Annealing design and technology

My grandfather left me his pocket watch, an 1896 Volta repeating chronograph. Under the crystal, the face and hands are exquisite – checking the time is a delightful experience. This watch has a crystal on the back as well, offering a look into the technology behind the experience, as gears turn and tiny hammers strike tiny chimes: the timepiece is both a beautiful design and an engineering marvel.
One of the things that most attracted me to frog design was the idea that, as an engineer and occasional artist, I’d be working for a design firm. I confess that I hadn’t fully formed an image of how that would work – mainly I just loved the idea, the people were incredibly smart and motivated, and they were clearly going a lot of cool directions all at once; my kind of place. Technology has become an increasing part of the process at frog, as solutions are more tightly integrated into systems, and clients want to see functional prototypes.

Technology as the naysayer

In design projects, there can be a tendency to bring technology into the mix later in the project, to validate the feasibility of the concepts being proposed. This usually means that the concepts have been refined quite a bit, and that significant resources have been allocated toward that refinement. It also means that technology is frequently placed in the position of saying things like “that’s a wonderful concept, but you won’t be able to actually do it. Sorry.” Whether web-based interactions that were simply beyond current states of the art, or visual transformations that might bring mobile hardware to its knees, or cloud-based features involving subtly convoluted security issues, there is an implied veto. And since people don’t generally appreciate their concepts being vetoed, members of the technology group might be a little less welcome on the next project, meaning that they might be invited to the table even later in the process than before.

Engineers really do love being able to say “yes, you can actually do that.”, or even proposing solutions that the design team may have assumed were out of reach, enabling the team to go big. frog embodies design, and that should be the driving force behind what we do. Form may follow function, and form may follow emotion; delight frequently follows seamless integration of form and function. This requires a stimulating, sometimes argumentative environment built with patience and trust and respect between all members of a team. I’ve had strategy people say things that I felt were completely, utterly off the mark. But they were patient with me, debated with a genuine desire to find truth, and they gave me the time I needed to realize that they were actually completely, utterly right.

“We need more ‘technology projects'”

As an innovation company that touts considerable technology prowess behind the design, leaders at frog are interested in ways of displaying that prowess. If a project is perceived as “technology-centric”, the technology group might take an increased role early on. The result may be something entirely feasible, but may not produce the desired level of UX sophistication or user delight (yes, we do use that term): technology people tend to be very clear on functionality, but may not visualize the sort of UX that grows out of the rigor our interaction analysts can bring to bear. The twin seductions of technology coolness and feasibility will influence, and may actually overwhelm, solid design. And regardless of how amazing a new feature might be, twelve clicks, six screens and three feats of mental gymnastics is asking too much of the average user.

“…and now for our next trick…”

There are teaching methodologies that suggest one should be reaching all members of a group, regardless of their preferred learning modality, and presenting to a client is a form of education. The synthesis of design and technology can unearth new possibilities when we deliver our work to the client. Some people learn visually, some by watching repeated examples, and some are kinesthetic; they need to touch and feel a concept. Dealing with technology-savvy or even technology-centric clients is similar in the sense that, in a given room, there will be some who gravitate toward a more traditional, storyboarded design approach, while some may prefer simply reading a specification in silence. The challenge lies in reaching everyone during a single presentation. Too design-focused, and we may get “it’s too conceptual for me – what do I do with this?” Too technical, and the designers in the room may perceive the presentation as mere documentation.

Indeed, when a client group tends toward the middle of that continuum between design and technology, it may be unclear whether frog is acting as a design company enhanced by technology or a technology company enhanced by design – and that’s okay: what matters is the alloy resulting from design and technology contributions: a new element. This is the area that is becoming more fascinating as we explore ways to reach all audiences, not merely supplying separate deliverables to satisfy different learning types, but by inventing new methods for reaching everyone through different aspects of a single concept.