Before I start, I’d like to thank Ed Orozco for encouraging me to write this piece. He is truly a remarkable product designer, and I can guarantee that you’ll learn a lot from the thoughts and insights he generously shares in his newsletter.
If you are a product designer looking to secure a full-time or a part-time position for some time, you might be feeling confused as so many (good or bad) things happened in the last few months, and you might not know how to navigate this ever-changing landscape. It is even worse for transitioning, aspiring, entry-level, junior designers; and as one of you, I understand your pain.
Among many, the two events in the designs are the most note-worthy: (1) the recent tech layoffs in the U.S., and (2) ChatGPT’s becoming one of the fastest-adopted products ever.
Considering them and their potential effects on our lives, this might be a good time for me to share some of my thoughts on the current status of product design and make some wild (and most likely wrong) predictions about its future.
Please note that I am just spitting my thoughts without filtering them, so the rest of this post will contain lots of speculative ideas, some based on reality, and some based on some weird dream place my mind resides in. If this piece somehow offends you, so sorry in advance. Hey, Random Large Tech Corporation X, I am not pointing my finger at you as well.
By writing this piece, I hope to shed a slightly different light on those recent events. I strongly believe that our understanding of the causes behind them helps us to become better professionals who are indispensable to our organizations, so we are much less likely to get affected by any similar events in the future.
The “why” question we should be asking here is this:
Why did the tech layoffs in the U.S. happen?
Changes in the macroeconomic landscape
TL;DR: The fiscal expansion policy that the U.S. government and FED had to follow in order to minimize the financial effects of the Covid-19 outbreak on the public leads to corporations’ somehow unrealistically positive expectations of the national economy. The reality hits, those corporations have to cut costs, and they lay off some of their employees. As designers are not considered indispensable by most companies, design becomes one of the most affected industries.
If you are affected by the tech layoffs in the U.S., in my opinion, please know that this does not have anything with your skills as a professional, and your personality as a human. This is much, much more likely to be a natural outcome of the economic cycle that the country goes through and how it affected your previous company (or how they forecast its effects in the short run), and not have anything with you as a person.
But who do we blame for this? Is it those “evil finance and HR people”? I do not think so; those working at the world’s largest corporations are undoubtedly some of the world’s best; yet, when in groups, people tend to behave less rationally, and more importantly, in such groups, I speculate, even a stronger diffusion of responsibility takes place. I do not think pointing fingers at someone, some team, or even some company is a sign of a positive mentality, and helpful to us. It is much better for us to accept this as a natural outcome of things, and a part of our lives.
Then, what is it? I think that the primary reason is most companies’ overestimating the U.S.’s (macro-)economical status and adopting an overoptimistic view of the future. In times that the economy booms, “cash is cheap”, and companies look to hire more people. Even if you were producing the value at the time that you were expected at the time you were hired, per the macroeconomic changes in the landscape, companies might shift their perspectives on their respective cost-value analyses, and they can conclude that that value you produce is not enough to keep you on board. This does not mean that your work was sub-par, your work was below their initial expectations, or you were not a bad employee. Rather, based on how well or badly the economy is doing, they shifted their expectations.
An example: Company X was happy to hire B with the expectation that she would produce the value of 10x her annual salary. Even though B was able to produce that value, Company X decides to lay off all employees who were not producing 15x their annual salaries, and, along with some other coworkers, B was laid off. This is due to a shift in the cost-value expectations of the company and has nothing to do with B.
Design is abstract, coding is concrete.
Kai Wong in a quite illuminating Medium post recently argued that one primary reason why UX designers are often the first to go as a result of weak economies, especially with tech layoffs, is that even though UX has a high Return on Investment in the long run, as some companies adjust to the macroeconomic changes, they cut costs, and fire anyone that doesn’t directly increase sales now.
While I believe that this is at least partially true, I do not think this is sufficiently descriptive of the situation. It is rather that, in my eyes, pure design work is only auxiliary in companies’ eyes.
So, what do I mean?
Design is abstract: Not in the sense that it is not tangible, not in the sense that it is subjective; but, rather in the sense that its value is conditional upon coding and development.
If no one turns your design into a usable product or some changes in a product, which would generate revenue for your company, then your design does not exist beyond a Figma draft. Even more, by default, any digital product with some UI is “designed”: Even if that UI is “designed” by a developer with zero sense of design, even if it is terrible, even if it is unusable, and even if every single user of that product hate it; it still exists outside of your design circle.
So, if a company is to choose between a designer and a developer to fire, it is extremely likely that they’ll keep the developer over the designer; and this is just a natural outcome of design, as again, it is abstract. In almost all cases, a product with a terrible design is better than nothing.
I had the pleasure to meet a few designers within the last few months and discuss their daily ongoings, how they perceive the design landscape, etc. Some of them were satisfied with only (literally) pushing pixels, and they think that there is not an excess of designers on the market. Consider saying that at the very peak of the recent tech layoffs! Even more, they think that companies need to hire more designers as they consider their roles to be necessary for their respective companies’s success.
I strongly disagree with those statements for the reasons I have stated above. Design might make a product more beautiful, more usable, better, more functional, etc.; but there needs to be a thing that design is “placed upon”.
But what went wrong with UX/Product Design if anything? If you know me, you know that I have some beef with so-called standard methodologies of UX/Product design. Yeah, I am looking at you, Mr. Design Influencer on YouTube, promoting Design Thinking as the eighth wonder of the world.
I see two reasons for that:
(1) It is almost always better to have a structured approach to your work, whatever your field is; but, adopting a specific set of methodologies and processes for every design team, whether it is of 2, 5, or even 100 designers, without considering those designers’ personalities, their (professional) interactions with each other, etc., does not sit well in my mind.
What matters at the very end is the company’s success, not the design processes the design team follows, not how beautiful their products look like, not how great usability those products have: If your work does not produce tangible results, read “sweet cash for the company”, then its existence is devoid of meaning. Do not get me wrong; I am not advertising an unstructured, chaotic design methodology here. But at times, it works better, and to be honest, if you have the right mindset and mental energy for it, it is much more fun to work within such an environment. This is just an opinion of mine though.
(2) I am not sure if this historical path is completely accurate but based on my knowledge and my observation of the field, I’d say it is not wildly inaccurate. Lean Startup by Eric Ries is one of the most influential books written in the 21st century and with very good reasons. It is a remarkable book with remarkable ideas, but I honestly think that most CEOs and PMs miss the gist of it. For me, the lesson you should learn from it is not to spend +10 weeks conducting user research on a button or adopt a very research-heavy management methodology. No matter how you do it, just make sure that you do your due diligence before committing your limited hours to build a product that in the end no one will want to pay. That’s all.
Based on such “lean” ideas, some mid-sized and large corporations came up with their own methodologies, which I really like a lot; but as an early-stage startup with less than 30 employees and 6 months of runway, I do not think your design team of two or three people HAS TO go with a Double Diamond (or any other) methodology. I also feel like there is not enough experimentation in design methodologies, but this is for another time perhaps.
Every company is different, and so is every design team. Every startup, especially those smaller, races against time: Become profitable before you run out of money, and no matter what you do, this is a brute fact that you cannot deny.
Furthermore, there is something I’d call a fundamental fact: From a game-theory perspective, it is better to hire people for any position when times are rough. The economy is booming, the cash is flowing, and you plan to hire two more designers? Okay, that sounds great, and yeah, I’ll take your offer. But consider this example: You could not convince Ms. X at Apple to join your company, as she would not choose your measly small company over Apple. But now, she is laid off, and you can make a “fairer offer” that she might be much more willing to consider.
By doing so, you get more utility and benefits per the dollar your company spends.
So, what’s next?
Well, to me, it becomes more and more clear every day that a UX/Product Designer’s job has to become more than just pushing pixels and designing beautiful interfaces. The recent waves of tech layoffs show that these are not enough to keep your job in times of economic distress, and I think this is just the beginning.
For the most of public, ChatGPT became a global phenomenon overnight (ChatGPT4 is f****** awesome, I’ll give you that); but, for some time, there have been discussions over social media of one specific question: “Can AI replace designers?”
Well, I think we have enough evidence at this point on how much companies value “standard” designer jobs that do not do more than “pushing pixels”. Considering that almost all pixel-pushing tasks can follow some objective generation method, (read this as “Hey ChatGPT, based on this, this, and that, create me ten layouts for an e-commerce homepage”), this does not seem very hopeful for those who do not go significantly beyond pure designing. In fact, even most daily tasks of a designer, such as “updating libraries and components, cleaning up or even generating common flows such as sharing stuff and managing users” can be easily completed with some form of basic AI. ChatGPT generated global hype, and now, we see every day lots of AI solutions launched on ProductHunt and such.
I think that especially considering small startup with low design maturity and small companies you might be freelancing for, we do not need even basic AI, as people that evaluates your work in such environments are actually looking for a collection of alternative designs, something like a design catalog or even a collection of templates, and making decisions based on some subjective criterion, which most of the time is awfully wrong.
So, even if not right now, quite soon, I believe that the job description of a product/UX designer and what is expected from a person holding such a position will change greatly. Even if AI solutions are already creating so much business value, I am not completely sold on the idea that most AI solutions that are open to the public will have the capability to understand complex contexts, and in my opinion, this is where a product designer in the future will shine: Even if you have all the pieces of a seesaw puzzle, how you combine those pieces into a whole is a different story. And this is because of another brute fact: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
So, this sums up some of my thoughts on these issues. I can only hope that you enjoyed reading this long piece of text. If so, please consider following me on Medium as I plan to post once per week. I’ll be writing on design, tech, entrepreneurship, or simply whatever resided in my mind that week.
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Also, there is this thing I have been “brewing” for some time.