Roadmap 2014 recap: Finding design’s place in tech

There’s no longer a question that design plays a key role in technology. It’s now a Silicon Valley value, engrained alongside other mantras like “fail fast, break things” and “go big or go home.”

Design practices are respected, but the discipline itself hasn’t fully matured. We’re in a transitional phase where designers and technologists are still learning how to work together.

We’ve built early frameworks for how design should be integrated into tech companies, but there aren’t established principles or clear guides that fledgling startups can access. Lead designers often have to find their own way, whether that means convincing a founder to prioritize design or determining how product managers and designers should collaborate.

These questions were raised at Gigaom’s Roadmap 2014 in San Francisco this week. Design directors at companies like [company]Facebook[/company], [company]Google[/company], and Uber; luminaries like Tony Fadell and Evan Williams; and thought leaders like the production designer of the movie Her spoke about everything from sci-fi inspiration to robot quirks. Here are some stand-out moments and themes. Read our full coverage here and the tweets from the event here.

Storytelling through tweets and more

Evan Williams — CEO, Medium

Evan Williams — CEO, Medium

One big theme at Roadmap this year was how storytelling impacts design and vice versa. In the former camp, [company]Netflix[/company] design director Dantley Davis spoke about what the company has learned from designing for smaller screens. As Netflix customers move to mobile, they are bringing with them new challenges for the company’s design and engineering team. So Netflix is building bite-sized content that can boil TV shows down to a main character’s thread.

Medium has a lot of experience using design to highlight stories, and CEO Evan Williams said the company tracks the success of its website features based on how much time people spend using them. He also laid out Medium’s upcoming product roadmap, saying we should expect to see the company redesign its home page to add better navigation features soon.

Twitter data editor Simon Rogers explained that the company used design to tweak its “storytelling through tweets” approach. In the beginning, it rolled out data to represent Twitter’s real-time power, telling people how many tweets per second or minute were generated in response to an event. But now the company does more meaningful storytelling through visuals, like showing the sunrise across the globe by tracking tweets.

Screenshot of visualization: sunrise around the world through geotagged tweeted

Screenshot of visualization: sunrise around the world through geotagged tweeted

Letting the user (pretend to) be in control

Peter Skillman, Head of Design, HERE

Peter Skillman, Head of Design, HERE

Much design work resides in the interaction between human and machine, and a number of Roadmap talks focused on user interface development.

Several speakers discussed the concept of trust and how to design for it. Peter Skillman, chief of design at HERE, explained that now that driverless cars are a reality, the toughest challenge is convincing consumers to get into them. Eighty-eight percent of American residents said they wouldn’t.

To build trust in autonomous vehicles, designers will need to offer features and customization that give passengers the illusion they’re in control — for example, letting them set their preferred speed level (at the high or low end of the speed limit range) and their weather condition preferences (no driving through rain).

Brant Ward, founder of Human Machine Interactions, spoke on how to make robots more relatable. “If the system is apathetic, so is the user,” Ward said. “The onus is on the designers of these systems to make us want to use them.” One key is giving robots human-like flaws. Adding “um’s” and pauses to their speech patterns will make them seem more lifelike, which in turn will increase people’s comfort with using them.

Other speakers talked on a different sort of human-machine interaction: New kinds of sensorial experiences. Artist Aisen Caro Chacin built devices to give people sensory input in new places — for example, a grill that allows you to hear music through your mouth by conducting vibrations through your teeth. She also created a watch that will tell you the time through smell, with coffee in the morning, chamomile at night.

Aisen Caro Chacin's retainer that plays music

Aisen Caro Chacin’s grill that plays music

When designers meet developers, sparks fly

John Maeda, Design Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

John Maeda, design partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

As companies navigate the intersection between design and technology, a number of procedural and value questions emerge.

On a panel about app design, Mark Kawano, founder of Storehouse and former Apple evangelist, gave tips on how to create a design culture at a company. It all comes down to hiring people who care about design, he said. The other panelists, Facebook design director Julie Zhou and Uber’s Shalin Amin, agreed that designers and engineers tend to value different things — like functionality versus emotional investment.

Tim McCoy of Pivotal Labs spoke on the convergence of function and design throughout history. He told the audience about how companies like Atari used design to influence technology. For example, the video console engineers added a black bar to the Atari screen, which increased the processing power and allowed the hardware to handle more complex games.

Design legend and Kleiner Perkins partner John Maeda spoke on why introducing design to established companies is far from easy. It’s about shifting an entire culture, not just introducing a new feature or workflow. He discussed Apple’s leadership in this space. When asked whether it would decay over time, his answer was surprising. “It’s inevitable,” Maeda said. “If the Beatles could last forever, they wouldn’t be that great. I hope that decay is going to be a gentle one.”

The Roadmap design conference allows us to capture a moment in time, as the emerging field of design-technology gains more and more prominence. Coming up next is our Structure Data conference in New York on March 18 and 19, 2015, where we’ll be looking at all things data and the cloud.