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Design for People, Not Markets

Design is the only language that people can see.

Clint Balcom

Designers get a bad rap. Though some of it is well deserved, the know-it-all rap isn’t really about design at all. It’s about a trendy mob mentality that designers don’t really control, a blind devotion to platitudes that often don’t come from designers in the first place, and a sort of blah-blahing and drum-beating that does good ideas a disservice.

These days, the new mantras masquerading as a design ethos are impostors with a peculiar scent — a concoction that’s one part emerging market spices and two parts new technology bitters. They are solutions without problems, with misnomers like “design for emerging markets” and “mobile first.”

Those are entirely laudable goals, but the trouble is, they don’t mean anything by themselves. Worse, they eschew the real strength and purpose of design: That it’s the only tool technology has to actually communicate with people.

Cliched as it may be, as technology takes over more and more of our lives, designers needs to shift focus back to defending the root purpose of design: Practical and tangible solutions to human problems.

It’s not a phone, or a browser. It’s a person.

For all the Javascripts, PHPs and Objective-Cs driving technology, design is the only language that people can see. The very notion of designing for “markets” or “devices” rather than for people is the digital equivalent of talking to a wall. You can scream all you want, but you won’t have much to show for it except a sore throat and a bloated sense of accomplishment (and perhaps a cable news show).

There’s no denying that small screens (and, for that matter, emerging markets) have arrived in a big way. The parade of progress and information has marched past desktops and laptops, landing in the palm of our hands — in some cases ahead of clean water and other basic necessities. So there’s no doubt we must design products and experiences within different parameters.

But what’s lost in bumper sticker slogans like “mobile first” is the real meaning underlying that phrase: People first.

The challenge of designing for mobile isn’t that it’s smaller or slower. Those are technical hurdles which, ironically, force a return to the way we used to design — with consideration for slower networks and smaller screens. No, the problem is that we too often forget there are people using those mobile devices. Who knows, maybe next year’s iPhone will use itself. But in the meantime, human beings are the ones tapping, pinching, zooming and swiping.

Getting everything to fit, or to load faster, doesn’t mean that it works. More importantly, it doesn’t mean that it works well. The only way to know something works is to use it, and use it some more, then break it and put it back together a different way to see if it works better.

The “mobile first” conversation was problematic from the get-go. Good design isn’t about devices or platforms any more than it is about fonts, colors or pictures. It’s about small details that belie grand gestures, and interactions that evoke reactions. It’s the pursuit of a beautiful, simple experience that simultaneously makes an impression and dissolves into the background.

Designing for people is about appreciating the inseparable intimacy of user and interface, and embracing the link between “what it looks like” and “how it works.”

Design is a process that never resolves.

In much the same way as mobile first, the “emerging market” conversation has been held hostage by the idea that countries like India, China and Brazil need some sort of special design vernacular simply because they speak a different language. It’s as though design were something to be completed and checked off a to-do list en route to launching a product.

The truth is, design is a process that never resolves. Starting with Web-first and designing for China is the same fundamental process as starting with mobile-first and designing for Luxembourg. What matters is finding the shortest path, taking the simplest approach, ignoring the subjectivities, and focusing on the core values (and paradox) of good design: To be simultaneously beautiful and invisible. Is it pablum? Probably. Is it impossible? No. The best products just usually seem that way.

I lead the design team for a streaming music service called Saavn, where we’re building music products for India, and doing it largely on the back of India’s exploding mobile landscape. Before you get cheeky — yes, we’re building for emerging markets, and we’re doing it for mobile-first. But that’s not who we are, or why we’re doing it. It’s simply the what.

We like to think of design as having two meanings: First, a loaded word that dictates how things look, and second, the process.

The former is a role that shouldn’t be diminished by any means. It’s crucial to what we do in creating an experience that resonates with people. Time and again, market research shows that even when a user or customer can’t describe why they like a product, or why it’s better, cleaner, or more attractive than another, they still somehow feel that it is. Marketers relentlessly tug on those heartstrings, and with good reason: The most successful brands are almost always the aspirational ones. And, for better or worse, aspiration is a byproduct of beauty.

This first half of design is the subjective half — it boils down mostly to taste. It’s no more than attention to details, a guardianship of minimalism and an obsession over quality, all of which are entrusted to design teams to shepherd through the hasty gauntlet of product development and advertising placement.

It’s the other half of “design” that really deserves focus: The process, or more aptly, the how. It can be a hard sell in the boardroom and on the KPI reports, since it’s tantamount to admitting that we don’t always know what we’re doing or how long it will take. But its design’s better half.

On a daily basis at Saavn, we look for new ways to fit a growing number of pieces together to fill a need for billions of people across India’s jigsaw of cultures and languages. It’s a process of ferreting out the moments when we’re trying to convince ourselves that “good enough” is better than starting over. Sometimes good enough is better, but it usually isn’t — and even when it is, it probably won’t be tomorrow.

The process is slow, unruly, and sometimes unpopular. The next feature, the fresh challenge, the new thing, the broken thing, the unfinished thing, or the thing that’s underperforming — they’re all just an email away. Before you know it, that cutting-edge design is yesterday’s news, and the roadmap is behind schedule because you were busy puttering around with an idea that never left the ground. Sell that to an investor.

So, do we design things to be beautiful? Of course. But that’s not an end goal, it’s a side effect. What we do as designers ceased being about beauty checklists or finish lines long ago. Instead, it has become a course of figuring out new ways to talk to people, not their devices. That takes time, mistakes, and a process: A how and a why that are unique to any company.

Design masks problems. Designers who code solve them.

Every consumer-facing company has design hurdles to overcome. Having a design team that can code is the only way to get there.

At Saavn, the unique challenges we face are much more about limits than styles. Sure, all design is a process of accepting and embracing limits. Less is more (or so we’re told), and users in India expect and enjoy the same beautiful, simple interfaces that launched Apple to fame. But what makes our challenges different is that India’s mobile infrastructure doesn’t yet support things we take for granted when building a beautiful music product. Hi-res imagery, instant streaming and great audio quality rely on big files and bloated libraries that simply aren’t handled with the same aplomb abroad as they are on fat-cat LTE networks.

As designers, we could very easily draw up a list of tasks to mask this. We could figure out how to make file sizes smaller, shrink images for smaller screens, decide which pieces to remove so things load faster; and then hand it off for development. We could check the box, pat ourselves on the back and report with pride that we’ve made progress. But roadmaps don’t speak to people, and neither do task lists.

Our true charge is to constantly champion the person at the other end of the device, and provide them an immersive experience, while being sensitive to their limitations.

Because so much of what designers do is about bringing ideas to life, and about understanding how and why those ideas work (or why they don’t), design can’t be done solely on a piece of a paper or a Photoshop canvas. Designing only starts when we stop painting and start building, breaking, rebuilding and interacting. Or, as we like to say, it’s only once you “have it under your thumb” that you find out whether your design truly works. It isn’t beautiful if it doesn’t work.

Design for those who believe what you believe.

No design process, or design itself, is perfect. Every once in a while, we succeed. Most of the time we don’t. And worse, many times the circumstances are out of our control. Some people will complain, others will fall in love, and more still won’t know the difference. But as designers, our best hope of shaking free from the mob mentality is to ignore the ambiguous market claims — to start again from the fundamental values of designing for humans and never letting design resolve.

Design and build products for the people who care, and for yourself, because they’re one and the same. Design and redesign, build and rebuild, and most of all, trust in designing for people who believe what you believe — not for geographies, or screens or cell towers.

As designers, this is the least we can do, as well as the most.

Clint Balcom is the VP of design and front-end development at Saavn, leading design and product for the world’s fastest-growing music service for South Asian music. He is also the creative director of 212Media, and a tech and design veteran of nearly 15 years. Reach him @clintob.

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