Interview by Will Evans, Semantic Foundary
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Ted Booth, Director of Interaction Design at Smart Design in New York. Smart Design got its start more than 30 years ago as an industrial design studio creating consumer products for clients such OXO and HP. Today, the company has studios in San Francisco as well as Barcelona, and designs for industries as diverse as entertainment, healthcare and consumer finance.
In anticipation of the upcoming DMI Design at Scale conference, Ted and I took the opportunity to talk about the expanding scope of design capabilities at Smart, the increasing attention being paid to design, as well as how design leaders can scale that capability both within design firms as well as other organizations. Ted will be participating on the panel, "Building and Fostering a Design-Driven Culture From Scratch."
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Will Evans: How did Smart Design expand beyond industrial design for consumer products?
Ted Booth: We had a really deep expertise in large-scale consumer products, and a lot of technology companies started to come to Smart when they realized that they weren't just selling bits of technology—they were selling consumer products. So HP is one whom we continue to work with. And through that the natural evolution of designing a product and then the packaging and then how it's presented in retail, the capabilities of the company really expanded. So as new types of requests have come in, as the role of design has shifted particularly in the last ten years, we've started to add a lot more strategic capability.
So how have you handled that challenge over the past few years?
What I've been doing at Smart for the last four years is really building up the specific practice of interaction design and then the overall digital offerings. So, as I sometimes ask, "What do carrot-peeler designers have to say about financial services websites?" And we actually have a lot to say because of what we did with OXO. We took a commodity product that was 79 cents, the most everyday thing, and turned it into a $6 product designed in a human-centric way that met a real need in the marketplace.
How did Smart do that?
By paying much closer attention to the connection you have with people and asking, in their everyday use experience with that product, what's the deeper meaning? What's a deeper connection to that experience? So, there are obvious things about OXO, like the large rubber handle, the easier grip. It was a lot about looking at people with limited dexterity, designing for them but then making it easier for everybody else. So, through that, all those little details mounting up to a much deeper connection with people, that creates lasting value. We think that kind of human-centered attention can translate into better product service systems for instance in the financial services space.
Now, have you found it a challenge to make that transition over the last 10 years? What are some of the pitfalls, especially when it comes to staffing a team within a design services firm or within a company like this that didn't have that expertise?
For me as an interaction designer coming into a traditional industrial design firm, particularly one that has such a strong brand in very recognizable, everyday products, housewares, I could have come with an almost evangelical attitude about it saying, "Look, the digital world is totally different. And everyone needs to re-gear their thinking, and you need to be converted." And I see this a lot in the design world, where people come in as a designer into a big company, it's almost like trying to convert people to a design agenda. And it sets up a counterproductive "us-versus-them" dynamic.
It pushes people back onto a defensive kind of attitude. In my case, it's an existing design studio, and a very open design culture. And a lot of the roots of interaction design are, in fact, in industrial design. So, the only difference is the material in a lot of ways and then, when you get down to sort of execution, a familiarity with tools and an ability to understand what the difference between creating a foam model of something and a wireframe or a Flash proto or whatever it is, right? So, I really emphasize the commonality we have. It's a whole perspective and attitude and philosophy about designing things for people.
Exactly. So approaching it as a design problem and finding a common narrative across the disciplines?
Yes, so there's this baseline of human-centered approach, right? But there's also this focus on exploring those little details that make an emotional connection. All those little details get at the emotional connection, the deeper sort of role that it could play in somebody's life, either strictly an emotional way but also obviously in the functional behavior of something and how it performs. So, part of building up a rather new practice within an existing company is, I think, emphasizing the commonalities. But it's important to note the differences and how what we're doing with this newer material, and how do we translate essentially the core of what our philosophy is or our brand is in new spaces like financial services.
What have you noticed in bringing Smart's expertise to new problems like designing for financial services?
I've noticed that financial services is a really interesting space right now because it's become an environment of broken trust. We are looking at an atmosphere and then asking, "Okay, well, how do we create better experiences that engage customers?" Because right now, we have the Mint.coms of the world, we have BankSimples of the world. Companies created to create more compelling customer experiences to solve for that broken trust, to create a compelling customer experience to overcome some of the challenges these banks face.
That's where we see a lot of opportunity to say, look—ultimately, it's about engaging customers, creating deeper relationships and that sort of deeper connection and that deeper meaning. So that is a big shift not only for marketing but also for design. As we're starting to work with some of these companies, traditionally, you go into an online account, and they have a marketing/advertising lens on it, thinking of it as a channel through which they would pump messages and then track click-throughs and conversion rates.
But what they're finding is it's not effective, essentially it's breaking down. Either it's flat line or the persistent problem of customers treating them like commodity services, which is not where they want to be to create lasting engagements. So, you need to really rethink how you design that interface from an overall customer engagement perspective. And what we like to do is look at the role of the various interfaces. What's the role in people's lives? And then what's the relationship that you as a company are having with that person? What's the value you bring to their life? That's were we see opportunity.
What are some of the needs these new clients are asking for?
We find a lot of organizations are looking to design in part because they recognize that customer experience is very important. How you engage people is very important. And that comes through the artifacts that you engage them with, but also because of the attention that design has had in the business press over the years.
Do you think the requirements for the types of people you hire has changed over the last ten years?
Yeah, absolutely. There are some things that haven't. I think how we find those skills or how they're embodied in different individuals has shifted. Particularly right now, in the interaction design space, I look for overall representation across the whole team for three skill sets including: core interactions, visual communications and the technical side, which is not just the software but also the hardware form-factor. But all of those skill buckets, to me, have started to collapse into what we just call interaction design, which for me is really about how your team designs a holistic experience that can engage with customers at an emotional level.
Well, thanks Ted. I really appreciate your time and look forward to the panel discussion you, Judy, and Jason will be holding at DMI's conference.
Ted leads the Interaction Design practice and team in Smart Design's New York office. He directs multi-disciplinary teams at Smart, designing new experiences for a wide range of software experience, consumer electronics, mobile devices, and networked services.
Will Evans is a design manager at TheLadders with 15 years industry experience in interaction design, information architecture, and experience design strategy. Will also is Principal Experience Designer for Semantic Foundry, a boutique social experience design consultancy located in New York, NY. Will drinks way too much coffee, wears only black, and thinks way to much about postmodern philosophy in design, architecture, and literature.