How to succeed as a designer!

This is the transcript from my talk at TEDx IIT Roorkee on the above subject

Hi, I’m Navneet Nair. I’m a UX Designer. I’ve worked as a designer on Google Finance, Orkut and Yahoo Cricket in the past.  These days however, I mostly find myself lending a shoulder for young designers lean on.

So, when I received the invite two weeks ago to speak at TEDx IIT Roorkee, I was surprised. I was in disbelief. I did not reply to the email for a whole day. In fact, I told no one about the invite.

Did the organisers really want to invite me? I looked at some of the past speakers and I certainly do not stand up to the stature of some of them.

You see, like I mentioned earlier, I’m a UX designer. And I started my career, when UX was not the glamorous field it is today. 20 years ago, when I started off, we did not have a term for the field. Very few people knew about it. And the work we did was an afterthought to most companies. Metaphorically speaking, we were called in to put lipstick on the pig. Seriously, that is what we did. Well, mostly. So even today I carry within me those scars. It is difficult for me to see myself as being important.

So finally, when I was told that I was invited because, at the eleventh hour, the organisers realised that there was no designer in the list of speakers. This after all is a TED event. They frantically reached out to me.  A last-minute inclusion.

That made me feel better. UX design is still a bit of a footnote.

But then, no offence. It is great that you thought about UX. Appreciate it.

After all, UX design has come a long way since we first started. And… Me too. Today, I lead design at PhonePe. It is one of India’s largest payment companies. It has around 150 Mn users. Around 65 Mn of them use the app every month. Leading to over 380 Million transactions. But then those are numbers that the engineers and business folks tout. Engineers talk about platform scalability. And business folk, they love these numbers. It talks about growth and revenue.

However, as designers, we are responsible for the softer side of things. We are the folks who deal with empathy. We look for unmet needs. Usability. Accessibility. Inclusivity.

Everything others wouldn’t even touch with a barge pole.

But interestingly, everybody has an opinion when it comes to UX. After all we are the bike-shed when it comes to software engineering.

You folks know about the bike shed, right? Well, how many of you know Parkinson’s Law of Triviality? No?

Well, let me tell you a story about this. Once upon a time, a board meeting was convened to pass the budget to build an atomic reactor. This was a fairly complex building and it had complex machinery too. And the budget was north of a $500 Million. Most board members did not understand the complexity and hence did not have much of a view. Everything got passed in 15 minutes. However, there was a bike shed that was being built near the gate. The budget was less than $1000. The committee spent 45 minutes debating on the colour of the bike shed.

UX design has largely been this bike shed.

20 years designing bike sheds, not an easy job you might say. True, the early days were certainly not. But it has been a fun journey, to say the least. And there were three traits that helped me.

These traits are what I want to share with you today.

But truth be told, I did not start my career as a UX designer. I was studying to be an engineer. Just like most of you here. I wanted to become a rocket scientist. No seriously.

However, I ended up in Mechanical Engineering in a college on the outskirts of Mumbai. About a year into the course I was disillusioned. Wanted to drop-out. But ‘kya kare’ the middle-class Indian mentality did not allow me to drop out.

Instead I looked at what else interested me. I loved to write. So, I took up an internship with a small advertising agency as a copywriter. At college I started making all the posters for the Mechanical Engineering Students Association. So, by the time I graduated (second class with honours) I had a portfolio that helped me get into India’s fourth largest advertising agency.

I had made it. This is what I wanted. A glamorous field. Fun times. And unbound creativity. Or so I thought.

In four years’- time, I had written copy and scripts for some of India’s top brands. Had moved up the ladder to become a senior writer. Was working with India’s most creative agency at that time. O&M. And had been shortlisted for a number of awards. But then I found my interest dwindling.

And one reason was the internet. And no-no, I was not addicted to it. Like some of use today are.

You see, I joined advertising in the year 1995. On Independence Day that year, the internet became available to the whole of India. For the very first time I got access to the internet at Ulka, where I worked, and I sensed dreamlike. The browser was called Mosaic. And there was a company called Yahoo! That made all the wonderful stuff on the internet accessible. A magic portal! Little did I realise at the time that I would be working for Yahoo! Years later. But I knew this Internet thing was special. I had the foresight to anticipate the potential.

And that ability to foresee future trends is one of the main things that has kept me in the business for so long. While the internet was fascinating, the designs that existed in those days were not. Wired (or rather Hotwired) was at the cutting edge of design and this is how things looked in those days – Not a beautiful sight:

But then in 1996 a company by the name Macromedia released a software named Flash. Sorry, not this Flash.

Flash created these animations that loaded instantly – even in those days of slow internet. And immediately, I saw the potential of what could be.

I downloaded a one-month trial of Macromedia Flash on to my old Pentium computer. I played with it for a month creating amazing animations. There was no YouTube those days, so when someone said they were self-taught. It really meant self-taught. At the end of the month, I had learnt enough but not everything. I wanted to keep playing with it. But I knew I would have to give the trial up. I could not afford the software. Moreover, buying it online was not something that was possible those days. At least, not in India. So, I did what everybody those days did.

No! no! it did not involve anything illegal.

I kept the computer on – I did not shut it down. And I used the software for a day more, expecting that maybe tomorrow I will get a pop-up saying that my trial has expired. It did not happen. I kept working and gave it a day more. But the next day the trial was still working. And the next as well. This went on for at least a month more. Enough for me to get a good hang of the software.

Flash did become an important part of the Web 2.0 revolution. My foresight served me well.

But foresight is a difficult trait to learn. And it is not really enough. Once you have anticipated a change or trend, you need to be flexible enough to adapt yourself to the changes. In my case, I transformed myself from a copywriter to a designer. Writing, I knew, was not enough to help me create stuff for the Internet.

I got myself involved in more design projects. Created a design portfolio. And got a design degree in the next few years. And five years after downloading the trial version of Flash, I was in the Bay Area working with a start-up that was developing a cutting-edge software for a web-based presentation and conferencing application. That was completely built in Flash. That small bet paid off for me. But only because I was flexible enough to adapt. This is the second trait that has helped me in the past.

The last but most important trait is Self-Awareness.

Being aware of your own strengths and weaknesses is an important part of the journey. Early on during my time at the Bay Area start-up, I used to be a designer who could write code as well. A unicorn, some might say today. Well, not really. You see, in those days, technology was nascent. And it was far more common for designers to write some code. But as time progressed and the internet became a more mature platform for developing software, I realised that I was spreading myself too thin. I had the self-awareness to move away from coding and concentrate on design.

This however is just a small aspect of self-awareness. There are other aspects that need more awareness.

Resisting attachment for example. As a designer, if you tend to get too attached to your designs, it gets in the way to your achieving greatness. Every critique of the design is seen as a critique of your standing as a designer. And very few designers are self-assured and humble.

Personally, I found that the practice of mindfulness helped me become more self-aware. It also helped me become more flexible. And to some extent, it helped me develop intuition that aided foresight. But most importantly, all this has helped me develop confidence.

Confidence to move beyond putting lipstick on a pig. Confidence to do the right thing. Confidence achieve the right results.

So, there you have it. These are the three things that have helped me in the past.

  1. Having foresight
  2. Being flexible
  3. And being self-aware

If amongst you, there are people who want to take this journey like myself, these three traits can help you as well.

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