Three design experts share their perspective on the increasing need for design principles in product development

The ratio of engineers—the stalwarts of software—to designers at tech companies like IBM and Facebook is dropping because of the increasing role of design in the development of products.

It's evident in apps like Airbnb and Robinhood, which use design to help users more easily navigate travel planning and stock trading. These companies, and many others, believe the design and user experience of their products help differentiate from competitors.

Priyatham Vennapusa

Interviewer and Author

Design is no longer just reserved for the "look and feel" of a product, but a factor in the overall vision of many successful companies.

To learn more about the role UX design and designers are playing in product development, I sat down with the founders of Intelligaia, a UX design firm focused on enterprise products.

Started in 2005 in Chandigarh, India, founders Sandeep Chauhan, Rajiv Kaul and Cheena Kaul opened offices in RTP and San Francisco to keep up with growing demand for their work. Now, the Raleigh-based founders employ more than 80 people across the company, designing for clients like HP, Cisco and DocuSign.

I've paraphrased their comments after my questions below.

Throughout your portfolio on your company website, I noticed the words compass and destination. After some inspection, I realized that the compass and destination were metaphors for users and product. Can you talk a little bit about that metaphor? I thought it was an interesting word choice

The UX process has two components: objectively come up with a solution and subjectively make designs that are pleasant to the eye. With regards to the objective piece, we have to find ways to solve certain problems and map out the journeys of users. We saw compass as an apt metaphor for understanding the people using our app. We're building a product out of their need and we need to stay true to their needs just like the captain of the ship stays true to a specific direction.

The metaphor is also a reminder of how we look at the process. We create apps around human centered design. There are no "users." Just humans. It's this shift from pixels to people that really defines our philosophy. We're dealing with people, we have to empathize with them, and then find the solution.

What are some misconceptions people have about design? Some people think design is just Photoshop and minimalism but personally I see it as way of thinking about things from top bottom and bottom up.

They think it comes for free (laughs). You're right, it's not just aesthetics. It's evolved to mean much more. It's strategy, plan, process. Design thinking is a holistic way of looking at problems. I would say that's the big difference between art and design. Art is something you do for your own pleasure. Design has a purpose. Design has to solve a problem.

Why we joke about Photoshop is because that's what the world thinks design is. But with the mass adoption of technology and people finding value when they incorporate design into their thinking, they have seen that design plays a much larger role than simply the aesthetics. For example in our sales process, we heavily emphasize our design principles.

Customers often come to us with a simple aesthetic requirement. We don't just solve the immediate problem. We assess the situation using strong fundamentals of design, and only then come up with solutions for their business needs that they might not have anticipated. Without design systems in place, a business cannot scale efficiently. Educating customers is a big part of what we do.

As much as we are talking about design's non-aesthetic role, it's important to not discount the craft. Design is the beauty a user ultimately interacts with. Even if there was a lot of thought and engineering that went into the product, the front facing experience is what they see and touch. Finally, it's the craft that comes out.

I was going to bring it up, but you touched upon it already. Designers are no longer just involved in the interface. They're designing the strategy and architecture of the product...

Today when you're designing, you have to think about the entire process. Within the product, there can be many points of contact. So when we're designing we have to think about all the different ways a person interacts with it- online, offline, different devices, emerging technologies etc.

Do you ever get a headache imagining the possibilities? When someone comes to you with a problem and you're viewing it through this lens of design where there are no limits and assumptions are questioned, you could ostensibly change everything and go in so many directions...

This is an important question. Most people don't understand this. There are lots of possibilities that could end up as the final product. But given all these options, we have to ask ourselves which one is good for my product. When we work on something new, people want to see the art of possible. We go to great lengths to research and consider the future climate of technology-not just next quarter, but down the line five years from now. We're designing for the future.

But to go back to your question, it's never a headache. It's more of an excitement. It can take whatever shape. It's a beautiful thing to think about. It's the joy of our work. It's a designer's dream to work on something with unlimited possibilities. We're challenged with this constantly.

What do you do when a business client comes to you with one specification but you feel it's best to take it another direction? Because you have to satisfy their needs over yours, do you ultimately go with their vision or...? Has there ever been a time you produced a work- 1 them and one for them? :)

This reminds of what Henry Ford said, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." You have to know when to push the limit sometimes.

Articulating your design decisions is an art of itself. You build this up through experience. A really creative solution is not easy to sell. You have to see the other side of the table. The investor is concerned about his money and wants a practical solution that he knows will sit easy with customers. As beautiful as the iPhone was, if it wasn't functionally sound, a person wouldn't have bothered with it. In other words, you can have the most beautiful design in the world but if it's not helping the customer, there's no point. You have to balance the expectations with your creative ideas, plan within the time constraints, understand the customer, and look past the time horizons.

The bottom line is you can't get too touchy about your work. Design is lot of emotional labor and one needs to balance it with rational. Justifying your decision is as important as the decision itself. That's how you build design leadership. You have to understand all points of view.

You brought up wearables. 20 years ago the web was becoming a thing. Then mobile became a thing. And then tablets became a thing. Now we have smart watches. I find voice assistants super fascinating because there's no surface. What technology are you most excited about?

In the future, it won't just be visual design. It will be centered around designing the process itself. Two areas where we'll see UX playing a bigger role in the future are security and cryptocurrency. Security is a place where design hasn't been prioritized. We've all seen how design has influenced our devices. Security is going to be play an immense role in the coming years given the way the internet is invading every aspect of our lives. Look at your own device right now. How many security points do you have? A common man doesn't even worry about security.

I read a piece by Jim Gosler, a cybersecurity expert, the other day. If someone hacked into Google Maps, and decided to point all the routes in one direction, it could turn into a very scary situation. We need to think about that and create measures that prevent that happening on multiple levels. Cryptocurrency is another area where design will be huge.

Right. Design is going to bleed into areas where design historically hasn't been. So far, it's been prominent in architecture and sculptures, but those are very pretty things. Security is very ugly. And no one wants to go there.

You're spot on. Software design got us thinking about building apps and making giant companies out of them. Now is the time to think about how security and money can be handled through design. Right now, Square can analyze how many customers are making how much money every hour, every minute, and leverage that data to determine what loan to give based on how fast they can repay. This is completely different from traditional banking where you have to apply for loans and wait an extended period of time. It's a beautiful example of service design, where customers are at the center of the service.

Over the past 20 years, you've seen trends in UX design such as flat design. What's a trend that is trendy right now that you disagree with? What's "in" that you don't like?

Endless scrolls. Those are irritating. It takes energy out of me. When is it going to end? (laughs).

A lot of people like conversational chat bots but I don't. Granted they're in the early stages right now, so some kinks need to be worked out. They have a lot of potential.

Trends come and go but one thing that will always stay constant is the fact that good design doesn't break. Good design is timeless. When a business or a product is built on good design, it doesn't need to go through a bunch of iterations every couple of years. It will have long term utility and meaning.

As a UX designer, is there an artist you look to and say to yourself, I want to be like that person? Growing up, did you ever say to yourself I want to have the effect that person's art has had on me on others.

I was very fascinated by RK Laxman. I loved his cartoons growing up. He was the official cartoonist for Times of India for many years. He came up with the idea for The Common Man, an iconic comic strip. In a one or two-line caption and a cartoon, he could explain the essence of the political climate in India. It was like Twitter before Twitter.

As a designer you need to learn to not be so emotionally invested in your work because it's ultimately someone else's and their artistic preferences take precedence over yours. It sounds like that's a lesson you've learned over time. Can you talk a little more about that?

Am I actually emotionally separate from my designs? It's tough but important not to get entangled in it. You should be able to give it up. You can't cling onto something because you feel it is your "masterpiece." You should be able to scrap it and move onto another thing. This is easier said than done because we're always emotionally involved. Detachment can never be fully there, but being aware of this feeling is critical.

What is one piece of advice you want to leave with UX and product designers?

Balance time between prototyping and research. Have a clear intent of what are you creating- it's an invaluable soft skill that a designer can bring into the team.

Young designers can benefit from sketching. Devices and software exist to help out with this but the hand drawn sketch is the foundation. A designer needs to have better hand control than a common person even if it's just a wireframe. It has to go beyond scribbles. You have to hand over something that is clear to interaction designers and investors alike.

Another thing I would say is for them to spend more time applying knowledge rather than just simply compiling it. Derive benefits from research work. They overemphasize it to the point of never leaving it. Leonardo Da Vinci too made vigilant observations about the real world. But he also took that a step further and came up with solutions. So I would say, designers should be able to apply that knowledge and create something with it.

Q&A: Intelligaia Founders On The Value of UX Design

Priyatham Vennapusa

Interviewer and Author