Why Design?

Product is important – design also? In the tech sector the importance of design can be seen in a simple relation: the number of designers per developer.

Product is important – design also? Notes from day two of TNW Europe 2016

German version here.

Design is a difficult word. Many people, when hearing that word, think Photoshop, colourful images, pretty and superficial aesthetics. A fundamental misunderstanding but widespread.

In the tech sector the importance of design can be seen in a simple relation: the number of designers per developer. Often the ratio of designers to developers is only 1:10. In such an instance, the designers can only provide a firefighting role.

To make things worse, in companies like these, the design function is often fulfilled by people who are not trained for it. Andy Budd, founder of UX design consultancy Clearleft, calls at least one designer per two-pizza team, or about a ratio of 1:3 to 1:6. The ‘two pizza team’ refers back to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ famous rule that teams should not be larger than what two pizzas can feed.

That there is another completely different way of operating is proved by Booking.com – no doubt not a nice platform, even rather ugly, as TNW co-founder Patrick de Laive noted in conversation with Gillian Tans, CEO of Booking.com. “Digital brutalism” Patrick called the look of the hotel booking platform.

“We do not listen to opinions”, admitted Gillian Tans frankly. “We look at what our customers want.” Booking.com is extremely focused on its customers and bases decisions always on hard data, not opinion. This is also design, albeit with entirely different aesthetic consequences.

Booking.com’s aesthetic brutalism has, apparently, not harmed the company so far. The platform continues to grow rapidly and currently generates one million bookings per day. However, since there is no similar operation to compare it with, no A/B testing is possible that might reveal whether or not the addition of some design magic would have a beneficial effect.

If design is the product, as Andy Budd says, then a successful product obviously can also be ugly. But, if the customer doesn’t insist on beauty, the user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) can still work.

If design IS the product, as Andy insists, could this be a job creation scheme for designers? Not necessarily, it is more about a different understanding of design. Product design is far more than superficial aesthetics; it should reach deep into the entire functional relationship in which designers work with UX.

People first, this is the design maxim of Facebook, says Julie Zhuo, VP of Product Design. Good design solves the right problem for people. Hard data is simply more evidence, more material. In order to understand problems, it is necessary to talk to the people and to understand the context as much as possible. Empathy and intuition are the key words.


Let’s look at a second aspect: the data. Amazon CTO Werner Vogels differentiates along the time axis between the past data (analysis), the present (dashboards) and the future (predictions).

Data from the past is the raw material for predictions, which in turn can be produced by means of Machine Learning (ML). It also develops Amazon models and tests them until the results can be sufficiently convincing. Numerous functions – both those visible and behind the scenes – already use ML, starting with the well known purchase recommendation, right through to abuse recognition and predictions about which recipients will open a particular email.

Machine Learning: learn your business rules from data (Werner Vogels)

Werner Vogels commented on both the exaggerated expectations of artificial intelligence (AI), and the dramatic fears of a takeover by machines. “It’s just computer science” he noted tersely. “It may look like magic, but it is not.”

Should designers be able to program? Julie Zhuo says it’s useful if they can in any case. And should programmers have at least a rudimentary understanding of design? Given the numerical ratios that can’t hurt – regardless of whether the beauty of a solution now lies in its functionality, as with Booking.com, or in its aesthetics.