“Design is like Switzerland, It’s Neutral” | A Conversation with Paul Pugh

Paul Pugh,Vice President of Connected Fitness Products at Under Armour who previously worked at Frog Design and Amazon is one of the important design professionals who has strong design experience in tech. In our conversation, he shared his insights on the value of design, how to get best out of design and technology, and how startups can utilize design for the best strategic advantage.

For Pugh, the real value of design is its neutrality.

“To some degree, design is like Switzerland, it’s neutral. It comes in and without bias it can often get the best ideas out of each of those individual groups. I think that’s the value of design.”

He describes design thinking as a tool to pave the way for the other disciplines:

“I think design thinking is actually more about applying design techniques into other parts and other disciplines in order to root out what the requirements are, who the users are, what are the usage scenarios, what are the inspirations or limitations that need to be applied to the design and what does it aspire to. I think designers are really good at taking that and coming up with something that’s real.”

He thinks prioritizing features or technology over experience is a very common pitfall for entrepreneurs.

“I think what happens too much is that there is a heavy emphasis on the technology and the product management, but not enough emphasis on attracting customers in and making them love the software.”

To Pugh, features are the “wrong measurement of good software.” He claims:

“Customers are much more forgiving for missing features if they see that the product is being improved, than they are if it has lots of features but it’s very hard to use. Then it’s very hard to get them to come back.”

He argues that design must be very to-the-point in order to achieve a type of experience that’ll capture customers from the beginning:

“When I’m working with anything that’s new, I’m trying to get down to the essence of the idea: What is the right amount of technology and the right amount of design that customers will immediately see and understand.”

He then goes on to illustrate:

“You know, it’s really common. The product management will say ‘it has to do this, it has to do this, it has to do this.’ I never really believe any of those things. Maybe that the competitors have those features in their products. But if you give customers invites them in and they immediately see the value even if it has less features, they are very willing to give up features in exchange for ease of use.”

As he objects to that feature-focused product management mindset, Pugh underlines how important experience is for startups:

“It’s either going to be good technology or great user experience that are going to be much harder for somebody else to duplicate. It’s very difficult to come in later and add great user experience. It’s so much better when you start there.”

This implies a unique strategic contribution of design for startups:

“I think where the design comes in, especially in the startup world, is determining what is going to be an attractive product to customers, and then, as importantly, what’s going to be sticky and the customers love it.”

A Few Ideas for the News Business Instagram Profiles Including The New York Times

The Guardian newspaper has 4.4 million followers on Facebook and millions of online readers. More than 1 million people have also downloaded its mobile application. However, only 43,000 people follow The Guardian on Instagram.

It is the same for The New York Times. This paper recently opened an Instagram page, but the giant newspaper has brought in only 38,900 users. I was one of the early followers, but didn’t find it interesting and unfollowed it quickly. Then I tweeted about my experience.

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 5.19.34 PM

Following my tweet, Cynthia Collins, social media editor of The New York Times asked me what I would like to see and so I emailed her my initial thoughts. When I mentioned my experience to the office, we decided to think a little deeper about the issue and talk to and observe a few people to see what these news outlets can really do about their Instagram pages.

This was also a nice excuse for us to apply our design perspective to the presence of news outlets on Instagram.

Here are some notes from our brief research:

  1. Instagram provides a casual, visual way of communication. The people we talked to mentioned that they hardly ever read the accompanying text.
  2. No one we talked to follows media outlets. They are more likely to follow important people or companies that operate in their areas of interest.
  3. People mentioned that they like speed, randomness, continuity and effortlessness in communication, which they often cannot find on the Web.
  4. People described Instagram as positive, casual, friendly and sincere, whereas they described news brands as mostly negative and informative.
  5. Instagram is mobile and reachable from anywhere and anytime.
  6. Passive, indirect and emotional communication is important.

Based on these needs, here’s what we think could be good ideas for news outlets to use:

  1. Transparency for the Creative Process

Consider a modern restaurant. Restaurants used to hide their kitchens away, but lately many have open kitchens or have glass walls. This change allowed us to see our meals being prepared by real people who are working hard. At the same time, we can see the “backstage” of restaurants where at least I feel like my money is well spent. Transparent kitchens changed our relationship with restaurants and food by creating more trust.

For example, designer and painter Elle Luna explains the main point that makes her a public profile on Instagram. In the past, she shared pictures of sunsets and architecture, but after a while her friend said: “When are you going to stop taking pictures of sunsets and architecture and actually start sharing your life? You’re painting all the time. Why don’t you share your creative process?” Luna decided she would start showing her real life. “That’s when I started sharing my creative process,” she said. You can see two of her Instagram posts below.

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 4.07.50 PM

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 4.09.00 PM

Sharing the creative process can create value in design as well. Output from different stages of the design process can spark further conversations across the functions of a company or with customers. Contextual research can inform and guide branding or marketing. Unused sketches can inspire product or service ideas. Usability research can inform product development decisions. We often sell the different stages of our design process.

Why don’t news outlets do the same? Many people are, for example, curious about everyday life in The New York Times. They want to see inside the newsroom. What are the staff they up to? What is in the works? What are readers going to see very soon?

  1. Appealing to Personal Tastes

Apart from following friends, people also follow companies or famous people that appeal to their areas of interest. This is a good opportunity for news outlets like The New York Times, which has a number of sections including art and culture, fashion, and business, to extend its reach. Setting up an Instagram page for each section that delivers relevant and original content for these areas of interest is likely to attract more followers.

  1. Mobilize Networks and Resources for Content

In addition to having good photography, The New York Times can also access people and spaces in ways that are not usually seen, revealing backstage imagery. Those could be visuals from works in progress to be published soon, for example.

  1. A New Channel for Building Simpler and More Friendly Communication

In the case of fashion brands, content is selected and presented one piece at a time. This makes consumption easier than on the Web, where you have to spend time looking at all the collections.

It’s the same for news. As you enter mainstream news websites, there’s lots of news and pictures, and sometimes they make me want to look away. Whereas on Twitter, I read the articles as they are selected (by someone else in this case) and presented one by one. Instagram, like Twitter, opens up the same opportunity for news outlets to present stories one by one.

  1. Instagram May Not Be a Channel for News Businesses

Apparently, the mainstream news media doesn’t see Instagram as a major channel. This isn’t surprising if we look at from a design perspective. Jon Kolko defines the term “product stance” in his book Well designed as “the attitude your product takes, its personality. Product stance is about feelings. Your product obviously isn’t a living being, but when a person engages with it, she’ll naturally go through a process that’s called anthropomorphism. She will assign human characteristics to decidedly not human product.”

When we ask people, they characterized the personality of the news business as informative yet negative, urgent and stressful. Whereas they characterized Instagram in general as positive, casual, friendly and sincere. This is a crucial personality difference.

As a result, the mainstream news media may not see it as a major channel. However, it should try to understand this new personality and try to fit in with that character. This will open a new way for readers to associate with outlets and may create stronger relationships than before. This new experimental area will also help newspapers like The New York Times to think innovatively and may also have a positive impact on the other channels,

Immediately after our conversation, The New York Times shared this photograph on its Instagram profile, which is surprisingly similar to the ideas we have identified:

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 5.55.43 PM

In summary, these were the highlights from the conversation and our brief-yet-fruitful brainstorming session. As Elle Luna said: “Okay, I’m going to start showing my real life. That’s when I started sharing my creative process.” Similarly, news outlets could start sharing their “real lives” and open up their creative process to the wider audience.

You can follow Gulay on Twitter at @gulayozkan

Image Credits: Man Repeller, Elle Luna, The New York Times