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Awwwards NYC Conference 2016

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On June 16th and 17th, we attended the Awwwards NYC conference in the fi:af center, where we listened to incredible speakers from the business, design, and development fields. We noticed key themes that emerged across all of the talks: Social Responsibility, Empathy, Accessibility, Risk, and Process. All of these themes bolstered the idea that the design world is changing and there is a need for new solutions to problems. It is therefore is our responsibility as designers and developers to elevate our standards, to start a new generation of more thoughtful design that focuses on people.

Mike Monteiro started the conference with an empowering speech about social responsibility as a designer. Reminding the audience, that because we are all “ordinary,” we have a social responsibility to create work that advances the human race forward. Whether you design brands, websites, apps, or content, you have an opportunity to change the design of the world we live in and solve problems using design. Rob Trostle noted that as designers we believe, “there are a lot of problems in the world…design is the answer to all of them.”

In order to push the boundaries of how to connect with users, it is important to incorporate new technology into how to better achieve social responsibility as a designer. Edu Pou & Ola Björling provided an alternate use for VR, driven by empathy. “In VR, you can be something else. Doesn’t need to be physical it can be emotional. It can occupy a time and space you wouldn’t normally be in.” Pou and Björling are using VR to submerge people in environments and experiences they wouldn’t normally in, to help them develop a better understanding of the depth of the situation. They have done research with groups wearing VR headsets where the users experience bullying first hand. Bullying is a topic some people cannot always sympathize or empathize with, but putting users in this virtual space makes the them more sensitive to the topic, as a result more interested in taking acting to design a solution. The key to success in being a socially responsible designer is understanding the people the brand is trying to reach. Chris Heilmann of Microsoft notes, “You can’t tell someone what experience to have.” But, by using VR, other modern technologies, and well told stories, you can try to show them.

In order to start working towards being more socially responsible, Olof Schybergson encourages companies to “hire change agents.” Place the people within your company that will move the company and humanity forward.

Part of the discord between users and products is that not all companies understand the value of user-centered research. “We need to help non-designers understand why design needs to be honest.” – Rob Trostle. Users are getting smarter, and because the majority of companies are leaning towards the umbrella terms, “storytelling” and “humanizing”, users are becoming more cautious of inauthentic experiences. As Mark Pytlik notes, “Every one is a storyteller, but do you care enough to really tell the right story?” Users have higher expectations for brands and products, and therefore crave personalized experiences. As Sherine Kazim shared, it is extremely difficult for a brand to re-win a user’s trust after a negative experience, as they remember the negative emotion they felt at the time while interacting with the company.

Mark Pytlik encouraged the designers in the audience to “end the shallow experience.” Humans by nature want to be empowered by a brand, and they want to feel the loyalty of the brand. The brand should be an invisible driving force in their life. When designing websites, we consider consistency and intuition as the key success points for a site. The user needs to feel comfortable using a product or viewing a site, and this experience will be bolstered by carefully thought-out moments of surprise to keep users engaged.

Hannah Donovan stressed that, “Humans are humans because they have a perspective. Content without perspective has no feeling…computers can’t give a damn.” It is our job as designers to understand our users and give them a product that resonates personally. Designers must research, understand, and speak to this perspective of our users. We need to provide the users content how they want it, when they want it, and in what form they want it.

At the root of empathy and social responsibility is accessibility. Chris Heilman of Microsoft articulated the issue of accessibility by asking, “Why is technology only for the rich and the Western World?” Creating barriers for users creates a “broken trust with your end user.” As Sherine Kazim mentioned, once you lose trust with your user, it is extremely challenging to gain that back. A brand needs a tremendous amount of “wins” (positive user interactions) with their users to gain back trust after a negative experience.

“Every time there’s a loader on a site, it’s like saying I hate you” – Chris Heilmann. Any sort of blocker, whether it is a site load, or an issue with device pairing, leaves a user feeling left out and isolated from your brand’s experience. All users need to feel included, so that a brand will appear thoughtful and human. “Don’t design for design. Design for people,” Min Lew noted. Everyone deserves an equal chance of having a positive experience with your product.

In dealing with devices and UI, Tom Krcha notes that “The performance and UI should feel invisible to the user.” A design’s success is measured by the way the site resonates with the intended audience. Chris Heilman articulated, that because of all of the new technologies and advances in design, “We forgot that the web was for everyone.”

“Things might not always work out perfectly but that’s not always the point.” – Jon Burgerman. Illustrator and professional Doodler, Jon Burgerman offered a refreshingly honest perspective on failure and risk in the design industry. When someone takes a risk, they are not familiar with the solution to the problem. Therefore, they are more open to exploring multiple options of how to solve the problem. Fear of failure often gets in the way of generating solutions when designers are working within a space they are comfortable with; Risk removes this fear. Francesco Bonato and Mirco Pasqualini asserted that “There is no design thinking without risk.” Because designers are guilty of often falling within patterns and becoming comfortable with styles and solutions, they often are battling “sameness.” USTWO, the creators of the first Google smartwatch interface, described their experience when they had to design in a space that had not yet been explored, “we saw an opportunity to raise the standard.”

On taking risks in your career, Matias Corea discussed his decision to leave Behance, the company he founded, “It’s never the right moment to do anything. You can go always back, but most don’t.” Whether it is starting a project or starting a new job, it is a risk to enter a territory not yet explored. After the risk is taken, most people grow from this change and eventually thrive once they wade through the darkness.

Jon Burgerman’s quick ways to reduce the aftermath of risk:

On a more granular level, all of the design themes mentionedabove are most successful because of process. “There’s no silver bullet for growth,” Matias Corea assured. Process is different for everyone, as people come from different backgrounds and require different routines and processes for generating solutions. Dave Snyder noted that we need to “Discover our own best practices, and have other people follow them.”

Through process, we as designers learn about the above themes:
1. Risk and finding new solutions to new problems.
2. Accessibility and how to design for all our users.
3. Empathy and how to target the exact emotion the user is looking to have when interacting with the product.
4. Social Responsibility and ensuring that designers are creating products that influence the masses and progress humanity forward.
5. Developing Processes that move us towards different types of solutions.

Hannah Donovan noted that as designers, “We never know what of our work will become most popular.” Treating every project with the same thought and care is important for designers because they never know how audiences will receive their product. The lessons you learn while in the process end up being more valuable to you in the long run, because the more problems you solve, the more solutions you have in your wheelhouse. Dave Snyder explained “We over complicate simple things for the sake of the process.”  Find a process that is articulate, is direct and most importantly, works for you. This happens most often when you, as the designer, focus the lens and research first before the project starts. Then, when you intimately know the topic, you can think about proposing more targeted solutions, conceptual and visual.

If there was one theme that was reiterated through the Awwwards NYC conference, it’s that some big changes are about to happen in design, from the technologies we design for, to the ways we interact with and reach our users. “We built an entire process around mediocrity,” Dave Snyder noted. Because a lot of design has started to become patterned and replicated, we need to make sure we are creating strategic design that addresses our goals and the people we are designing for.  We need to fight the sameness, and create beautiful yet effective solutions to problems. Like Shaun Tollerton and Jose Manuel say, “We saw an opportunity as designers to raise the standard.” We need to raise the standard of design and encourage innovative designs that were made for people.

Till next year, Awwwards.