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10 Questions to Get Inside The Mind Of A Product Designer!

Our Co-Founder, Stuart, caught up with the genius Product Designer Tom McDaid for his 10 question interview where he gives advice to up and coming product designers, explains how to promote mental health at work and talks about his latest project, a health care app to help parents navigate through hospital facilities.... Buckle-up and read on to find out!

🔎 Where do you find your inspiration from Tom?

The inner nerd in me has always loved creating things and solving problems. Over time that has evolved from me as a kid trying to make crazily dangerous catapults out of lego and elastic bands to now being in the fortunate position where I can use my love of building things in order to create products that make people’s lives better in some way.

🎨 What are the 3 design challenges you see come up more often than not from your experience?

The first one has to be designing for clients or senior stakeholders who assume that they know their customer base. This usually leads to clients steering the direction of products based on conjecture and not based on evidence. Some of the best projects that I have worked on have been those where a solid amount of research was done in to the end-users and market beforehand, and where the stakeholder or client has a respect for UX research and the results that come from it. This not only provides much clearer insights for creating better products, but also helps stakeholders to much better understand their customers, to see their assumptions and recognise better opportunities, and to better appreciate the payoff from investing in good research.

The second would be when the goalposts keep moving. I’m sure a lot of designers have experienced working on a project where a whole team is working on a feature, and then due to some unexpected new business opportunity, everyone is told to drop the current feature or to cut corners and get it completed super quickly so that everyone can move straight on to a new one. I believe that great products are the result of clear and well-prioritised aims at the outset if at all possible.

The last is when there is too much emphasis on making something for the short term without thinking enough about the long term. Creating MVP products and then iterating can be a perfectly valid and great way to release a product, however sometimes people can take this approach very literally with so much focus on making an MVP quickly without laying decent enough groundwork for future improvements. I’ve seen projects (not mine luckily) that have had to have large parts rebuilt at great cost because not a enough thought went it to what will be needed further down the line. If an MVP is going to built upon over time, then it is often worth spending that extra bit of time and money to think just a bit more about the long term before starting to build. It also means that solutions can be designed holistically which can lead to much more coherent and harmonious end products.

Am I ever going to get another contract after writing all of this?

📸 When you’re not designing, what do you do as hobbies? I have 2 young kids… so my main hobby is them! I love spending time with them and watching these little people slowly evolve and learn and question everything and become their own curious bundles of endless joy. Outside of that, I have a love of music, film, travel, photography (the cliche stuff), and original 80s transformer toys. Since the lockdown has come in to effect, drinking alcohol seems to have become a hobby of mine too!

Some of my spare time has been used orchestrating an app for a hospital charity that I hold dear to my heart. It is something that I’ve initiated and managed myself using volunteers and which I hope to be able to reskin in future for similar charities. I consider myself a bit of a philanthropist and I’ve found it enormously fulfilling to start my own project which will ultimately help people when they really need it.

👨🏻‍💻 Tell us about your favourite tech product… My favourite digital products are probably the Spotify app, Monument Valley (it was released a long time ago now but I still thinks it’s jaw dropping), the Flow app from Moleskine, and I’m a sucker for terrible Gifs so I’d have to throw Giphy (with their mobile apps and Slack plugin) in there too.

I have a huge amount of respect for AirBnB for helping develop Lottie, which was (and still is) a game-changing animation library that allow people to create animations in After Effects and then export them out in a super lightweight format that’s really easy for developers to drop in to apps and websites. For apps especially, there was nothing like this before and it has resulted in designers being able to effortlessly drop in animations in to their products with minimal effect on production time/cost or the resulting app’s file size. AirBnB were good enough to make Lottie open source for all to use. Massive respect to them for that. Lottie has been around for years now, but it still excites me.

One last shout out is actually for a non-digital product… Wacom tablets! They are so SO quick and nimble to use. If I ever try working with a mouse it feels like I’m dragging a brick around a table. I’d highly recommend trying one out if you haven’t already. 📚 What would you say the top 3 things you have learned this year?

I think I have become much more aware of how to make products more accessible. I recently worked on a new website for Nationwide Building Society and they are very big on accessibility there. They have accessibility experts, lots of really clear and validated guidance on how to ensure that products are really accessible, and all of the design teams have great accessibility standards engrained into everything they create.

I’ve started working with Figma and have been very impressed indeed. It’s a great tool for hands-on designing and has the added bonus of loads of useful features such as prototyping, animations, allowing multiple people to access a design at once, etc. I’m sold. I think it will become the go-to tool for UI designers.

Lastly, I’d say that I’ve probably learnt how resourceful and helpful society can be when the s**t hits the fan. The recent Covid situation has been been so very destructive, but out of it I have seen such wonderful acts of kindness and resourcefulness. People making the effort to selfishly help others and to make sacrifices for the greater good. It’s revived my faith in humanity. I would like to think that some of these wonderful emerging qualities in society will be a silver lining to this situation we have find ourselves in today.

🧠 Tell us about 3 things you do to promote positive mental health?

Taking heroin, fighting strangers and excessive masturbation (all at the same time).

My serious answer would be:

No 1 has to be spending time with my kids. I find that just thinking about them gives me inner strength and makes me want to break out in to a smug smile. They are nurture for the soul.

Secondly, taking time to talk to people. It can be easy to get lost in everyday work and become a hermit.

Finally, I’m a big believer in facing your fears and that doing this will make you stronger. For example, I used to be petrified of public speaking and pitching to clients, but I’ve intentionally forced myself to do this more and more, and now it doesn’t even phase me.

👶🏿 How would you explain UX to a small child?

UX is how you how you feel when you use something. Like feeling confused when you play a puzzle, or feeling loved when you give one of your teddies a hug, or feeling a bit confused when trying to play a game on your tablet. So if I’m making something like a toy or an app, I would use "UX design” to think about how someone might feel when they use it.

🏭 What 3 things would you like to change about the industry?

More investment in training and self-improvement, and more awareness from employers that this pays off. I’m a firm believer that self improvement not only increases people's skills and the resulting products they make, but it also makes people feel much more motivated and valued. It’s a big win for all involved.

More awareness that good products come from building what’s good for the end users. If a company create something that’s a delight for the end user, then your company will benefit in the long term.

More time and effort invested in causes that benefit society and the environment. I appreciate that we all have bills to pay and families to feed, and I believe that people should indeed be rewarded for what they do, but I also think that we each have a responsibility to look out for others and our planet. A lot of people do have moral compasses and strive to be ethical, which I applaud, but there is something fundamentally wrong with society when individuals/companies/shareholders can earn really vast sums, yet pay a tiny amount of tax and also not use any of their fortune to benefit society. I believe that the design industry is in a great position to steer the way on this as we are the ones that make things that the public see and use on a daily basis.

🎟️ What would be your recommended industry platform for news, tips, and trends?

Twitter and Medium are pretty fantastic and Glug do some truly awesome industry events. Dribbble is good for trends and ideas, however a lot of the work on there is often blue sky (almost utopian) concept work that is great for provoking ideas but just no way feasible or viable to actually build. Usability Geek is great for keeping my UX knowledge in check. Awwwards never ceases to give me fresh ideas and to simultaneously make me feel like everything I’ve ever designed was rubbish! 👩🏼‍🎓 What advice would you give to up and coming Product Designers?

It can be tough in the very early days when you don’t have much experience yet, but persevere, stick to your guns, keep designing and learning, and you will gradually improve, gain attention and find your way. When I first graduated, I worked full time as a waiter and did unpaid design work just to get some big names under my belt, but I don’t regret my path for a moment and now consider myself extremely lucky to be doing something that I love.

I’m a big advocate for learning and self-improvement. Keep learning new skills, improving your understanding of design processes and tools, and if you can find a company to work for that has a great culture and people you can really learn from then go for it and absorb it all.

My last tip… know your place and avoid having an ego. I’ve seen very inexperienced designers with a bit of raw talent who big themselves up massively when they really aren’t all that, and they have such bravado that no one wants work with them, let alone take time to teach them anything. Be humble, down to earth, supportive, eager to improve, and a delight to work with, and then more experienced designers will want to work with you and will be more willing to help you evolve.

And finally…..

🚑 We wanted to ask you about the hospital charity app you’re working on. Tell us about the concept, how you got into it and what you need to realise it?

So I’ve been voluntarily creating an app for the Brompton Fountain who are a charity that support families whose children need treatment for life threatening heart and lung conditions at the Royal Brompton hospital in London. Several years ago my partner and I had to stay at that hospital for 3 weeks when our son was born with a heart defect. The charity put us up in one of their accommodation rooms at the hospital and I was immediately blown away by how helpful this charity were and how they do so much to help others when they really need it. When I first arrived at the hospital though, I did find it took me a while to find my way around, to know where I could get food at what times, how to contact the accommodation office, etc. I thought that it would be quite easy to make a simple app aimed at parents who have to stay at the hospital, and that the app could probably be easily re-skinned for similar charities at other hospitals and hospices. That’s how the project began! I spoke to the charity, interviewed some parents who have had to stay at the hospital, got floor-pans and content from the charity, and then started designing the app. I was fortunate enough to find some very generous developers who are building it for free or at a reduced rate, and I found a third party company who have built a navigational map of the hospital to use in the app. Once complete, the app will provide useful information for anyone that will stay at the hospital (e.g. where to get food, what to bring with them, etc), information about the charity, a navigational map of the hospital, a map of the nearby area with recommended places picked by past visitors of the hospital, and also a list of useful contacts (e.g. the children’s wards, accommodation office, etc). I have not received any money for this project whatsoever and have actually paid some money out of my pocket to have it built. The app will hopefully be launched soon and my plan is then to reskin it for any other charities that feel they benefit from it. If you happen to be a developer with time on your hands, or a charity that is interested in a version of this app, then please do get in touch!

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