‘The User Takes Centre Stage,’ Say U.K.’s Leading Designers

How is the growing emphasis on online CX affecting designers’ work? What is the impact of increased personalisation and deeper knowledge of customers? Industry leaders from across the U.K. tell all.

‘The User Takes Centre Stage,’ Say U.K.’s Leading Designers

by Michael Nutley

Posted on 10-17-2017

This article is part of CMO.com’s October series about creativity and design-led thinking. Click here for more.

Contrary to popular belief, design has rarely been an ivory-tower activity. Very few ideas are released into the world without testing and refinement.

But, as the quality of the customer experience becomes ever-more important commercially, and as the amount of data available about customers’ behaviour multiplies, is there still a place for the great idea, or is every piece of design a work-in-progress, constantly being iterated in response to consumer feedback?

As part of our October Spotlight on the state of creativity and design-led thinking, CMO.com asked a selection of designers from across the U.K. industry how they saw their role changing.

Simon Manchipp, founder and executive strategic creative director, SomeOne

CMO.com: How is the growing emphasis on customer experience online affecting the role of designers?

Manchipp: Designers used to dream their dreams and respond to briefs. Their response was seen as the jumping-off point for a design. That’s happening less and less as the customer, or “user,” takes centre stage. This is a super-massive shift in the way that commissioning design works. The ancient few who are more akin to artists operating in their own bubble are dying out—on the rise are the data-fuelled and customer-centric. It’s forcing the old guard out and shining a light on those more interested in people rather than paint.

CMO.com: What is the impact of increasing desire for personalisation of the online experience?

Manchipp: Mass personalisation is the new normal—any digital native knows their news feed is custom-fitted and their usage is monitored. But it’s the smart usage of this tracking data that is starting to place the smarter cookies above the rest. The sticky ads that follow you around the web are annoyances and more likely to turn you off a brand than make you fall for its charms. It’s the more intelligent customisation, or, indeed, the feeling of choice over coercion, that interests us. Rather than hyper-customised communications, ultra-focused media thinking means you can be where the desired audiences are. It is far better to create compelling commercial work for people inclined to be interested than attach a brand to a finger that is forever trying to flick it away.

CMO.com: How does increased knowledge of customers through big data affect the design process?

Manchipp: It’s moving from creepy to creative. Spotify’s ads that talk up listeners’ habits are far more engaging than hit-and-hope tactics. It’s the new-breed brand bravery that will establish new acceptable behaviours. Using data to provide insight, promotion, and entertainment without crossing lines of privilege and permission is the new Golden Fleece of branded communications.

James Ramsden, executive creative director, Coley Porter Bell

CMO.com: How is the growing emphasis on customer experience online affecting the role of designers?

Ramsden: Designers have always designed for people, that’s our job, so I don’t believe it’s something that has a growing emphasis. But the really good, empathetic designers of today are being driven to think about everything that design can positively affect. Designers must have the sorts of skills that extend far beyond their immediate specialism. Designers—and creatives—can no longer just concern themselves about presentation, styling, or aesthetics. They need to be creative ninjas who can adapt their sense of design and experience to anything that brands want to create for their customers.

CMO.com: What is the impact of increased personalisation of the online experience?

Ramsden: Personalisation is becoming a more and more interesting topic for designers and for brands. There’s an obvious direct tension between how brands want to create cohesive experiences for customers to build trust in their brand and belief, and people who want to take control of their world and personalise or individualise their digital experiences. We’ve seen this with everything, from people adapting the visual appearance of their user interface through to ad blocking and content. It presents new challenges for how brands might manage their “identity” and puts greater emphasis on principles, purpose, and experience as much as content, and visual and verbal identity. Expect to see even more of this thinking emerge through AR experiences. As AR increasingly creates digital presentation layers between us and the real world, how will we expect to experience it? Our way or in the form of branded content?

Darren Whittingham, group CCO, Start

CMO.com: How is the growing emphasis on customer experience online affecting the role of designers?

Whittingham: We’ve gone from brand and digital in the first five years of online, then integrated in the next five years, kiosks, for example, then more multichannel. People are still struggling to connect with it all. Yesterday’s designer is today’s UX designer. If you’re a designer, you have to think beyond your natural skills. You have to think backwards from mobile. You’ve got to relearn things, and you’ve got to apply the science more, for example, SEO if you’re designing a website. Your head has to work in a more symbiotic way, applying more of the science to become more effective. Then the other thing is thinking more about service design—how you connect the dots better. Thinking has to go wider than just online or mobile, it becomes the blueprint for the whole end-to-end experience.

UX is stepping up to become a helicopter view of the experience, what it takes to move someone from year one to year two. The designer becomes the architect of the transformation exercise, especially around brand experiences. You’re making sense of the ecosystem, taking a more holistic view of the business.

Malcolm Garrett, creative director, Images&Co; joint artistic director, Design Manchester

CMO.com: How is the growing emphasis on customer experience online affecting the role of designers?

Garrett: Isn’t it what designers have always done? The customer-centric way of doing things always seems obvious to me. So I don’t think it’s changing the role of designers, I think it’s reestablishing the role. Designers have always had a duty to convey a certain piece of information to a particular audience, and to use their skills to convey that information in a language the audience will understand.

The best design is an instinctive thing. As soon as you start thinking and making conscious decisions, the more likely you are to go wrong. You recognise what’s right and steer the client towards it without them realising it. Clients tend to focus more on the data. Great designers have always had that confidence in their ideas, plus they’d learnt their craft. They had craft and instinct, and they had the arrogance to put their craft in the service of their instinct.

CMO.com: What is the impact of increased personalisation of the online experience?

Garrett: What we’re really talking about is making tedious things less tedious to do, and so saving people time to do more interesting things. That’s a combination of giving people clear information and making things more efficient, and that’s what good user experience design has always been about.

CMO.com: How does increased knowledge of customers through Big Data affect the design process?

Garrett: Knowing more about your audience inherently changes the design. If you understand what your audience already knows, or what information they have already had access to, you won’t be tempted into making the wrong assumptions.

It’s also a justification for the information designer to work in harness with the coder to make the design and the code indivisible. Online systems are a combination of design and engineering, and the two parts have to work hand-in-hand.

Rob Corradi, design director, The App Business

CMO.com: How is the growing emphasis on customer experience online affecting the role of designers?

Corradi: The cost of delivering an effective product or service in today’s cross-platform market can be daunting, and so ensuring you execute the right thing, in the most appropriate way and in the right places, matters more than ever. The simplest of slip-ups anywhere in the customer experience can undo all the effort you’ve put in elsewhere. Worse still, the strongest brands out there are setting your customers’ expectations. As a result, designers are increasingly tasked with thinking beyond the traditional bounds of their field, to think more deeply and broadly about the customers’ needs and their context.

CMO.com: What is the impact of increased personalisation of the online experience?

Corradi: Much of our work is for mobile, with the smartphone widely acknowledged as the first truly personal computer. Given this, customers expect mobile products and services to be personalised from the outset, tailoring content and experiences to their specific interests, needs, and location. When done well, it leads to greater engagement, and so greater opportunities for businesses. Making the most of each touch point, so they work as a whole, is in every business’s interest if they wish to foster a fully personalised experience.

CMO.com: How does increased knowledge of customers through big data affect the design process?

Corradi: By understanding where and when the customer interacts, why, and for how long, designers can look to enhance key interactions to be both engaging and frictionless. Analytics play a key part in this, understanding where people drop out of a process or switch between platforms or devices. We can use this data to hypothesise, test new approaches, validate our thinking, and, if successful, iterate to continuously improve the experience.

Gabor Schreier, chief creative officer, Saffron

CMO.com: How is the growing emphasis on customer experience online affecting the role of designers?

Schreier: Something that was supposed to be speciality is now affecting designers whatever they specialised in before. Everyone contributes to the customer experience, no matter whether that’s digital, or in a physical space, or both. Designers aren’t working in isolation anymore—it’s about how it all comes together in a relevant manner to have a direct impact on people’s lives. You can’t think in boxes, you can’t think in silos. You have to break out and work across disciplines. You need to know more about what the other people are doing.

CMO.com: What is the impact of increased personalisation of the online experience?

Schreier: It leads to everything you design being in beta mode. Nothing is permanent, everything is a prototype. You have to have the flexibility to see what’s going to come in the future and how things are going to change. It comes back to the idea of not working in silos—you have to work across disciplines to make the design open and able to grow. And that’s very difficult.

The irony is that big digital projects are very time-consuming, but they’re also very time-relevant. So while design has to be very fluid, behind the design is a very slow, time-consuming technical process.

Topics: Insights & Inspiration, Experience Cloud, Insights Inspiration, Digital Transformation, Creative Cloud, Creativity, CMO by Adobe

Products: Experience Manager, Experience Cloud