaction group, so I discovered User Centred Design. But aerospace projects take years to develop and involve very large teams and I wanted to work where I could make more of a difference, so I moved on.

I went to work for a small consultancy helping designers make use of technology. I got to work with a lot of small businesses and to see how they work and to understand the differences between the ones that grew and the ones that stayed small - that was valuable when I started my own business. But I wanted to create software again.

At Institute of Physics Publishing, I used my knowledge of User Centred Design to try to make their first electronic publications (on CD-ROM) easy to use. While I was there, I found a computer running something called 'The World Wide Web' and started to play with that, and it was obvious that this was going to change the world.

Electronic journals seemed like a small part of what was possible, so I moved to an agency that made web sites for international companies. There I learned about how businesses work and how to design in that environment and started to show them how to make designs more usable.

From there, it seemed like a logical step to take what I'd learned and start my own agency, with my business partner, Richard Caddick.

Throughout my career, I've really just followed my interests: people, technology, design and communication. And wherever I've gone, I've looked for opportunities to do great work.

Some of the best career advice I ever had came from a book called What Color Is Your Parachute? It said: 'do what you love and the money will follow'. I think that's true. Success is much easier when you're concentrating on finding ways to do great work that you love doing.

‘Entrepreneurship’ is among the hottest topics in China. Would you like to share your experience of forming cxpartners? Is there any suggestion you can give to China’s entrepreneurs in this field?

When I was working with small businesses early in my career, I'd find that the managing directors kept saying the same thing: 'my company doesn't seem to be able to grow larger than 5 (or 10 or 20) people but I'm working really hard'. As an outsider, it was obvious that this had nothing to do with 'the economy' or luck.

Some managing directors tried to control everything. They wanted to be involved in every piece of work, so their businesses stayed small. Some managing directors were good at delegating work, so their businesses grew.

When Richard and I set up cxpartners, that lesson was at the forefront of my mind. We spent a lot of time thinking about what to delegate and what to do ourselves. And we always tried to find people who were better than us at the work we were delegating.

So our first employee was not a junior designer - because we didn't want to delegate our design work to someone who was a junior. Instead, we hired someone to help us with the invoicing and accounts - a very talented person who is now our Operations Director.

These days whenever Richard and I sit down to plan company strategy, the question we ask is: 'what should we delegate so that we have time to grow the business?'.

Many designers seem to reach a plateau. They find themselves either repeating their own works or others’ works. Do you have any suggestions for that? And how do you manage to find inspiration?

I think that three ingredients are necessary for creative design.

The first is sources of inspiration. It's important to read widely and to open yourself to lots of experiences. I try to read about science and art and history and politics. I'm reading a book about botany at the moment, which is not something I've done since I was at school. But understanding how plants work is making me think about how some of those ideas could be applied to my designs or even my business.

The second is having time to be playful. We try to build in 'thinking time' in every project for ideas and inspiration. We play games when we're sketching our first design concepts to try to make ourselves come up with new ideas and share ideas so that our design solution has many possible influences.

The last, is having a 'feedback loop' - making sure that before a design goes into production, that it's tested with real users in a realistic situation. Often you learn that there's a better way of doing something or that something you were sure would work needs to be fixed.

I guess what's common to each of those three things, though, is that you must look for outside influences that disrupt your way of thinking and force you to see the world anew.

Writing code and visualising designs have become easier over the past few years. Do you think there is a trend to lower the technical bar to be a designer? Do you see the future when everyone can design for themselves?

I think we've always lived in a time when everyone can design for themselves. In the age of wooden machines, anyone could pick up a knife and carve something themselves. In the age of software, anyone can write code and try things out. And in the coming age of 3D printers, anyone will be able to make… anything!

Of course, not everyone wants to. And some people become better at design than others - so I am sure there will always be a need for professional designers and plenty of opportunity for amateur designers.

What's great about the digital age, is that amateurs can distribute their work widely. Anyone can publish a game, write a blog, create an app and offer it to hundreds of millions of people around the world. And because the cost of entry is so much lower,

Lots of designers have issues dealing with their clients. Is there anything they can do to make everyone—including designers, customers, and users—happy?

There's a myth among designers that the perfect project is one where you arrive at the client's offices one day and reveal your design and the client cries with joy and thanks you with tears running down his face.

This has never happened to anyone, anywhere ever. It will never happen to you. You will meet someone who tells you that this has happened to them. You should not believe them.

I call this 'ta da' design - where the design process is kept secret from the client and the results are revealed with a 'ta da' fanfare. I hate this type of design.

I think it's important for designers to recognise that we design tools for our clients to improve their business - maybe websites that will make them more money, or apps that will help them stay in touch with their customers. We understand 'design' and maybe 'users'  but our clients understand their business far better than us. So our clients need to be involved throughout the design process.

These days, the designers at cxpartners invite our clients to all our important design meetings. We invite them to see how our concepts are performing in user testing. We even ask them to come and sketch concept designs with us.

This helps them understand the design decisions we have to make, and it helps us understand what their business needs are - far better than asking them to write a design brief.

Recently I was running a sketching session with a client who said he'd rather just watch because he 'couldn't draw'. But as he was sitting there, he picked up a piece of paper and drew eight boxes on it each with a short label. We pinned it on the wall, along with all the other designs, and discovered that his idea was perfect for the project. We showed him how we could turn those eight boxes into a real design and of course he loved it.

I think that, as a designer, it's important to be humble and to recognise that you must learn from your clients and involve them. If you need to be the star, to be the person who shouts 'ta da' then they will not understand what you're doing, and you may miss the most important ideas.

Do you have a plan to write another book? What might be the ideas behind your next book? 

At the moment I'm thinking about how people seem to be addicted to computers and phones. If you go to a restaurant, you'll see people playing with their phones instead of talking. If you sit in a meeting, you'll find that half the people there are answering emails, rather than concentrating on the discussion. If you're trying to write a report you'll find yourself checking email or Twitter (or Weibo).

People who try to juggle tasks like this tend to be less efficient, and to have trouble making judgements or forming memories.

I'm worried about how our addiction to trivial news is cutting us off from what's important - our friends, our work, our goals. And that it's damaging our minds. I've been doing a lot of thinking about that, and about what designers should do about it. I don't think I've got answers that are strong enough for a book just yet, but I've been talking about it at conferences and I can see that it's a problem that most people are familiar with. As designers, I think it's a problem that's too important to ignore. I hope to find some solutions and to write about them in the future.

Giles founded cxpartners with Richard Caddick in 2004. He's author of 'Simple and usable' and an invited speaker at design conferences around the world.