Speaker: John Devanney

January 27, 2015 • Sylvia Lee

John Devanney has been designing digital products for more than 15 years and as a principal at Moment, he has led design engagements for many well-known and successful companies. So when we began planning Pro/Design, he came immediately to mind as a speaker. We spoke to him about his experience as a digital product designer.

Can you tell us how you got into the role of building digital products that you are in today?

I started out as an industrial designer, so I’ve been focused on creating products that work for people in the real world for my entire career. In the late 90’s, I was working on a number of projects where it became clear that how the users interact with on-screen interfaces would be  much more important than how they interact with physical object. I wanted to play a bigger role in designing that part of the product experience. At the time, the design of the software and hardware was highly siloed, so I essentially had to make a decision: design the digital aspect of the product or the physical? I chose the digital product and have never regretted it.

How has that role evolved over the years?

The role of a digital product designer has changed quite a bit. In my early days, we were really user interface designers, and the greatest challenges were usability and efficiency. Usability was a primary concern because many of the products we designed were “firsts”; the first time someone used a web portal, bought something online, or logged into their bank account themselves. These were entirely new experiences and users were learning as they went.

We also had to design for efficiency because we were often constrained by technical limitations; limited bandwidth, processing power, and even limited numbers of colors. Now the role of digital product designer is much, much more than a user interface designer. Now we’re often a pivotal part of business transformation.

Can you talk about a successful navigation of a project journey from ideation to completion? What steps or phrases do you consider essential?

You’re already headed in the right direction by asking about the journey. However, at Moment we believe projects are like a specific type of journey: an expedition. We see expeditions as journeys with a clear mission into the unknown that requires exploration. The steps we see as essential are similar to those of an expedition and are the same that the leader of that expedition would seek to put in place for the team:

  • Cultivate shared purpose: find a way to make sure that everyone on the team understands and buys into the mission.
  • Equip and guide: Make sure that everyone has the tools they’ll need to be successful, and then provide guidance as to which areas of exploration you think might be the most fruitful.
  • Embrace the unknown: Going places you’ve never been is often scary and sometimes even dangerous. But if you don’t commit to it you’ll never discover anything valuable.

How have you been able to deliver business success without compromising user experience?

I think there’s a big difference between fighting for what’s right and being uncompromising. The design process is full of compromise. It needs to be.

What we do in building digital products is too complicated for just one person—there are no lone geniuses. To arrive at the best possible user experience I think you need to play the role of a standard bearer of good design, but you need to make it a conversation not a fight. If you don’t listen or entertain ideas from other people, you will quickly find yourself sidelined. Once you’ve really got the conversation going, realizing a great experience becomes a lot easier. You find it easier to make your case in a way that folks from marketing, technology, strategy will respect listen to and build on.

What are some recurring themes or patterns have you noticed in your years of experience in designing digital products?

There are some recurring themes that I’ve noticed and that’s exactly what I’m going to talk about at Pro/Design. Without giving away the whole talk, I’ll say that it’s critical that a team recognizes what kind of situation they are facing before they jump into a project. [Not doing so] creates all kinds of problems, from not having the right people involved in the process, to not having committed adequate resources, to over- or underestimating the outcomes. At Pro/Design, I’m going to talk about three different types of digital product programs, how to identify them, and some ways to approach them successfully.