Fireside Chat with Navneet Nair

Navneet is currently the Director of Product Design at PhonePe. He’s also a mentor in the ownpath product design fellowship program and was the instructor for one of the masterclasses on the topic “mapping business objectives” for cohort one which was earlier this year.

Q. What advice would you give to designers, about balancing and understanding business, design, and engineering?

One of the things that we in business, design and engineering teams realise when we start working together is that it is not all about our individual effort working on the product. You will need to work together with various teams.

There might be a business team that is working on business requirements, a client-oriented team where there could be client requests that are coming in, and so on, but you need to actually look at what makes a business run, which is money. And that’s very important for us to understand as that’s one of the key stakeholders there are.

With product companies, there is a team consisting of PMs that looks at driving the product like marketing, management, etc., and designers work most closely with product managers because a lot of the initial brainstorming and product discovery happens with product managers. And the other part of the product team that we work with is the engineers who eventually make our designs into reality.

If you look at all of this, we are part of this ecosystem of people who are running the business together.

One way to look at this is that there may be strong and weak aspects in a team. And just because design is strong, doesn’t mean that you are coming up as strong. You need to make sure that your counterparts are equally strong, and at the same time are equally supported. Never assume that one is more important than the other.

We have to really be cognizant of that when we are working so that we don’t think of ourselves as very important in the game, while at the same time keeping in mind our own importance. If you ask me how we work together, it is all about collaboration and how we work together as a team.

The rest of the team needs to understand design, and design needs to understand them. The best way to do that is to actually work together with all of them. Be very proactive in sharing things, be very proactive in understanding what they’re doing, and most importantly be helpful and have a very positive attitude about how you want to get things done.

I’ve seen this in a lot of engineering teams, people usually say that something can’t be done with excuses like technology limitations. Whereas, in designing if we take it as a challenge and try to address it, that attitude goes on to the rest of the team too.

Q. How important is it for designers to understand programming?

You don’t need to know object-oriented programming, all you need to know is something like the difference between a bottom sheet and a modal window that comes up. I think that’s enough, to begin with. But make an effort to understand that. I once had to actually create a brochure for a company and I did the entire thing from writing, design to actual production going down to the printer and getting it printed, choosing the paper, and getting it done. The whole initial emphasis of understanding the medium helped me do that.

For us in software design, our medium is software. And understanding the craft is how does the rounded pixel comes about, on the card is something that we need to understand.

Q. When does the journey of a designer end in the product life cycle?

There are many things that get dropped out if we as designers don’t stay with it. There are decisions that happen along the way and we are not in control of them. So for us as designers, being able to work well within the team is definitely important so that we are there when these decisions are being made.

Our journey does not end when we are done with the design and the review or usability test is done. Our journey lasts till the product is out to the user, and we are even getting user feedback and then going back to it. So, designing products is definitely a lot different from working in an agency. In a product, the ownership is much longer and you need to stay with that.

Q. When should designers be moving upstream in terms of trying to own business outcomes and contributing to conversations around the roadmap and business?

I think the first two years, a designer should spend mostly on the craft. It is understanding the craft and making sure that they are absolutely on top of it. While they’re doing their craft one of the things that they should be getting better at is — how would it be possible for one to add to an important part of it, inspiration.

Definitely what we as user experience designers are drawn to is also to start involving ourselves in the science, and the moment we start focusing a lot more on science is where we are able to move up and take the science into the business itself. There is no real-time period where you get to start moving in. It’s different for different people. If you work for a very early-stage startup, you are probably doing it from day one.  But if you’re working in a larger organisation, you probably may not have an influence as a junior designer.

Q. During your career what are some of the skills apart from design that you lacked and had to learn?

One of my strengths is that I’m obsessed with learning. Whenever there was something new that was happening, I would want to do that. There was this professor at Stanford, Terry Winograd, who has both the teacher to Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Terry had this program that he used to run at Stanford called human-computer interaction. He would call all the luminaries in the streets because it was a very new nascent field and I think Stanford was one of the places that they were doing a fair amount of stuff. He had put a bunch of videos where luminaries came in and talked about design and these videos were available to me. This opened my eyes and broadened my horizons about what is out there.

Today if you look at it, everybody has access to so much material and people are putting it out for free. You should kind of be glad that there is so many resources out there. Being able to find all of this is absolutely the way that you will expand your horizons. To me, it was being curious about what is there, what I can do and looking at every challenge as a learning opportunity to get better.

Q. What do you think is the future of design?

If you look at it, almost every job role will be replaced at some point. If you look at design itself, I think the amount of effort that is required to become a designer today is much less. For example, when you were a designer in the 60s you actually needed to know to typeset. Typesetting meant that you take typeface and you put it on the thing that you print with and this was an essential skill to become a designer. The amount of education that was required to get into design was much higher.

When I kind of got into it, computers were available and adobe was already there, Photoshop had just come in, and the entry-level had suddenly dropped. Now I could actually create print ads with knowledge of PageMaker and Photoshop.

Some aspects of our role can be codified to some extent, through templatization. So, we have to always be cognizant that our jobs can be commodities. There may be a point where that particular skill is no longer needed. This is something that may happen within the career lifetimes of people starting out.

So how will you future proof yourself in this kind of situation where you want to make sure that 20-30 years down the line, you understand what is changing, what is happening, and where we are moving towards?

I see designers moving to a point where they are going to be the drivers of ethics and the philosophy of how the products are. Unless you’re going to be able to get into that 1% of people who are going to be designing the templates, you need to start thinking about yourself as the orchestrators of ethics and philosophy of the product.

Q. As a candidate, what would be your best practices to evaluate companies and roles to know where they might be successful as a designer?

I think reaching out to places that already are doing great with technology is an obvious choice. I think that’s great, but you also need to do is look at two things.

  • The people in that place; are the people you relate to?
  • What is the space they are in?

If they are in the services space, are they working with the right set of clients, and if they are in the product space, are they building the right product?

These are two questions to keep in mind and use to assess opportunities. If you find a company/agency that is really good and to your liking, I think you should go and see if there is a good opportunity over there where you can make your presence felt.

If you go to a place that is already doing well, you are just another cog in the wheel. And while you will be able to, learn a lot of things from others, you have to be sure that there is a framework that the organization has for you to learn and grow.

Q. What would be some books that have been valuable to you?

I think there are a lot of great books out there. But amongst all of them, the one book I still think about is this book by Kathy Sierra called Badass. It allows us to start thinking about our users a little bit differently.

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