[DesignUp 2021] Stripe Partners’ Simon Roberts on the importance of curiosity, flexibility, and adaptability in the pandemic era

As media partner for DesignUp 2021, YourStory presents industry insights and success tips from key experts in the field.
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Simon Roberts, Co-founder and Partner at UK-based Stripe Partners, will be speaking at the DesignUp 2021 conference this month. He is the author of The Power of Not Thinking: How Our Bodies Learn and Why We Should Trust Them. A business anthropologist, Simon is also Board President at EPIC People.

This year, the DesignUp 2021 conference includes a virtual fundraising drive along with a stellar lineup of speakers. To be held online on the weekends of June 11-20, 100 percent of donations will go to charities bringing much-needed COVID-19 relief to rural India, in the form of providing dry rations, oxygen concentrators, and health centre wards.

As media partner for the conference series, see YourStory’s coverage of DesignUp’s earlier online panels in 2020, May the Fourth be with you and The pandemic’s impact on design. See also our write-ups on the annual DesignUp conference editions from 2019, 2018 and 2017, and our d-Zen (‘Design Zen’) section for more design resources.

Simon Roberts joins us in this chat on the role of design in the pandemic era, industry trends, and tips for aspiring designers. Earlier, he ran an innovation lab at Intel, and his PhD in anthropology focused on the satellite TV revolution in mid-90s India. Simon is a fluent Hindi speaker as well.

Edited excerpts of the interview below:

YourStory [YS]: What are three outstanding examples you have seen of effective design during the pandemic?

Simon Roberts [SR]: In the UK, I have been very impressed by the rollout of the vaccination by the NHS (National Health Service). It has been fast, efficient, powered by local health bodies and their networks (from pharmacies and doctors surgeries), and included purpose converted large-scale facilities.

It has also been under-written by a huge volunteer effort. It stands in stark contrast to the stalled and largely ineffective efforts of large outsourcing companies that were commissioned to build the test and trace app, which has been widely seen as a failure.

One lesson I draw from this is the power of state entities with pre-existing infrastructures and proven modus operandi to deliver. In times of crisis, centralised efforts are important not just operationally because of the trust that they engender – but critically, the vaccination rollout has de-centralised characteristics and succeed by pushing its operation to points in the system that understand and already serve local populations. By contrast, the test and trace app largely failed against its purpose.

Though it is not a new design or technology, I have been intrigued to see QR codes have their time in the sun. Before COVID-19, they were marketing gimmicks attached to campaigns and largely unadopted or unused – but this is no longer the case.

YS: What are the key challenges facing designers in these grim times, and how can they be overcome?

SR: One significant challenge is about having sustained contact with the people designers are designing for, in a time of social distancing. The reliance on digital methods for interacting with the people they are designing for is also a concern.

I have long believed that in-depth research, done face-to-face – which generates understanding and empathy – is critical for design success. I worry both that this is not possible but that will be overlooked in the future in the name of being cheaper, as well as more time- and cost-efficient.

I think this will be a mistake. We must start actively advocating to do what needs to be done to create an empathetic understanding of the audiences for our work.

YS: What are some notable projects or research initiatives you are currently engaged in?

SR: We work across a wide variety of projects as a business. But two projects that stand out for me over the last 12 months are projects on household privacy and on a ‘non-infectious passport’ platform for COVID-19.

The household privacy work took place during the first lockdown in Europe, and was focused on exploring data and privacy concepts across a range of different household and family settings. We were focused on understanding how privacy between different household members is understood and practised.

One notable insight was the idea that knowledge about or access to other people’s data creates obligation – it becomes a form of emotional work. While we often think of ‘data’ as something people want to avoid sharing, on the flip side, we found that family members often avoid knowing things because of the obligations this creates. These obligations include keeping quiet about things or protecting other people from knowing what you know.

The other project was for an innovative startup called Bindle Systems, for whom we did research that shaped the design of a system for people to use proof of non-infection. This was fascinating because the work was US-based – and conducted in the eye of the storm – in a country with very strong ideas about freedom, the over-reach of the state and the rights of individuals to live their lives without interference from external sources of authority.

We explored these attitudes and how they might shape the adoption of the system – identifying what might encourage people to adopt the service and in what sorts of contexts, and how to make it as accessible and trusted as possible, eg weddings. The platform is operational and generating revenue.

YS: What are the success factors for good designers to become good design managers?

SR: Being a good manager is about clearing organisational hurdles to allow people to focus on what they are best at – so creating the space for them to perform at their best.

Good management is also about setting clear objectives – of a personal and organisational nature – so that individuals have focus and know what they are being evaluated against. At the end of the day, being a good manager is about being a good human being – looking out for people, helping them through tricky times and being there for them.

I have found during the last 12 months that the human side of management is more important than ever. It has been tough on people and a good manager needs empathy.

YS: What are three core skillsets or mindsets that designers need in the uncertain post-pandemic world?

SR: Flexibility and adaptability – things are very changeable, so being open to ambiguity is critical. Embrace it; don’t try to overcome it.

Work-life boundary management – remote working makes it difficult to separate work and life. Policing the boundaries between the two is vital to stay on top of your game and avoid burnout.

Curiosity – being voracious in looking for new ideas, in novel places and space, is always vital and now more than ever as we look for new solutions to new problems.

YS: What are the ways in which industry and academia can collaborate to improve design education? What is your involvement in this space?

SR: I tend to think that the difference and divisions between industry and academia are over-stated, and they are closer both in spirit and intent than people tend to imagine.

For myself, I try to read as much as I can coming out of academia, and collaborate with universities through side projects, sponsoring specific classes or modules (a chance to mentor students and learn from them), and giving talks and presentations to students – both within and beyond anthropology departments.

YS: Looking back at your decades of experience in the design space, what are some notable shifts or trends you are seeing in the field of design?

SR: The obvious ones are the extent to which data capture is now being built into the design of everyday objects – often without good cause, which leads to trust deficits between designers and users.

Another trend is addiction by design – the tendency for devices, apps and objects to have design into them addictive qualities. Again, this is not a good thing.

More positively, there is more focus on designing for systems and not just individual users – though there is more work to be done on systems thinking as a default rather than the exception.

Simon Roberts

YS: What are three daily habits of yours that you think help in strengthening your design sensibilities?

SR: Reading voraciously as widely as possible. Finding the time to meet random people, and make connections using platforms such as Lunch Club. Coffee!

YS: From your reading list, what are three good books about design you would recommend for the “non-designers” out there?

SR: Of course, I’d love to mention my book, which is available in India – The Power of Not Thinking: How Our Bodies Learn and Why We Should Trust Them.

But the other books I’ve read recently which I think everyone should read are Caste by Isabel Wilkerson and The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner (a fascinating history of Bell Labs and a masterpiece story about corporate innovation – its rise and fall).

YS: What are your three tips or parting words of advice for the aspiring designers in our audience?

SR: Pay it forward – support people below you as you focus on your own growth and development.

Focus on building your networks. They are critical to your future success.

Think beyond design – design has to work in the world as it is now (or how it might be) so read things that help you understand the world and how it works.

Edited by Kanishk Singh