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Episode 35

Re:Role | The Designer And The Blueprint

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Show Notes

Design can be a powerful tool. But where, and how, does it start when building software? And how can it drive a company’s growth? Through intentional, proactive processes and documentation, design can be a monumental force in development, discovery and problem solving.

The company, its business activities and its employees depicted in this podcast are fictional and are not intended to represent or depict any current or former business organization or any individuals living or dead. Any resemblance to any individual or organization is purely coincidental.


00:00 — Kim Huang
Let's check in on our small startup team. The CTO, Co-founder, and the Architect. They've put together the set of tools they need to build their application. Their development process is ready to start, but something's missing. This app needs to be used by actual humans. What should it look like? How should it appear to users? What should a user expect from the experience from a visual standpoint? The user interface needs to be easy to navigate, straightforward, and also create space for feature roll-outs to come out down the road. That's something that might be out of the realm for a CTO or an architect. After hours of meetings, whiteboards and emails, one of them caves in. They say, "Why don't we hire a designer?" Another response, "A designer? Isn't it a bit too early?" Startups often need to ration out funds for new hires very carefully. Some teams elect to outsource their design, while others try to bootstrap it or do it themselves. While the founding team members have a lot of thoughts and passionate opinions, they are a bit short on experience. They want their customer experience to be clear, consistent, and competitive. So they need to make a move to hire with design in mind. But what is the role of design when building software? And more importantly, where in development does that role begin?

01:34 — Johan Philippine
This is Compiler, an original podcast from Red Hat. I'm Johan Philippine.

01:39 — Angela Andrews
I'm Angela Andrews.

01:41 — Kim Huang
And I'm Kim Huang.

01:42 — Johan Philippine
We're following a fictional startup as they grow their business. We're calling this series Re:Role. Any resemblance to real companies is purely coincidental and unintentional.

01:53 — Kim Huang
As it grows, our startup realizes it needs to fill new roles.

01:58 — Angela Andrews
Today's episode: The Designer. If you'd like to listen from the start of the series, check out our episode on the CTO.

02:08 — Johan Philippine
Producer Kim Huang is here with our story.

02:12 — Kim Huang
Angela, I have a question.

02:13 — Angela Andrews
What's that?

02:14 — Kim Huang
What do you think of when you think of the word 'design'?

02:20 — Angela Andrews
I think about aesthetics. How things look, how they feel, how they make you feel. I think design is one of those things that encompasses a lot of feeling. And if it's useful, if it's helpful, if it makes you feel good. Design is a lot of things. It's more about how you feel, at least to me.

02:39 — Kim Huang
How about you, Johan?

02:41 — Johan Philippine
Well, I think of it in much the same way, but I also understand that there are different kinds of designers out there. There's UX design, UI design, visual design. And I'm not quite sure what the difference between all of those roles is.

02:58 — Kim Huang
Those are great points, and there are so many types of design. I always think, what does it really all mean? When you say design, is it a large concept, kind of like what Angela was saying? Or is there something that is more specific or more narrowed down? And what are all the differences between all the different types of design? Thinking about the fictional startup that we've been following this entire season; I feel like they have their hearts in the right place, but maybe they need to think about design more broadly. To illustrate this point, I want to introduce Wolfgang Bremer. He's the Head of Design at Elli. Elli is a company that's part of the Volkswagen Group, and they create charging solutions for electric vehicles. They're based in Germany. Just like Wolfgang.

03:47 — Wolfgang Bremer
The other day, I saw a picture, which a colleague shared taken here in Berlin where somebody was parking with their vehicle on the street in front of an old building. And probably they were living on the, I think second or third floor. And from the third floor balcony or the window next to the balcony, there was a charging cable going down all the way to the vehicle on the street. And maybe that's a quick example, but I find this actually represents quite well, how from design point of view, we often think. In the sense of, "Okay, what is the problem?" Or, "What are these problems? How can we address them?"

04:20 — Kim Huang
So this is what Wolfgang says is the core of design: solving a problem.

04:27 — Wolfgang Bremer
And this, I guess, is also exactly where we try to, from a design point of view, to make things right. Not just like, "Oh, people will get used to it." But like "no, no, no. How do people go about their days? How do they use their vehicles? Where do they actually park? On the street? Do they have their own garage?" Not everybody has the same opportunities, let's say, for parking their vehicle and charging it.

04:51 — Kim Huang
Design shouldn't necessarily change the way people do things. According to Wolfgang, it should complement a person's behavior.

04:59 — Wolfgang Bremer
So we're trying to create something in a better way, I want to say via design.

05:04 — Kim Huang
So on that note, what kinds of people are responsible for design? Is it just the designer? In Wolfgang's example, a person used the length of the charging cable for their electric vehicle as a way to charge it from their third floor apartment. Even a person who isn't a designer can use design to solve their problems. Kathryn Grayson Nanz--a Developer Advocate at software company Progress--she says, that's not unusual.

05:35 — Kathryn Grayson Nanz
As you grow, you get someone whose job it is to be the maintainer. And to answer the questions for other people and to scale the system and to tackle new problems as they arise. What happens is that every single person who has to make a design decision is then kind of left on their own, and they have to make that decision to the best of their ability. And sometimes that's okay. If you have a whole team of really competent design folks, then you can not feel that pain for a while. But designers are not the only ones who make design decisions.

06:10 — Kim Huang
It's important that individuals and teams within a company understand what design is and how it's there to help them achieve their goals. Here's Wolfgang again.

06:20 — Wolfgang Bremer
We should actually educate the people within the company to a degree that we say, "Look, these are all the things that designers do." Not just making things pretty, but we talk to users. We try to understand what they actually need. We are bringing these insights in that we, as one team, like product engineering, sales, marketing, design, and whoever else, I forgot, can make more educated decisions and better choices. Which will save us not only headaches, but time and discussions and money in the end.

06:59 — Kim Huang
All right. So design, simply put, is a way to solve problems. And not just designers do design. Everyone does.

07:08 — Angela Andrews
It sounds like it is a part of everyone's job. If you're in this organization and you're solving probably a lot of the same problems, then those decisions are really design decisions. I'd never thought of it that way, but this really does make sense.

07:26 — Kim Huang

07:27 — Johan Philippine
Help me out a little bit here.

07:28 — Kim Huang

07:29 — Johan Philippine
What kinds of decisions are these designers making to solve these problems?

07:34 — Kim Huang
That's really, I guess, I don't know a way to say this without going into the other points. But it's a good question. So I feel like designers really have, this is based on my own working experience, a desire to know ultimately what solves the problem in the eyes of the user. Or in the eyes of the customer, right.

07:55 — Johan Philippine

07:56 — Kim Huang
So again, they don't want to change their behavior. Ideally, you don't want a person to have to take a long cord out from their apartment into the street from three floors up to charge their vehicle. You want to come up with a solution where they don't have to do anything out of the ordinary, but they also can accomplish whatever tasks that they're doing at the time. So I feel like ultimately what they end up doing is exploring and discovering a user's lifestyle. Maybe their responses to issues, their responses to challenges. Those are a lot of the approaches that I've seen done in user research, for example.

08:39 — Angela Andrews
So how do you know you're making the right design decision?

08:41 — Kim Huang
You don't.

08:43 — Johan Philippine
Well, sometimes you can figure out when you've made the wrong decision. If you go back to our episode on The Architect, we had someone who got so frustrated with the way things were put together that they smashed their keyboard against the wall. That's an indication that something somewhere was wrong, right?

08:59 — Kim Huang
Yes. It's a reaction you can easily read into. A lot of user research is basically looking at users going through an application and the mistakes they make, or maybe not necessarily mistakes. But the things that they anticipate it's different than what their expectations were. Or they're not able to navigate around the app easily. That kind of stuff is really important to user research.

09:26 — Johan Philippine
So how do we remedy it when something goes wrong?

09:29 — Kim Huang
Well, I think it's very similar to how you remedy a problem in development, right? So if you have a new feature roll-out and people either don't like it or it doesn't work very well, or there's bugs. Or maybe people are using it differently than you anticipated. You go back to the drawing board, go back to your teams, and on the next deployment you have an updated version. Or you have a change that is more in line with what the user or the customer expects. Okay. So design, simply put, is a way to creatively solve problems. And not just designers do it. But with all the tools and technology and skills that are at a team's disposal, why would a creative solution even be necessary? We're going to hear from someone for whom design was a game-changer, in a surprising way. This is Zach Lloyd. Before he became a serial entrepreneur, he was a Principal Engineer at Google. Zach led the development teams for something many of us use every single day: Google Docs. He has a lot of thoughts and opinions on how application interfaces are designed.

10:38 — Zach Lloyd
One thing that does really kind of drive me nuts, whether it's in developer software or other kinds of software, it's just badly designed interfaces. Poorly designed software. Even just like on my Apple TV last night, I was using an app and they had implemented fast forwarding in some really, really weird way. And it was like, "Why are you wasting my time making me learn how to do some bizarre fast forwarding thing?" There is a better way to do it.

11:07 — Kim Huang
Currently, Zach is the CEO of Warp. Warp is trying to re-imagine a better way for a common development tool. The terminal. But in order to get started, he had to hire for a position you wouldn't expect. Not an architect, not a developer, a designer.

11:26 — Zach Lloyd
It was very intentional to try to bring on an exceptional designer early. So when it was just me and this designer CQ, we spent a lot of time just figuring out conceptually and then eventually visually what the initial app might look like, what the future space of innovation might look like. And that made it so much easier to communicate the vision of what we were doing. Which in turn made it easier to attract more engineers, to attract investors.

12:02 — Kim Huang
Zach explains on why hiring a designer first wasn't just a boon to his concept, but also to his company's growth and hiring.

12:12 — Zach Lloyd
The early sort of work was figuring out what is the right strategy for attracting those people. And when you don't have a product, when you don't have users. And all you have is a vision and a story, and you're trying to explain to people, "Here's what I would like to build." It's so much more compelling to be able to do that with the aid of a really designed concept deck or concept mocks or simple prototype. And so working backwards from that, made sense to try to bring on someone who could help me do that. I can't do that. I'm not artistic. I don't have the skillset to do it. So that became an important person to bring on.

12:58 — Johan Philippine
So that was really surprising to me. To hear that the designer was the first person he hired to be on his team.

13:05 — Kim Huang

13:05 — Angela Andrews
I think that makes perfect sense. Because who's going to put the vision on paper, for lack of a better word. If you have an idea or a concept, well, how do you bring it into fruition? You need someone to take that information and design something that makes it, what we're expecting it to be. And you do have to have an artistic bent. Like you said, that everybody can't go in Figma and just throw something together that's functional and aesthetically pleasing. And that's what designers are for. They fill a huge gap.

13:38 — Kim Huang
Yes. Especially if you're dealing with something that may not exist in any capacity beforehand, right?

13:44 — Angela Andrews

13:45 — Kim Huang
That's what a lot of startups do. They build things that we just never had as a greater kind of technological landscape. We don't have anything that's like that before,l so they're creating something totally new. It needs to be something that's tangible and that has a lot of visual to it.

14:01 — Johan Philippine
On top of that, they're working on a terminal. So this is something that developers, SysAdmins, everyone who does any kind of technical work on a computer, they're very familiar with terminals, right?

14:12 — Kim Huang

14:13 — Johan Philippine
So not only do they need to do something that's somewhat familiar, but in order to make an impact, they're going to have to design something that also does something a little new. And I imagine that's a very difficult thing to do.

14:24 — Angela Andrews
And functional, yeah.

14:25 — Kim Huang
Yeah. And alleviates a lot of the problems. Because terminal, it's a thing that's existed for a very long time. But...

14:32 — Johan Philippine
That's right.

14:33 — Kim Huang
There are a lot of, I'll keep it tasteful, a lot of issues and a lot of usability issues. A lot of things that make it kind of unwieldy and not really friendly for, let's say a junior developer to kind of jump in and use. So why not use design to reimagine something that is in that kind of vein? So we've heard from some professionals on how they define the design discipline, right? Wolfgang and Kathryn. And now we've heard from at least one CEO about the importance of design. I feel like that is more than enough. The defense rests. However, I want to know where design comes into the build. It sounds like it's too vital to be after the fact. So I want to bring in one more voice to this conversation to talk about where design and development intersect. So I'm going to tell a story really quickly, very short.

15:33 — Angela Andrews
Story time.

15:34 — Kim Huang
Yes. Before I worked at Red Hat, I worked in the e-commerce department for a major retailer. And in the cubicle next to me there was a UX designer. He was very smart, really funny. He and I became pretty good friends. We would hang out together even outside of work. And then I left the company and we both kind of parted ways. A little while ago, I was tooling around social media and I was looking at this design conference that I would love to go to one day. It's one of the biggest design conferences in the world. And I was looking on stage and some guy went to the microphone and started speaking, and I said, "I know that guy. That's my friend." I couldn't believe it. So I reached out to him to get his thoughts on design development. And let's just say, he's experienced a lot of career growth since we last talked.

16:24 — Andy Vitale
I'm Andy Vitale. I'm the Executive Vice President of Design at Rocket Companies.

16:29 — Kim Huang
Besides being in charge of a team of 150 designers...

16:34 — Johan Philippine

16:34 — Kim Huang
Andy speaks at conferences about how design bridges different areas of a business.

16:39 — Andy Vitale
I look at art and design as two separate things, like of course designers have this level of creativity, but design happens within constraints. Where art kind of doesn't have those constraints.

16:50 — Kim Huang
So I have an example where you can use creativity with restraint on your own. If you ever heard of a haiku, you know that it's pretty straightforward, simple rules. You have five syllables in the beginning, seven in the second verse, and then five again. And that is kind of what Andy is talking about. That format is number one, it's restrictive. But if you understand the rules, you can use that restriction to innovate and make up concepts and things that you've never done before. You have to make an entire verse or entire idea or vision or even a story that makes sense within those very narrow guidelines. But it really empowers people to be able to make things that are new. I asked Andy about a designer coming into an environment similar to our startup. An environment that may have some restraint. Here's what he had to say.

17:47 — Andy Vitale
I think someone coming in from the beginning, the very first designer, that really depends on the company itself. So if the founder's an engineer, I think they're going to look for someone that probably has more polish from a visual design standpoint. And they're going to look for a designer that's going to come in and try to apply a brand style, make something look at least consistent, focus on visual appeal and usability through the visual lens. And I think that, what you'll start to see, especially if it's a design team of one, they're going to be more of a generalist probably than they will be a specialist. So they're going to push back on things like interaction and user flow. And that may ruffle some feathers. Or they're going to ask about research and, "What do we know about the people that are going to use this product?"

18:39 — Kim Huang
Brand style. So that is something that I feel like we can define a little bit further.

18:45 — Angela Andrews
Please do, please do.

18:47 — Kim Huang
Sure. Brand style or a, I guess, style guideline, makes the design and the visual appearance of an application more consistent and more uniform. So that users are not confused and they know what to expect and they know what needs to happen and when. And the efforts to make a brands style more consistent usually results in something called a design system. And I'll let Kathryn add some context here.

19:19 — Kathryn Grayson Nanz
A design system is something that you build really organically as you encounter different situations that require documentation. I really do think of them in the same way that I would think of documentation for a library or anything else really, right. Is that every time you solve a problem, you write down the way that you solved it. And if that's a pattern that needs to happen again or if that was a one-off situation. And ideally you don't have many of those. I think everyone, frankly, across the entire company benefits from a design system, right? Because you start looking at a really complete design system and it's going to also include things like tone of voice. That will kind of talk about how you are positioning the brand and what's most important when you're talking about the brand. And are we focusing on being incredibly professional or are we fun and casual and relatable? And those kind of things are going to matter to salespeople, to marketers, to folks that don't have any relation to creating the actual user interface of an application.

20:24 — Kim Huang
And here's Wolfgang on the timing of all of that in development.

20:29 — Wolfgang Bremer
I think especially in these areas where somebody aims to disrupt something, I think it's very important to have design involved. The other direction, I mean, and of course that is something I have to say when I wear my designer hat. The other point of view, if I would purely think from the point of view of an entrepreneur, I would probably think about money first and think where I can save money. And unfortunately, often the decision might be, "Let's not involve design so early." In the sense of we have three people startup, we don't have funding. "I can't afford to have a designer." And that is also the case. Which is unfortunate, but understandable, relatable really, right? But I think the problem there is similar to not having marketing or sales in the beginning. Because even if you build the greatest app and nobody knows about it, nobody's going to use it. So yes, you might save the cost on having a marketing person and the design person, but then you're going to pay the price for it in the long run. So to me it's always like I would involve, of course, a designer as early as possible.

21:32 — Kim Huang
So when you're talking about design coming into development, I think that the consensus here is the sooner, the better. Because you do want to make the best first impression with your app. You do want to use the power of design to make a good customer experience, and you want to ultimately save money now, then have to pay it, a lot of it, later to fix a problem should it arise. Andy comes back to close us out with some thoughts.

22:01 — Andy Vitale
Design has come a long way over the years. And it's gone from, "How do we design this screen?" To, "How are we designing entire ecosystems and products?" And what those touchpoints are and looking at different services and experiences. I think that design is really collaborative and design is a differentiator. And we've seen all of the reports from McKinsey and Design Management Institute. And there's lots of information out there on how good design is good for business. And that's a mix of that triad of design, product and engineering. And together with that focus on the user, putting the user at the center of everything that you do. And testing and learning, you're going to be successful.

22:51 — Kim Huang
So what do you think?

22:52 — Angela Andrews
Well, you think about some of the big brands that we know. They all have a style. It's recognizable, and that's what you want. Think about Red Hat. Red Hat has a style.

23:04 — Kim Huang

23:05 — Angela Andrews
And within that Compiler exists. And it has a style, but it really hearkens back to Red Hat. So it makes it very brand recognizable. So it is good for business because it relates. It makes people say, "I already feel like I know. So this is really good business." Tying that all together. And as he spoke about that triad. All of those parts are so important for any product, project, service or whatever. We want that. I think as humans, we expect it.

23:40 — Kim Huang
Yeah. And if you have that visual to tie to a good customer experience, a customer is going to remember that. Someone that uses your app is going to remember the experience that they had more than they're going to remember, say your company's name or something that's in your vision statement.

23:58 — Johan Philippine
I'd like to go back and maybe kind of recap what we've learned in this section.

24:05 — Kim Huang
I feel like Andy's viewpoints on, first of all, creativity with restraint: this is something that I encounter at my job every day. And I'm sure it's something that a lot of designers encounter on a regular basis. And when you hear restraint, it's a very negative connotation. But in actuality, it kind of empowers you to create really good work that solves problems. So that's one point that I think is really important to talk about. As far as the design systems go. And I don't know how either of you feel, but I feel like what Angela was saying is true. Having that design system contributes to your overall brand recognition and your brand style. And people can tie that back to whatever experience or whatever interaction that people have with whatever you're making, your product, your application. And that's for better or for worse, unfortunately.

24:56 — Angela Andrews
That's true.

24:56 — Kim Huang

24:59 — Angela Andrews
That's true.

24:59 — Johan Philippine
I was really interested in the way that Kathryn was talking about this design system kind of coming up organically. But also in Wolfgang's and Andy's points, that design coming in early is very important, right?

25:15 — Kim Huang

25:15 — Angela Andrews
Well, these early employees, they're setting the stage for this product, this service, this application. And they're conversations. The more that you talk, the more that it comes in to fruition, and then you can put those ideas down. So the people play a huge part in building that out and it's made up of the people. And things that they've seen and that they know and what makes them feel or elicit a certain response. So this is such a people-centric, emotion-centric topic. Design is such an important field to be in. And as we see, it's a huge part of technology.

25:56 — Kim Huang
I think that this episode taught me about design being less of an afterthought and more of something that is absolutely necessary upfront. Someone needs to be in the room to make those decisions. And sometimes yes, those decisions are made by people who aren't designers. But even non-designers can be stewards for design standards. And that gives them agency and a process that they may feel closed off from.

26:27 — Angela Andrews
So welcoming.

26:28 — Kim Huang

26:28 — Angela Andrews
And collaborative.

26:29 — Kim Huang
That's what it's all about. So I think it's safe for us to turn the page on designers. But going back to our startup, they are running into some challenges with the infrastructure that they need to keep everything running and maintained. They're going to need a systems administrator.

26:52 — Angela Andrews
Well, I loved learning about The Designer. It is such an integral role in so many companies, startups, large companies alike. We want to hear what you think about this episode. You could even share it to us in a haiku. How cool is that? So what do you think about designers? What do you think about the architect role? Any role inside of a startup or in your company? Share with us at Red Hat on Twitter, and you can use the hashtag compiler podcast. We want to hear your haikus. Get creative. We want to hear what you got.

27:32 — Johan Philippine
And that does it for The Designer episode of Compiler Re:Role.

27:36 — Angela Andrews
Today's episode was produced by Kim Huang, Caroline Creaghead and Johan Philippine.

27:42 — Kim Huang
Victoria Lawton wrote you a haiku, but her dog ate it. She says she's sorry.

27:48 — Angela Andrews
Our audio engineer is Kristie Chan. Special thanks to Shawn Cole. Our theme song was composed by Mary Ancheta.

27:56 — Kim Huang
Thank you to our guests, Wolfgang Bremer, Kathryn Grayson Nanz, Zach Lloyd and Andy Vitale.

28:04 — Angela Andrews
Our audio team includes Leigh Day, Stephanie Wonderlick, Mike Esser, Brent Simoneaux, Nick Burns, Aaron Williamson, Karen King, Jared Oats, Rachel Ertel, Devin Pope, Matias Foundez, Mike Compton, Ocean Matthews, and Alex Traboulsi.

28:24 — Johan Philippine
If you like today's episode, please follow the show. Leave us a rating and a review and share it with someone you know. It really helps us grow.

28:32 — Angela Andrews
Thank you so much for listening. We enjoy you all. Until next time.


Featured guests

Wolfgang Bremer

Kathryn Grayson Nanz

Zach Lloyd

Andy Vitale


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This limited series features technologists sharing what they do and how their roles fit into a growing organization.

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