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Web Summit 2019: UI and the future of the customer experience

In the modern era, “no competitive corporation in the world can succeed without taking design seriously,” declared WeTransfer Chief Innovation Officer George Petschnigg Tuesday afternoon. Speaking on a panel about “UI and the future of the customer experience” at the annual Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal, Petschnigg added that the biggest power that designers have nowadays is collaboration. “It’s a huge change. 20 years ago, working with design was [asking for] an ‘icon’ or ‘help me choose a font.’ Now it’s ‘how do we think about our brand?’ [or] ‘how are people going to feel?’ That’s the vision of companies who take design seriously.”

Agreeing with Petschnigg were panelists Olga Madejska, a UX design manager at Amazon Web Services, and Hector Ouilhet, a UX director at Google.

In the past, said Madejska, design systems were built on the metaphor of ‘pages.’ “Previously, the average website could have 100-1,000 pages—no designer can do that in a complex way,’ she said. “By making ‘pages’ modular and building containers, designers are able to scale faster.”

As most people know, one of the first companies to invest in more designers per engineer was Apple, noted Petschnigg, which defined the new status quo in design and aesthetic. “As design has come to the forefront and evolved, it’s gone from ‘what’ to ‘how’ … how people feel, or how to have a conversation with the customer,” said Petschnigg. “It defines who you are, what you stand for, and what you want to put out into the world. You design out of that, which informs your brand, it’s a virtuous cycle.”

And as functionality improves, the panel agreed, it becomes critical for designers to have the ability to work together. They need to divide and conquer, thread concepts together, and translate them to consumers—who, depending on the context, can include working with marketing teams and stakeholders.

“Stakeholders are people too,” said Madejska. “They have an option and emotional reaction too.” So how do you get them on board with design ideas? “Find the right KPIs,” said Madejska. For example,  a designer could set an experience with speed as the KPI. How fast can a user go from A to B (be it creating a name, picking a setting, or something else)”? Whereas if the focus is on interface speed, then the designer can complete the task in a matter of seconds, said Madejska. However, “customers may not care about how fast. They’re looking for trust, and picking or entering the right information. So make sure you’re ‘designing’ for the right KPIs—the ones customers care about too.”

Ultimately, collaboration is the key. “Designers express and visualize the experience. Marketers message it and deliver to the right customers,” says Petschnigg. Added Ouilhet, “Marketing teams try to identify how to talk about a product, which needs to be hand in hand with how people use the product. As products become easier to build from technology, it’s harder to get people to agree on something. Design tries to represent the user and helps parts of the organization align their priorities and investments to have products that resonate.”

But if designers, marketers, and stakeholder know they need to collaborate more closely, how do they actually break the silos down?

According to Madejska, overall organizations need to re-think their org structures “to integrate design earlier in the process” so that design is integrated into the whole product experience, from researchers to developers to product manager to marketers.

“Design should never come as an afterthought,” said Madejska.