Richard Banfield on product, experience and why “it’s the best time to be a designer”

By Patrick Burgoyne

Richard Banfield (above) will be writing a new regular column for CR on the emerging world of digital product design and customer experience. Here we talk to him about the significant changes that are taking place in design as organisations wake up to its transformational power, the skills designers need to equip themselves with in order to thrive in this experience-led future and the impact of business consultancies buying into creativity

After a childhood in South Africa and an eclectic early career spanning diving and biology, Banfield started a small design studio and worked at South African media giant Multichoice before co-founding Acceleration Media which as eventually acquired by WPP. In 2005 he co-founded Boston-based experience and digital product design consultancy Fresh Tilled Soil where he serves as CEO.

Banfield has published three books. His latest (with Nate Walkingshaw and Martin Eriksson) is Product Leadership: How Top Product Leaders Launch Great Products and Build Successful Teams. Design Leadership was his second book published by O’Reilly. The first was Design Sprint: A Practical Guidebook for Building Great Digital Products, which he co-authored with C Todd Lombardo and Trace Wax.

Creative Review: What do you understand by the term ‘product design now’?
Richard Banfield: In the past people automatically assumed you were referring to industrial design, now the term has evolved to include things that are almost exclusively digital. But the more connected we’ve become, the more difficult it is to separate the physical object from the software that drives it and the overall service.

In medicine you can imagine a future where you’ll get a prescription from a doctor who you will have had some kind of telemedicine interview with, you’ll not have actually seen them face to face. That will result in a diagnosis and a treatment plan, sent directly to a provider who will ship those things to you. The pill pack, which is a connected device, gets shipped to you by Amazon and tells you when to take your pills and re-orders prescriptions for you so you remain compliant. So that’s not one thing or another – it’s not service design, it’s not product design, not digital design, it’s all these things. The new product manager is the person bringing all these things together to deliver the product experience.

There are so many components to consider but the consumer sees them as one complete experience – that’s the driver right now, to ensure that product designers, product managers, all those people are working around delivering an experience that is a single experience, from end to end.

CR: And the glue to all that is design? Does this mean that, relatively, design is in a more powerful position than ever?
RB: It really is the best time to be a designer. That’s not going away but what is interesting is that the role of design in this new world means the designer isn’t the only one involved in design. The CEO needs to understand the value of design and process, it’s a top down thing. It starts with educating people at the top and ensuring they not only have the literacy and fluency to talk about design but that they also provide resources.

It really is the best time to be a designer

In the early stages of a startup a CEO might be the most important product person in the whole company – it’s their idea and they have the best understanding of what that product involves. As the company evolves, they need to learn how to step back and truly create a product vision for the company where, regardless of who you are, you understand what that looks like. Secondly, they need to make resources available to product teams, giving them autonomy but knowing that it is supported by a clear vision. That’s where we see smart companies doing good work.

CR: What are the core skills that a designer needs today?
RB: The way that design works is you don’t get a new skill at the expense of an old skill, you learn new skills without any substitution effect. So if you need to develop, say, empathy or you need to learn conflict resolution skills or presentation skills, those skills are now layered on top of your traditional skills – all those thing still matter. What was good for designers in the 50s is still valid today. The subtleties are in the fact that we now have core specialists, these ‘T-shaped’ people who can do a lot of things but are extraordinarily good at one thing. But overall the design standard is just going up.

The way that design works is you don’t get a new skill at the expense of an old skill. What was good for designers in the 50s is still valid today

You’ve got to be a very good practitioner but then you’ve got to layer on these new more attractive skills like managing others, managing expectations, conflict resolution, be able to do good user testing with the audience, all of those things are just being added. If anything it’s a harder job. And of course there are more devices – when an Apple Watch comes along, you don’t throw away your iPad. That’s a really important consideration for skills – there is no substitution effect.

CR: Is design education adequately equipping designers for what is needed today?
RB: There is still a place for the traditional design education, but universities don’t have a monopoly on it anymore. There is still something quite lovely about going to university and being around other creatives and flexing those parts of your brain in those group environments. The problem is, if you think that’s all you need, you’re wrong. Learning is moving at a pace that universities can’t keep up with. Assuming you have a degree, you’re going to augment that degree with some education, whether it’s reading, attending classes or, if you are technically-minded, joining groups like those that create products in their spare time.

I look far that when I’m hiring, now more than ever – what do you do in your spare time? Who did you collaborate with? What examples can you show me where you were collaborating with others in a meaningful way? I’m always nervous of portfolios that show just a solo effort, you never work as a solo artist, even if you’re an illustrator still have to work with the publication you’re illustrating for. Beyond that, what are they doing to keep up with tech, changes in tools, change in approaches? We give money to our employees to educate themselves, whether that’s online or workshops, seminars and conferences. I’d be nervous to work for a company that didn’t support those ongoing education efforts.

There is still a place for the traditional design education, but universities don’t have a monopoly on it anymore.

CR: The growing importance of customer experience has seen a surge in in-house design teams: what do you think the future holds for the design studio?
RB: Some will survive and do well because they serve small businesses and small businesses will never bring those skills in-house because it’s not in their interest to do so, that will always be good place for design agencies to serve. On the other end of the spectrum, where we live, our client is very often the CEO who has decided to do some kind of important experience-driven project and they need outside help to bring a perspective beyond what the company can provide. In many ways they are looking for outsiders that aren’t sullied by that industry’s perspective. So the high end and the low end are good places for agencies to exist, but the middle space is very difficult. That’s a very tough place to be unless there’s a very specific industry you’re after and that industry needs your specific skills because maybe it uses a certain platform. That’s just going to become worse not better unfortunately. Really great companies will come to the surface but there will be winners and losers.

The high end and the low end are good places for agencies to exist, but the middle space is very difficult. That’s a very tough place to be

CR: How is the growing importance of customer experience effecting the idea of the brand and the work of branding agencies?
RB: I think that ‘brand’ is still relevant but not as relevant as it used to be – there is a paradigm of thinking that has been replaced by customer experience. Companies, especially startups, don’t hire brand agencies in the same way they used to. Startups come to them and say ‘rather than just an identity and a brand voice, we need you to help us understand what our product vision is, how it fits into our overall strategy, what it means for that to continue to exist in customers’ minds and remain relevant in the days and months and years to come’. I think we are starting to see brand experience play in a strategy role: some are doing well in that, some doing badly because they don’t have the authenticity to be able to do that. You end up playing in the same space as people like McKinsey when you do that.

CR: What do you think the effect of the entry of consultants such as McKinsey and Accenture to the creative and design space has been?
RB: I think it’s a good thing. It brings the design conversation to the board room where it needs to be and it brings a lot more emphasis on design in general. I do see lot of grey areas starting to form between what traditional agencies used to do and these new consultancies. The failure right now is not so much on the part of those folks who are providing these services, because they have great people, but more in the consumer’s ability to understand those services. The buyer of those services is now very confused and we [as an industry] are not helping them. We are all saying we do the same things, we’re not differentiating ourselves.

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