Simone Ferraro: “The fundamental aspect of what designers do is they think about the solution.”
Simone Ferraro exemplifies where design can take you. His work has been all over the map of UI and UX design, from his work as a graphic designer for DIY zines to mastering the balance of interface and interaction design, brand and visual identity, animation, and prototyping for household names like Microsoft, Skype, and Nokia.
You’re among the 320+ million users that his designs have reached.
In addition to his business acumen, his passions for technology and user experience have taken him into leading design sectors across the globe. From Milan to London to California, Simone’s a juggernaut on the world stage of design innovation.
In a remote interview, Simone gave us insight into how designers can utilize their inherent talents to enhance their thought processes, how their developed skills augment problem-solving, and how he synthesized his experiences as an instructor. Some key takeaways:
- Success is fueled by designers and businesses who value user experience.
- Utilizing soft skills like sensitivity and creativity augments user advocacy – and establishes designers as company assets.
- Understanding how to navigate the structure of a company or project will spotlight your talents.
- Knowing how to pinpoint what problem you need to solve will deliver results.
- Developing technological knowledge helps you understand where the business is going.
“What makes a good product designer can be learned. Empathy can be learned. Soft skills can be learned. What cannot be learned and what has to come from you is how to apply those in the day-to-day job.”
What makes a good product designer?
A good product designer is that person that is in the room for its users. It completely understands, has internalized the problems, the needs, the desires, the goal of users. It’s there in the room with its skills to bring those forward. It’s there in the room using its creativity, its logical mind, to solve things in a way that fits into the business, the product scale.
But really, at the end of the day – and I really feel this must be internalized by our students — is we are there for our users. And using our sensitivity, our creativity to stand up for our users is what makes us a valuable asset to the company.
With all the components that a good designer consists of, how much of it is learned, and how much of it is a born-in talent?
What makes a good product designer can be learned. Empathy can be learned. Soft skills can be learned. What cannot be learned, and what has to be part of you, is how to apply those in the day-to-day job.
What we are really looking for in that when in our profession is when and how to use those skills, measure and understand exactly the context in which you are requested, in which certain skills are asked, in which to dial down or dial-up your presence in the room.
Those are the things that make a successful product designer, which is understanding that you are there because you have certain skills and are needed in that room.
Most of the time, also, the people that you’re interacting with at work — don’t really understand exactly what it is you might be bringing. That’s when you stand up and make sure that your knowledge and your understanding of the problem, and your ability to frame it in a way that puts the user at center stage is what makes you a valuable asset for that team.
“If a UX designer doesn’t think about the business, he is unemployed. If a UI designer doesn’t think about the user experience, he, too, is unemployed.”
Product design is quite related to UX and UI design. How are they related? How are they different?
The difference between product design, UX design, and UI design lies in the observers of the profession. They say UX design focuses on flows but not the business side of it, and that’s absolutely not true.
If a UX designer doesn’t think about the business, he is unemployed. If a UI designer doesn’t think about the user experience, he, too, is unemployed.
The fundamental aspect of what designers do is think about the solution. They’re problem solvers, whether that is coming from the business or the technology, or the user.
If you want to be successful at solving the problem, you have to have an understanding of where business is going, where tech is going, and what the user needs. We have the capacity to have that sensitivity to look at all these aspects altogether and provide that solution that fits the three different boxes in which a certain business might position that problem.
What is your hiring process?
When I’m doing interviews for design candidates, I’m looking at their ability to analyze, synthesize, and frame the problem. That is the most fundamental skill we have to get into the profession.
Everything else can be not necessarily taught, but everything else, they can adapt to. They can adapt to our use of different systems. They can adapt to how we use different tools, or how we use motion, or other skills.
But the ability to look at the entire picture and synthesize the problem and understand what, exactly, we’re trying to solve — is the most fundamental aspect to get to the right solution.
To frame that problem and put it down in a sentence that the whole business can understand is a key part of our process.
Have you seen a clear connection in different companies between the strength of their product design team and their product design capabilities in the overall success of the company?
Yes! Definitely. I’ve seen businesses understand exactly what the capacity of a product designer is and how successful that made that business, and I’ve seen businesses look at design just purely as a service, and I’ve seen how unsuccessful those businesses are.
The success or lack of success is maybe more objective than what we want as designers, but ultimately, if a business relies on product design to own the solutions that will end up in the users’ hands, that will be a successful business. I’ve never seen this logic fail.
Do you think certain knowledge of behavioral psychology is important for product design? Since we’re trying to design something that people are supposed to use and enjoy, should you understand how people behave and think?
The way in which designers have to look at the behavior of their users is very much part of the soft skills that we need to have.
We go to user research, and we usually ask them to look at what our members are having problems with when they are completing this form, and they run certain quantitative and qualitative studies and they come up with a set of findings. That’s when the designer comes in with its own sensitivity to understand and analyze those findings, to not just purely react to them.
Following Henry Ford’s example, if you asked back then how people would like to get around, they would answer, “a faster horse.” What they were really saying is, “We want a quicker way to go around.” They didn’t know there was a technology to do that without even having a horse. That’s when the sensitivity of Henry Ford comes in, and what they’re actually saying is, “The problem is slowness.”
Sometimes, businesses tend to react to what users say in a very linear way. That’s another capacity that product designers have, which is to see through all of those things that users and businesses say and really distill what is the problem that is bringing up these considerations.
To frame that problem and put it down in a sentence that the whole business can understand is a key part of our process. I’ll have an entire lesson during our course around defining the problem statement, taking everything the business managers are saying, everything the product engineers are saying, everything the users are saying.
Throughout the process, you will keep going back to that sentence and make sure the entire team is following that. If you don’t do that, you will not successful solution, which will not make a happy user, which will not make a happy business.
There’s a lot about solving problems in design. What is the toughest problem you had to solve with your job for the solution of the company or the project?
The toughest problem I ever tried to solve in my profession is one that we’re facing now, which is how to provide a way for job seekers and hirers to really stand out because of their skills — not because of who they are or where they come from, not because of their pedigree, but because of what they know and shine in their profiles, in their profession, and their lives because of their skills.
We’re doing this huge effort on LinkedIn to make hiring skills-based and not pedigree-based. It’s a gigantic problem that involves so many aspects, from education to your dream job.
We’re running experiments as far as taking the picture and your name off your profile. We just give the hirers your skillset and create a taxonomy around that. We don’t even know it’s the right thing to do.
We think it’s what we want to do, especially in this past year of the pandemic, in which there was this huge amount of time that people dedicated to upscaling themselves because of, unfortunately, a huge amount of job loss.
We want to leverage this on the job-seeking side to create their own skillset from scratch. ELVTR is part of this effort. How can we bring this to the marketplace and make it the only way in which people get hired?
“What led me to changing sets of problems was the willingness to test myself and to challenge myself with new sets of problems that will lead to new sets of solutions.”
You've managed design teams in some very different companies. Nokia is different from Microsoft, which is different from LinkedIn. How are they different from a design perspective?
Throughout my career, I’ve worked in diff companies that have very different sets of problems because they have very different sets of users.
The challenge that I’ve always cherish is finding these new sets of problems, and that’s led me to where I am now. I tend to get a little bit of problem fatigue when you spend so much time trying to solve the same problem over and over again for the same sets of users, I find designers tend to get complacent and tend to apply the same techniques over and over again.
What led me to changing sets of problems was the willingness to test myself and to challenge myself with new sets of problems that will lead to new sets of solutions. Designers need to be challenged and constantly tested as to their abilities to provide the correct solutions.
We just started talking with you about how exciting you find the process of building the course. Why is that?
It’s interesting. I never stopped to pause about structuring all the things I’ve learned throughout my career. Obviously, design, especially what we do, is a very dynamic discipline. It keeps changing over time.
I started this work as a graphic designer then moved into UI because we kind of solve the same problems. When moving into UX, and then into Product — this whole flow is actually a continuous learning process.
I never had the opportunity to pause and reflect and structure what I learned after all these years, and to make it understandable for someone willing to start this process I’ve been on the last ten-something years.
It’s really useful, and it’s something I’m really cherishing, pausing and putting in order all these things I learned — both in theory and practice — all the tips and tricks that you kind of assimilate during your career, but you never have the opportunity to put them down on paper so someone else can pick them up.
I think you find yourself sometimes as your building the course thinking, “I wish I knew that when I started.” That’s why there are certain things that you can read in books and certain things that you should be able to hear from an expert. As you’re putting your course together, I’m sure you identified certain things that are not in the books, and those you can teach others.
The first thing I’m trying to structure is to give a real understanding of what is going to be the day-to-day life when they join a company or an agency that does product design.
I had no idea, when I joined Microsoft, for example, of how the day-to-day workflow was, who I talked to, what was my team structures, how to relate to those personalities and those different disciplines, what was the balance between product engineering and design and how those conversations happen on a day-to-day basis.
“It’s really something that you cannot teach until you’re part of it.”
It’s hard for universities and educational institutions to create this understanding of what’s going to happen in the workplace scenario because there isn’t that knowledge in those areas. It’s really something that you cannot teach until you’re part of it.
The way I’m structuring this course it’s really about, “This is what’s going to happen in the first 12 weeks of you joining a company and are assigned a project.”
And this is a lot about soft skills, knowing who to talk to, knowing how teams are structured, and knowing how these companies function, and how you can move within these functions so you know you are contributing to the work, and you’re really bringing your full impact on the company and full knowledge to it.
You have a separate lesson covering Motion Design. Why is that?
Motion design is something I’m really passionate about. It’s something that I love working with, but most importantly, motion design is part of our day-to-day experience. We interact with screens on which information moves, flows, comes in and out.
I always frame this as, when you’re talking to someone, about 40% of what you understand is microfacial expressions. Motion design is exactly that but on your phone.
We can communicate so many things about how a product works, interacts and behaves just by how things appear on the screen. If a set of buttons appears at the same time or staggered, your brain perceives that in a completely different way.
“At the end of the day, I’m not working for my business. I’m working for my users…”
The way I phrase this, and the way I’ll frame it to the class is this is motion to help usability. It’s not motion to delight.
It’s not motion as a final lipstick you apply to UI. It’s motion as a fundamental tool to teach users how that product acts and behaves. Really, the most fundamental aspect to understand is it’s not about aesthetics. It’s not about delight. It’s about usability. It’s about having an extra layer of information that you apply to your system that will help users understand how your product works.
Wherever you study design or wherever you study the and ins and outs of the profession, you almost never study how to apply it in life and how to benefit from it. In your course, you will focus on not just how to design it but how to build a career of a product designer.
The definition I’m really working on of what we’re trying to do is how to be the best designer for a company, but also how to be the best partner within your product team. I think that’s one of the fundamental aspects that will make you a successful designer: understand what are your competencies, what is the center of gravity of what you’re actually doing, and how to be crystal clear with partners as to what you’re really good at and what you own.
At the end day, I’m not working for my business. I’m working for my users, which is the most fundamental thing to really understand. If you make your users happy, the business will be happy as well. Work for your users first. Think about them. Think about how that fits into the workflow of your team.
Sometimes, Product tends to lean a lot on the business side. Engineering tends to lean on the technological side, and we Designers are the ones that are there to stand up for users all the time.