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The meta skills of product design

The meta skills of product design

March 12, 2020

This post is a complement to episode 337 of Design Details, The Metagame of Design.

Last week I was reading To Get Good, Go After the Metagame, a post about metagames in life, and how understanding metas can create competitive advantages.

For starters, you should read that post. If you don't, here's a short primer from Wikipedia:

Metagame, or game about the game, is any approach to a game that transcends or operates outside of the prescribed rules of the game, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game.

Metas exist outside of games. They influence our jobs, our relationships, our beliefs, and everything in between. With this in mind, I wanted to explore meta skills that product designers can use in order to learn faster, work on more impactful products, or collaborate with more interesting people.

I've organized these from broadest and most globally-relevant, down to the more personal and individual meta skills that designers can spend time learning.

Observing laws

When laws change, designers must adjust their tactics. GDPR, CCPA, and other data privacy laws shift the requirements and expectations of product designers. From cookie notices, to entire account deletion flows, new laws will emerge that require new interfaces and experiences for users. While laws are usually slow to change, they should be considered constraints at the beginning of any design process.

Tracking the industry

Designers who became experts at mobile screen design in 2008 and 2009 are likely at the top of their game today. They are in demand, they are designing solutions for a massive number of people, and their skills are easily transferrable between industries, companies, and products.

Learning how to design for phones in 2008 was also risky. What if the iPhone had flopped? What if we hadn't been ready for 3.5 inch screens to become our portal into the world around us? Those designers may have wasted a lot of time.

We can observe similar opportunities today in AR, VR, and blockchain technologies. Will these fields dominate the world in the same way that mobile did? Maybe. Maybe not. But if it's the case that one of these does, the people who started learning how to design for those technologies yesterday have an advantage over anyone who tries to jump on board after the ship has set sail.

Serving the business

Businesses need different things at different stages of their lives. They need different things based on the competitive landscape, changing customer tastes, broader political and economic trends, and more. Being able to observe and understand how the needs of the business evolve over time is crucial to ensuring that you are working on the most important, high-impact problems of the day.

Building momentum

The more time I spend designing, the more I realize how important excitement is in the design process. Not my excitement—although that certainly helps keep me energized—but rather peer and leadership excitement. Excitement is contagious, and an excited team is a motivated team.

Learning how to build and maintain excitement among the people who matter is a skill. It takes effort, persistence, and clear communication.

Finding ways to find problems

Modern technology companies are hungry for data. They consume it by the petabyte, but rarely know how to digest it. This is changing quickly: companies on the edge know how to find signal in the noise. And as designers, it's our job to solve the problems that data helps uncover.

In this way, discovering new methods to find problems worth solving is a meta skill that requires exploration outside of everyday design tools. Digging into the data, talking with customers, and reading financial statements are all ways to expose yourself to potential problems that you can solve for people.

Leveraging platforms

Apple says you can send ads in push notifications. Apple says if you want to use in-app payments, you have to give the price a certain visual prominence on the screen. Apple says who gets featured in the App Store.

The platforms we build for are incredibly powerful. Their decisions impact what is possible to build, what designs are considered harmful or friendly, and they make the upstream choice for you about what they think is best for your customers.

In many ways, this is a good thing: Apple's decisions have the side effect of allowing designers to avoid making thousands of decisions on their own. Designers should be aware of changes to rules, and be ready to explore the edges of those rules.

Evolving software

Of course, as hardware improves, so too does its backing software. And as software has improved, the foundational tools we have access to have flourished. From OS-level accessibility controls, to dark mode, to multitouch, we continue to invent new and exciting primitives that simultaneously complicate the design process and unlock the ability to solve new kinds of problems.

Understanding hardware

As hardware gets better, software tends to follow close behind. The phones in our pockets are supercomputers with constantly improving cameras, sensors, and computing power. Every year's advances unlock the ability to design new experiences and take advantage of more processing power to do things that would have been prohibitively expensive just a few years ago. Think: augmented reality, virtual reality, rich 3D maps, high-resolution photos, and more powerful video tools are all byproducts of better hardware.

Designers who pay attention to the hardware are able to push the limits of the software.

Collaborating cross-functionally

It's not written in stone that the three pillars of product development in tech companies have to be Product, Engineering, and Design. It wasn’t always this way, and it likely won't stay this way forever. Maybe more pillars will be added. Perhaps the decision-making power shifts within those pillars.

Designers should be aware of changing dynamics of cross-functional relationships within their company and within the industry. Perhaps in five years, the fourth pillar will be Sales, and the most effective designers will be the ones who can talk the language of sales, work effectively with the best salespeople, and understand how to build better products with a different kind of decision maker in the room.

Choosing projects

Being on the right projects at the right time is often a matter of luck. But it doesn't have to be pure luck. Designers can position their skillset, leverage connections, or proactively engage with the right people in order to work on more interesting problems.

Working on more impactful problems tends to spin the flywheel of many other meta skills in this list – audience building, worldview expansion, and having a deeper understanding of design in general.

Shaping world views

The world around us shapes our perception of people, ideas, and technologies. I'm writing this post from my apartment in March of 2020, as the United States locks down and prepares for the impending explosion of coronavirus infections. Knowing about these things – current events, diseases, politics, and so forth – gives designers new types of problems to think about, new information to use in their research, or new ways of thinking about the world.

Building an audience

It's easier than ever to build an audience today: blogging, sharing work in progress, writing case studies, contributing to open source, podcasting, or giving away free design resources are all viable options. Doing these things puts your work and your name into the public conversation. Do these things for enough time, with enough consistency, and people will notice.

Having an audience has its drawbacks – perhaps those are worth exploring in a future post. But in general, having people interested in your work is a competitive advantage. It provides better access to people, conversations, and opportunities. Having an audience that shares feedback with you will tighten your feedback loops, allowing you to learn and iterate on any idea faster.

Inventing patterns

Red dots. Tooltips. Push notifications. These are a few of the tools in a designer's kit that help them to guide attention, remind people of critical information, or nudge them to make a purchase. Red dots on a single interface, in a single app, are incredibly powerful at getting a person's attention. But these days, every surface of every app is littered with red dots, killing the underlying effectiveness of the pattern.

The most innovative designers are already thinking about the next novel way to inform and delight people in ways that won't be lost in a sea of noise.

Mastering tools

It would be painful to design user interfaces in Photoshop today; modern tools are better suited for this job. Modern tools help designers transfer ideas from their brain to a screen faster than ever before. But design tools aren't done – the tides are constantly shifting. Designers with the deepest understanding of their tools will be able to consistently move faster and use the tool best suited for solving a problem.

Developing meta skills is work. If you don't pay attention for long enough, the meta will change behind your back, and it will be hard to catch up. You must make an individual choice about how closely you want to track the meta. It's time spent thinking about design, which means giving up time to think about other things you might care about.

But if you put in the time, you might find yourself inventing new design patterns, meeting more interesting people, or working on higher impact projects.

Good luck.

Thank you to @marshallbock, @effyyzhang, @mxstbr, and @jeffpersonified for reading versions of this post.