From practice to purpose: DesignUp 2019 raises the bar of excellence for the design community

From inner reflection to broader engagement, the annual DesignUp conference rallied the designer community to explore new ground in a world of digital opportunity and challenges.

23rd Nov 2019
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With an outstanding lineup of keynotes, panels, pitches, workshops, and installations, the annual DesignUp 2019 conference wrapped up in Bengaluru. There were also experience zone exhibits, morning walks to cultural sites, and visits to design studios – ending at the quintessential Bengaluru microbreweries.


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See our coverage of the conference editions from 2018 and 2017, as well as our d-Zen (‘Design Zen’) section for more design resources. As media partner for DesignUp, YourStory also features in-depth interviews with some of the keynote speakers: Giles Colborne, Rufus Deuchler, Param Venkataraman, Simone Rebaudengo, Scott Sorokin, and Gurman Bhatia.


In Part I of our coverage of DesignUp 2019, we featured takeaways on design teams and creative cultures. In Part II, we dig deeper into emerging trends and ethical practices for designers. While it has not been possible to cover every single session at the conference, many useful links are available from the event website and Twitter feed.

Data, digital and design

There is a deficit of data about the behaviours and aspirations of poorer people, whereas there is a data glut about a smaller population of Westerners, cautioned Payal Arora, author of The Next Billion Users: Digital Life beyond the West, and Associate Professor at Erasmus University, Rotterdam (see my book review and author interview).


Instead of relying too much on frameworks like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Payal advocated a design framework for the next billion users based on the ‘5 Fs’ - fun, flexibility, fusion, fabulousness, and removal of friction.


Instead of expecting to see poor people use digital media only for pragmatic purposes, it is important to accept that they use it to escape from tediousness, fatigue, and boredom. “The net is the only leisure economy for the poor,” Payal observed.


Digital media plans and features should have flexibility built into them. This can help accommodate the unpredictability and financial constraints in the lives of the poor, many of whom are migrants.


Digital ecosystems in China and Indonesia are showing the power of super-apps, with a fusion of features and capabilities across digital ecosystems for transactions, content and messaging. Design also helps reduce or remove friction in a number of activities. “Design is an art of effortlessness,” Payal said, pointing to the rise of fintech as an example of inclusion for the unbanked.


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The poor also spend disproportionately more on luxury and leisure as compared to middle classes, Payal explained. Well-designed products and services should therefore give them a sense of status, dignity and pride. She pointed out how ‘gold phones’ were made in Shenzhen 12 years before Apple’s gold iPhone, reflecting the insight that Asian consumers see status in gold.


“Paternalistic and condescending design will fail,” Payal predicted. Design for the next billion digital citizens, mostly in the global South, should be humane, empathetic, and aspirational, and embrace diversity.


“We need a higher standard of what data means,” she added. In different ways, citizens in various countries are also negotiating the tradeoff between data privacy and the conveniences afforded by social media platforms.

Design and data storytelling

Data skills are becoming increasingly important in a world powered by and embedded in digital technology. Journalists use design methods and code to help turn statistics into stories, explained Gurman Bhatia, data journalist at Reuters in Singapore.


She shared examples from visualisation and pattern extraction from elections data, pollution reports, and even female solos in Bollywood songs. She cautioned, however, that it is important to first question the source, authenticity, and limitations of the data used in stories.


“Question the data. Interview it. Think like a journalist. Stories and design complement each other,” Gurman advised designers. Everyone should be data literate, be able to trace data’s path, and have research skills.


She showed how certain data points leave out crucial contextual information. For example, people may not accurately report their age in census data, due to ignorance or superstition. Crime statistics should be analysed to see how crimes are defined and reported.


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Finally, it is the humans in the story and in the audience that matter. Think about how the story ultimately matters to “Joe in New York” and “Diljeet in Amritsar,” Gurman advised, as framing tips for narrators.

Humans and technology

The “good, bad and ugly” of digital media were debated in a number of panels. Digital media are empowering and entertaining for users, but have also led to the rise of fake news, hate speech, misinformation, spam, cyber-bullying, and digital addiction. Designers can and should play an important role in correcting this imbalance.


Some may view the digital world as a monster, but others have faith in the ability of humanity to socialise and tame technology, though this takes time, effort, and learning. Governance and ethical foundations of the digital world call for responsible regulation that lies above the corporate giants who control much of our media ecosystem.


Growth, scale and profits should not be the only mantras of business. Quality, relevance, inclusion, sustainability, transparency and accountability are more important.

In a separate interview, John Kolko, Partner at Modernist Studio, and Founder, Austin Center for Design, explained that when designers do their job well, they humanise technology and make the unfamiliar familiar.


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This happens in layers. “One is in the details of the thing that's made – the user interface, the aesthetics, the piece and parts. And the other is at a strategic level, always asking the question What should we make? and being highly selective in the answer,” he said.

AI and the Future of Work

AI and ML are shaping digital tools in ways that make them more intuitive and anticipatory in nature. AI in design systems will improve productivity and amplify human creativity, explained Rufus Deuchler, Principal Manager of Creative Cloud Evangelism, Adobe Systems.


He showed how the combination of AI and cloud is enabling new features in Adobe tools that make it easier to select and extract objects in frames and videos. AI can also establish authenticity of online content and increase trust through attribution and authority. Deep learning can be used for digital forensics, and improve ethical practices.


AI and automation will take away some jobs, but not those that call for creativity. “Therefore, we need creativity for all,” Rufus urged. AI will lead to emergence of new kinds of creativity. Rufus advised designers to strengthen soft skills such as customer sensitivity, and improve their sense of self-awareness.

Automation should also be accompanied by explainability. Workflows should not just guide users to the next steps, but also explain why that step is needed, explained Sruthi Sivakumar, Head of Design at Bounce, drawing on examples from the bike-sharing startup’s consumer journey.


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In a world of bots, only the designer can bat for the users, urged Anupam Taneja, Digital Designer, Designit. By keeping the focus on consumer emotions and intent, designers should champion human needs.


Designers should speak up more, Anupam added. They should have a say in the use of tools, and focus on the underlying methods and impacts. “This is an exciting time to be a designer,” he enthused.

A sense of humour in the exploration of the human-machine relationship was highlighted by Simone Rebaudengo, Shanghai-based partner of design collective automato.farm. He regaled the audience with images of a chandelier made of smartphones, and an AI algorithm that can “measure superstition.”


He asked a number of provocative questions as well. What happens when you lobotomise a neural network? What object is the mid-point between two other objects? What is the difference in the way German and Italian self-driven cars would park themselves?


‘Think of AI as a material or craft to play with, and not something which is perfect or scary,” Simone advised.

Cultivating curiosity

Rather than drowning in data, designers should cultivate a sense of curiosity that can be sharpened even more with data insights. Offline and online observation can strengthen customer profiling, and enable more frequent and creative experimentation.


“Insights are all around us, we just need to be curious and observant,” said Arindam Mukherjee, Senior Director of Product, User Experience and Growth, Flipkart. Quantitative data explain ‘what’ is going on, but qualitative insights and mental models explain ‘why’ it happens.


He cited Clayton Christensen’s ‘Jobs to be Done’ framework as a useful tool in this regard. It helps unearth not just the main functional task that consumers want to complete, but also the emotional fulfilment that they seek in terms of personal and social goals.
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Arindam showed how this framework helped understand why products like thin diapers failed in some markets. Parents thought thick diapers were better because they felt they also kept babies warm.


Flipkart is using this framework to design “smart, assistive interfaces” to make ecommerce easier to understand for new users and senior citizens. For example, some users fear that the ‘Buy now’ button may mean that money will be immediately withdrawn from their account.

Design for resilience in crises

Digital platforms can be effectively designed for planning and relief during crises, explained Eriol Fox, Design Lead, Ushahidi. She divided such activities into three phases: resilience, response and recovery (mapped onto periods before, during and after a crisis).


This involves not just web platforms and mobile apps, but community mapping for capacity building. Citing examples from Nepal and the UK, Eriol showed how peer group assessment can help improve digital skills and volunteer connections. Surveys and AI/ML can help scale and share learnings from across communities to rapidly create a foundation of trust.


“Your attitude towards culture and trauma matters,” she explained. This depends on a community’s prior experience with natural disasters and mob violence, and imbibed behaviours and attitudes.


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The inner journey of a designer

Param Venkataraman, Chief Design Officer, Fractal Analytics, spelt out a three-layer pyramid for design leadership: business, craft and self. He described a T-shaped map of skills and knowledge, where the vertical dimension represents expertise at three levels: learning, fluency and mastery.


Param cited his own journey where he successively added competencies such as interaction design, design ethnography, and digital-led transformation. “The higher you go, the deeper you will need to look inward into yourself,” he explained.


Questions that designers should keep asking themselves involve their relationship with authority, ability to let go and learn something new, and visions of their future. For example, at the end of each year, Param reflects on the achievements, challenges, and emotions of the year gone by, and goals, priorities and practices for the next year. Zooming in and out in this manner can help in personal and professional growth.


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The higher purpose of design

Outstanding design transcends product and service features, and can galvanise a higher sense of purpose. Language-learning app DuoLingo has become the top choice for many immigrant communities to learn the languages of their newly adopted homes, such as Swedish and English, explained Jack Morgan, Lead Product Designer, DuoLingo.


The language-learning platform allows multiple unique language tests to be generated in realtime, provides certificates for learners, and is often a key route to broader education and employment for many refugee children.


“Education is a lifesaver,” Jack said. He also showed how DuoLingo is being used to preserve endangered languages such as those of the Native Americans in the US and Canada. Language teaching is effectively crowdsourced using the DuoLingo platform, in a manner similar to Wikipedia.


“By saving dying languages, we can save entire cultures,” Jack explained. “We can design a future with digital equality,” he summed up; this calls for creative and inspired combinations of design and technology.

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In addition to equality, other principles that designers should hold in the highest regard are love, belonging and compassion, urged Alysha Naples, CXO, Tin Drum. “The 2D and 3D worlds will combine and cohabitate,” she explained, describing the convergence between offline and online environments.


Design should keep long-term safety of humanity in mind. Design and art should also be used to help humans slow down and reflect on the precious things in life, and not just speed up all the time.


Design should maximise impact, and help humans think in all three dimensions: mind, body, and heart/spirit. Alysha drew on examples from the Saatchi Gallery in London and the work of performance artist Marina Abramovic to illustrate how they help focus on precious human awareness and connections.

DesignUp: The road ahead

The insights and advice delivered by this wide array of speakers has been made possible by a committed group of volunteers: the DesignUp team, headed by Jay Dutta, SVP of UX at MakeMyTrip. One of their upcoming initiatives is called DesignUp Tribe, a membership programme with subscription benefits and community activities.


“The DesignUp conference started with 230 attendees in 2016, and has now crossed the 1,350-mark. Last year, we estimate the number was 780,” Jay explained, in a chat with YourStory. But beyond the numbers, the big impact is in the people and projects inspired by the conference.


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These include initiatives like Happy Horizons and People’s Power Collective (community radio) from 2018. The 10-minute lightning talks this year also surfaced several individual stories of change. Many people have found deeper meaning in their work and even switched career paths because of what they heard and saw at DesignUp, Jay explained.


This year, the experience zone supported community crafts projects by giving them exposure and enabling connects to larger commercial players. On a heart-warming note, the conference community also supported the design school entry for a student from a tribal village in Madhya Pradesh. The conference showed how design can have global impact as well, seen in the work of Ushahidi and DuoLingo.


“Look beyond your focused world of practice – into the bigger world of impact, into inclusive change and growth,” Jay advised the design community. There is growing pride in the regional design community in India and Southeast Asia. “The more we learn, the more we integrate, the more we include and share – the more we grow collectively,” he added.


Jay also called for more cooperation between the design, tech, business and government communities. “Designers have some very different toolsets at their disposal and the best we can do is to multiply forces,” he said.


“Finally, we are all a community of creators – we create businesses, products, features, data-sets – and as long as our goal is to add value to the lives of our users, then ours is a shared mission,” Jay signed off.
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