Introducing Emmet Connolly
Currently based in Dublin, Emmet is Director of Product Design at Intercom where he helps the fast-growing team to design and ship the best work they possibly can. Before joining Intercom Emmet worked at Google where he co-founded and designed Android Wear and designed Google Flight Search. Read on to find out how Emmet got into design, what the day-to-day is like for a designer at Intercom and what advice he has for those starting out in their design career.
Starting with a little background, how did you become a designer?
Growing up there were many different things that I was naturally interested in, but I eventually figured out that broadly speaking the natural confluence of all those things was this thing called design. I initially studied Politics, and then did a Masters in Digital Art, so it wasn't exactly a direct route into design for me. But I was always making little films and music and illustrations on the side, I was always interested in computers and how things work. Then the Internet arrived at just the right time for me and my brain nearly exploded. It was basically direct access to all these things, but also a new material in itself.
I think the early Internet especially was irresistible to most curious people because it was this amazing new thing that was changing rapidly, but you could be involved in the change. Which is basically what design is, looking at the world you're in and figuring out new things you can make and put into it. So I spent a lot of time designing and building little HTML sites and experiments for fun. Then I did an internship in a big tech company, worked for a web agency for a couple of years, and then got a job in Google and it was really only at that point that I started to engage deeply with design. It was all a gradual learning experience, and still is.
I’d love to know how your design team works day to day. How does the design department align and work with other teams in the organisation?
At Intercom our Product Designers all work on distinct product teams, so they sit and work alongside our Product Managers and Engineers on small teams. That obviously means that they can work really closely with the team, share ideas, make decisions and try out new things quickly. We place a ton of importance on both rapid iteration and getting the details right, so this setup is important to us.
There are basically two schools of thought as to how to organise a team of designers: centralise them so that they can work closely with other designers, or embed them on product teams. The tradeoffs of each are obvious, by I strongly prefer the latter. In the end you're designing a finished product, not just a mockup, so having our Product Designers be part of the product team is the most reliable way to ensure we're doing that really well. There are some cases where a single centralised design team make sense, but in my experience they are rare.
At a more day to day level, our designers collaborate all the time. We have crit sessions, we have ad-hoc 1:1s, we share early work all day long over Slack. We also print out and post up our work a lot, which really helps to immerse yourself in a range of ideas in a way that you really can't get from a screen, and kind of subtly invites others to be part of the process too.
We spend a lot of time designing systems: very sound fundamental models of how everything in the product interoperates at a conceptual level. Only once we've got a really solid shared understanding of that do we move onto things like UI design. I think it's actually quite a rare approach, but I think it's quite a sophisticated way of doing the type of work we do.
Our designers have a lot of ownership of the product: they are part of roadmap planning, they use Intercom to talk to our customers all the time, they decide how to revisit and iterate designs after an initial launch.
We've pretty much open sourced how our product team works, so you can read all the gory details on our blog.
What’s the one skill you wish you had learned earlier in your career?
This is basically that old, "What advice would you give to a young designer..." question, right?
My stock answers there would be to try a few different facets of design and see what really clicks with you: product design, visual design, interaction design, motion, etc. Learn some of the basics of these crafts, because they all have long and and surprisingly well-established histories. Try not to be precious with your work, be obsessive about seeking feedback from others. Find a mentor if you can. Read voraciously. Things like that.
So those things are all about continuous learning, Which is just absolutely fundamental if you're going to be a digital designer. You're never going to just master a bunch of things and then be done. The landscape is always shifting. That's what makes it interesting.
So any specific answer I could give you would probably be obsolete before it became useful. A better answer might be to not take advice from old people. I think that one's fairly timeless.
UX designer, UI designer, product designer…. As an industry, design seems to be obsessed with defining and specialising these roles. Are they all same?
No, they are definitely different. I think the reason we're always collectively tweaking these titles relates back to that idea of continuous learning. Everything's always changing, new tools bring about new roles, we need names for these new roles. This will probably keep happening, so in a few years you might be working with an Immersive Spaces Designer, or a Robot Conversation Designer, or an Autonomous Navigation Designer, or whatever. I think it's a good thing.
Having said that, I'm a big believer in generalists, if only because they are the people who can speak the same language as all these specialist and tie it all together into something coherent that works as a product. that's certainly how I would classify myself. So even if you're not working in the trenches as a Visual Designer, or a Motion Designer, or some other specialist, it's important to know what those things are and how they work so that you can collaborate.
I admire and love working with designers who are masters of their craft, but I do also relate to this thing Robert A. Heinlein wrote:
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
What design trends in 2015 are here to stay, for better or worse?
I really have no idea. Computers will get more powerful and cheaper. People will want access to more convenience, comfort, and connection. Friction and ugliness will be reduced.
Everything else is just extrapolation. Or as I like to call it, design.