Patrick McGowan

Software user experience — design, leadership, and business - In pursuit of good design and simplicity

Lecture date: 16 Jun 2010

The success (and failure) of many design solutions is the level of simplicity and elegance achieved

Patrick McGowan works at IBM — his job description reads Art Director & Design Strategy, IBM Lotus Software User Experience. In addition to his full-time work at IBM, Patrick is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Namahn lecture - Patrick McGowan

He is a design practitioner and leader with over 10 years of experience designing software and leading software designers. His professional passions include fostering environments that enable design efforts to succeed, developing innovative solutions to complex problems, and exploring new design tools and techniques. He has been awarded over 20 patents in software design and related technologies.

In addition to design and innovation, Patrick has a keen interest in formal business concepts and works towards blurring the lines between design methodology and business strategy. In addition to his full-time work at IBM, Patrick is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School.

For Patrick, the success (and failure) of many design solutions is the level of simplicity and elegance achieved. Software products present a particularly difficult challenge — technologies and market pressures often supersede quality and simplicity. Individual actions, team functions, continual re-invention and evaluation of skills, and a broader understanding of business concepts are powerful tools which assist in maintaining a focus on quality and simplicity.

How designers approach their work and how design leaders structure their projects can directly aid the pursuit of simplicity. The tools and techniques a designer embraces — from hand drawing, to hand coding, to computer aided task analyses — greatly influence project outcomes. And, the degree to which designers adopt and leverage business vocabulary and concepts greatly enables (or disables) project success.

In the Namahn lecture, Patrick focused on three aspects of the pursuit of good design and simplicity:

  • the role of individual designers and design leaders in creating design friendly environments
  • a brief practical overview of modern tools and techniques for the software designer
  • an exploration of the gap and synergy between business and design

Design-friendly environments

Namahn lecture - Patrick McGowan

Compared to other design disciplines, software design is still a developing profession. At the same time it is increasingly becoming commoditized, with the value of good design being questioned. Designers need to constantly keep their skills, approaches and techniques updated, but more than that: designers must leverage their innate and unique ability to boundary-span professions, translating design intent into the jargon of other professions (“you’ll save x amount of money” vs. “it looks better this way”).

Designers must also be able to quantify and justify their designs, adding solid facts and metrics, research and science to back up their intuition.

The role of a design leader is to facilitate an environment that allows a rigorous design process to survive. An actual design process is inherently cyclical, but the best way to communicate the process to the outside world, is to project a strictly linear approach. A linear design process that goes through a number of set steps allows the designer to better control the outcome, and builds greater perceived value for any external teams.

Skill: tools and techniques

Patrick identified three major groups of issues that inhibit designers’ productivity and can lower the quality of their work: shifting goals, subjective decision making and every shorter project and technology lifecycles. During the second, highly practical part of the lecture, Patrick showed how he addresses each of these three obstacles.

Shifting goals are tackled by better project organization. The first, critical step in software design for Patrick is benchmarking: to understand, define and validate the product or project space. He then creates a project description diagram, in which project goals are prioritized, to facilitate communication between stakeholders. On a more detailed level, page description diagrams define design intent, and wireframes communicate the scale and relationship of items.

Going even further into detail, templates or blueprints create a design framework, grid design helps with consistency and design with real data in actual context keeps everything grounded.

Subjective decisions are made as objective as possible. Tools like Kogan’s CogTool can assist in task analysis or Snook’s Colour contrast check can partly remove subjectivity from colour choices.
Semantically correct HTML in combination with CSS and a variety of freely available tools such as Firebug, Stylish and others make for shorter development cycles.

Business and design

After the break, Patrick addressed the gap and possible synergy between business concepts and design sensibility: traditional design thinking coupled with formal business concepts, he posits, can produce powerful end results, for both design projects and business results.

Namahn lecture - Patrick McGowan

Understanding information processing, for instance, enables designers to more effectively influence non-designers: reports such as Professional Communications, Inc.’s “I Opt” and “Team Analysis” can tell designers where they stand as compared to typical members of other professions.

Conflict management concepts that business have been using since forever can help to avoid compromising designers’ intent; textbook team communication concepts can help strengthen design teams; by discouraging unproductive (yet natural) behavior and facilitating productive (yet sometimes unnatural behavior) design teams can become more innovative.

Here too, Patrick emphasized the concrete and the measurable: the importance of choosing proper perfomance metrics, of framing design problems with trend analysis, of scenario analysis, and of risk management.
As design impacts all areas of business strategy, design becomes and increasingly inseparable component of business strategy and decision making: evaluating design involvement in terms of complete strategy will create stronger, long-lasting design value.


Download the interview (mp3)