The intersection of design, technology and business
Discussing the UX design process with the Iovine and Young Academy at USC
It’s always refreshing when I’m able to break out of my day-to-day responsibilities of directing a growing design team at Neuron to educate the broader public about our practice. Recently I had the honor to deliver a virtual keynote address to a group of students from the Iovine and Young Academy (IYA) at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Longtime music producers Jimmy Iovine and Andrew Young (a/k/a Dr. Dre) founded the Academy in 2013 to focus on the intersection of design, technology, and business. This event was part of the monthly IYA Connect speaker series.
The purpose of my talk was threefold: to give a presentation on the UX/UI design process, to describe how Neuron approaches solving our clients design challenges, and to carry out an exercise in which students would present solutions to a design challenge.
My design background
I began by describing my background; an artistic kid turned architecture student at Northeastern University in Boston. During these formative years I had the privilege of studying both domestically and abroad in Rome and later, a work opportunity in Barcelona.
After graduating from Northeastern, I moved to New York City, the home of North America’s most stunning contemporary architecture. My first job was to create branded environments for a broad spectrum of Fortune 500 tech and media companies. It was here that I really began to translate business goals into visual artifacts.
NYC was incredible, but life brought me home to Boston where I joined a global firm designing student centers, dormitories, and libraries for higher education institutions. My initial love for architecture was rooted in solving problems visually, and seeing the end product come to life. However, I found myself increasingly drawn to the technological aspect of this work, and the reality that we live as much in the digital world as we do in the physical. I noticed considerable overlap in architectural design and digital product design. Practicing user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design, I found, increased outreach and iteration time while retaining familiar techniques of visual representation and process. This transition presented the opportunity to solve new design problems in an exploding market as the Web 2.0 tech darlings began to mature and the ubiquity of SaaS as a business model was becoming evident.
Co-founding Neuron, a leading UX design studio
The question that was most top-of-mind for the students was: how did I go from designing bricks and mortar to pixels and padding? To answer this I told the story of Neuron’s origin and our general design process. About 7 years ago, I reconnected with three close colleagues (and friends) from architecture school: Chris Marciano, Mark Munroe, and Ryan Matthew. We reached out to a mentor in the world of UX, himself a Silicon Valley veteran. After collaborating on several projects, together we formed Neuron in 2016. (The company, initially headquartered in Seattle and later Palo Alto, is currently based in San Francisco.) As founding partners, we seek to bring our experience in architecture to bear on UX/UI design.
I broke down Neuron’s design process into three stages:
Creating digital products that are intuitive and engaging (research, heuristic reviews, persona development, cardsorting, competitors) and deliver measurable business results.
An iterative process that begins with low-fidelity design options and ends with mock-ups ready for development (Figma — Mural; wireframe, prototypes).
Leveraging our background in architecture, our design files have the documentation and attention to detail of building blueprints (design system creation, design Q&A, and usability testing, ensuring that everything is ready for developer handoff).
Eyes started to (virtually) light-up as I shared case studies of Neuron’s work, and walked the students through the process for each.
For first time readers, Neuron’s focus on UX design allows us to work across a wide range of projects and industries. While our focus is on B2B product design, we are completely industry agnostic. With all engagements, we take a seat at the table with our clients, collaborating to create or reimagine new product features, and to make iterative improvements to existing products. Due to this model we come to care as much about the products we’re crafting as their product owners and stakeholders. I stressed the importance of thinking long-term, and what our clients can do to set themselves apart from competitors.
I briefly discussed Neuron’s culture, which emphasizes a friendly, healthy work environment for incubating and supporting incredible design talent. Like the Iovine and Young Academy, we host monthly Meetup events designed to inform and engage. We are committed to helping students and professionals alike develop their UX skills.
Tasking Students with a Design Challenge
For the design challenge, I asked the students to create a concept for a mobile app product that attempted to solve a real-world problem for a set of users by choosing and incorporating three keywords from the following list: Pet, Map, Work, Ball, Sales, Exercise, Music, and Stress.
When proposing the app concept, I asked participants to complete the five “W”s, a common exercise for designers to understand what they are creating and who they are designing for.
Define the goal of the app and the problem you are trying to solve.
Define the target audience.
When? and Where?
Define the context in which your audience will be using the app.
Outline some possible solutions or features that your app will contain.
With the assistance of my co-host, Academy Dean of Faculty Steve Child, and my Neuron colleague Ines Bejleri, we divided students into groups of three and gave them 15 minutes to brainstorm on a solution. After completing the exercise, teams had five minutes to summarize their concept.
The challenge yielded some truly compelling ideas in just 15 minutes of collaboration. Perhaps the most comprehensive design was presented by Team 1, which devised an application based on the keywords Pet, Music, and Stress. With a tentative market name of “Pooch Playlist” or “PuppyPlay,” the app would play audio for pets who suffer from separation anxiety or stress. Framed as an alternative to medications or behavioral modification, it would use pet monitors to broadcast a playlist of soothing tones or music to animals left alone for extended periods. Workers at animal shelters or clinics could also use the app to similar effect. The sounds of choice would be curated with the assistance of veterinary technicians, who could make suggestions based on the type of animal and their symptoms.
Other notable ideas included apps designed to:
Help overstressed sales or business professionals order comfort animals to come to their workplace or reserve a session at a nearby location;
Enable users to create playlists tailored to their workouts (duration, intensity, beats per minute, etc.);
Allow companies to gauge the effectiveness of their playbooks and salespeople by guiding, structuring, documenting, and sharing relevant conversations;
Connect a stress monitor to a smartphone, which can then report and replicate heart rate to make users aware of stress and suggest practical solutions;
I was gratified to hear the range of responses generated by this exercise. Each group was able to blue-sky a concept, identify a target market, and extrapolate the app’s key features. I encouraged students to continue to work together on their projects if they were interested in doing so.
Questions from the students
I finished my presentation by welcoming questions from the group. Here are a few of the most interesting:
What are the most valuable hard and soft skills to have as a UX/UI designer or developer?
I underscored the importance of hard skills, among them fluency with software (e.g. Figma, Sketch, XD) to ensure the understanding of commonly used design tools. It’s also essential to have a good grasp of the underlying HCI fundamentals, achieved through education and enhanced by exposure to different products and industries.
Equally critical are soft skills, such as the need to communicate ideas to people with different degrees of technical knowledge and perspective. Sometimes, designers must function as a mediator between members of a client team and other stakeholders, to consolidate the many opinions into consensus, putting forth a viable and equitable solution.
How are client interviews conducted? Do they lead?
When starting a new project, ask questions to understand the client’s goals and expectations. If the client is dead-set on an end-point, we want to hear all facts to determine if there are other avenues to explore. Within reason, feel free to question their assumptions.
Regarding the collaborative process: If the client is strong-willed, how do you approach the situation?
When a client has a very clear outline of what they want their product to be that does not coincide with our recommendation, we only push back as much as is acceptable. We try to be educators to clients, and the best clients are appreciative of the questioning. In the end, they are hiring an expert to guide them, not to simply take orders.
However, we still act using our intuition to advocate for product users. We do a balancing act, ensuring we can accommodate both sides and attempt to support the goals of both the business and the end user. When a product truly has market fit, these goals are aligned, allowing design to drive growth.
Connect with us at upcoming events
Lastly, I encouraged anyone interested in UX and product design to join our incredible Meetup community of over 2,900 members. Join Beer and UX here!