Peter Merholz - State of the Design Nation

Peter Merholz - State of the Design Nation

My guest in this episode is Peter Merholz. We talked about the state of the design nation, the burst bubble of the Cambrian explosion of design from the last 10-15 years, product, business and the issue of mediocrity.

Peter has worked at the intersection of design, technology, and humans for over 25 years. Currently, he’s an independent consultant focused on improving the effectiveness of design organisations.

He was a co-founder of Adaptive Path, acquired by Capital One in 2014 and he co-wrote Org Design for Design Orgs, still the premier book on building in-house design teams. He co-hosts the Finding Our Way podcast exploring design leadership along with another Adaptive Path co-founder, Jesse James Garrett.

He also coined the word “blog.”.

Watch or listen below or on YouTube or the podcast feed:




Note: This transcript is machine-generated and may contain some errors. Pretty heinously in this one, it turns out. Sometimes Peter and my voice transcript are interweaved. Intertwingled, even.

Andy Polaine (00:00:00): Hello and welcome to Power of Ten, a show about design operating at many levels of zoom from thoughtful detail through to transformation in organizations, society, and the world. My name is Andy Polaine. I’m a design leadership coach, service design and innovation consultant, educator and writer.

My guest today is Peter Merholz. We’ve crossed paths online lots of times and never actually didn’t manage to get to chat with each other until a little while ago. He has worked at the intersection of design technology and humans for over 25 years. He was co-founder of Adaptive Path acquired by Capital One in 2014, and he co-wrote org Design for Design Orgs, still the premier book on building in-house design teams and one I regularly recommend actually to coachee. He co-hosts the Finding Our Way podcast, exploring design leadership, along with another adaptive path Co-founder Jesse James Garrett. Currently he’s an independent consultant focused on improving the effectiveness of design organizations, and I did not know until now that he coined the word blog. That’s a pretty amazing claim to fame. Peter, welcome to Power of Ten.

Peter Merholz (00:01:07): Thank you for having me. Something I don’t think I mentioned, even in our prep, the Eames movie, powers of 10 was one of the first shorts that I can recall seeing, and when I was a little nerding in the city of Los Angeles, specifically Santa Monica, I used to go to the Museum of Science and Industry, which had on semi-permanent exhibit, the Mathematica exhibit that the Eames had created, and I would just spend hours in there. So it feels like some coming back around, maybe we can just spend our time talking about the work of Charles Eames and how Charles and Ray Eames and how that affects our, what we do today.

Andy Polaine (00:01:51): The origin story for that. For me, I use it all the time to describe that kind of layers of that sort of levels of Zoom thing. It’s a very useful thing for describing service design and that kind of thinking between the touchpoint and the big picture and stuff. And I’ve given a few talks about it and stuff, and that’s why the podcast is named after it. But my dad and I can’t find it anymore actually. I dunno where it’s gone. I’m pretty sure my brother has it, but he denies it. My dad had a flip book of the different levels of Zoom of the film, and it was ages until I actually saw the final film, but I remember it as a kid and kind of flicking through it. So somehow that kind of seeped in and became somehow the thing that has infiltrated.

Peter Merholz (00:02:36): It’s a powerful frame when you talk about layers. Then I start thinking, you mentioned my business partner, Jesse James Garrett, as the elements of user experience with five layers, but essentially trying to operate similarly like decomposing and recognizing there are different things happening at different levels. We could go to pace layers, Steward Brand, there’s a lot of directions we could take this.

Andy Polaine (00:03:00): Yeah, no, absolutely. I love all of those for all of those reasons. But before we go onto that, this might be an extra long episode. We’ll see how we go. What has been your path from back then? What did you start out doing and how did you end up here? If you can do the short version. I don’t know exactly

Peter Merholz (00:03:20): Exactly how I ended up here, but even as a child, I mean, I knew I liked computers, but I never really was interested in programming them. I’m old enough to have had an Apple too, and you’d subscribe to those magazines and they’d have the computer programs you could type in. I never did that. There’s always,

Andy Polaine (00:03:40): Oh, I’ve done that. There was always a time,

Peter Merholz (00:03:42): It was just a lot of work. I’m like, I just want to play with the computer. I want to use the computer. I don’t want to tell it what to do. I went to school at uc, Berkeley, which is two miles from where I’m currently standing now, where I got a degree in anthropology because that was the most interesting subject that I took in my earlier years, and so decided to major in it. But while I was at Cal, I stayed interested in computers and ended up getting a job in professor who talked about multimedia and education. So I self-taught in multimedia tools like Macromedia Director and Photoshop, Macromind as it was initially.

Andy Polaine (00:04:26): Me too. I’m a Director child.

Peter Merholz (00:04:28): Yeah, Lingo. I taught myself lingo, lingo that I was able to parlay into an internship at a CD rom company called Voyager, which was,

Andy Polaine (00:04:37): Oh God, I remember earliest

Peter Merholz (00:04:38): CD ROM firms, and that’s where I got exposed more formally to this idea of working in digital. And then my next job job was at Studio Archetype, which was Clement Mocks design firm. And that was the first time I’d ever been in a formal design context, but I had already been exposed through Voyager to Don Norman. I worked on a CD ROM of his three books, including most famously the Design of Everyday Things. And so as I was a web developer at a design firm, I ended up taking a night class in user-centered design and pivoted out of web development and into design. A few years later, I co-founded Adaptive Path with some friends who I had met primarily on the conference circuit. We had been in places like South by Southwest together and then helped grow Adaptive Path for 10 years where we went from the seven original founders to at our largest, we were basically 50 people.

(00:05:49): I left that after 10 years to go in-house. I’ve been a design executive, most notably a Groupon when that was still an interesting place to, and then about four and a half, five years ago, I got laid off from a role at a company called Snag Snag a job, and decided to pursue an independent path, which is what I’ve been on since then. So currently I am a one man independent consultant helping design orgs be their most effective. You mentioned org Design for Design orgs. This came out about seven or eight years ago, and that’s become my calling card. I work with a number of different organizations, small tech startups to the world’s largest banks and everything in between helping them figure out how to make design more effective. So I am no longer a designer. I’ve moved away from design and design practice about five years ago when I stopped being a design executive. And instead, I’m essentially a management consultant for designworks, and that’s where I’ve landed.

Andy Polaine (00:07:09): So you quite specifically kind of said that what I do is thought partnership rather than coaching. Is there a reason behind that?

Peter Merholz (00:07:25): Yeah, so part of my practice now, there’s a few different elements. I do do direct consulting, so I embed with companies 10 to 15 hours a week and help them with a variety of things. Usually org design related things like career architectures or leadership development or recruiting and hiring. But then another part of my practice is thought partnership. A shorthand for it is, it looks like coaching, but acts like consulting. I am not a coach, I’m not certified. I’m not trained like Jesse. My podcast partner is a certified coach and I know many who are. I do not coach. Coaching is a practice by which the coach helps that person be their best selves and look within to figure out the solution to the problems that they are facing. I call it thought partnership because I am doing lightweight consulting, so people bring to me their business problems, like I need to reorganize my team and I will look at their org charts and we’ll move things around and I’ll talk about models that I’ve seen in other contexts. So it’s consulting, it’s just an hour at a time, usually every once every two weeks or once a month.

Andy Polaine (00:08:51): Right. Okay. So we, well, we had a conversation a few weeks ago about this. There have been several kind of articles of the death of UX and what’s going on with products and product has killed UX research or product has killed some form of design in some way. And you’ve kind of written a little bit about this too. I have opinions about this too. What is your opinion around, let’s put it the state of the nation in terms of design or digital design? I’m going to say that rather than product, but in the world of product where product has become this kind, very successful take up by business, very powerful force within a lot of organizations,

Peter Merholz (00:09:54): It’s mixed. There’s plenty of good, there’s plenty of not so good, and they’re intertwined. So I’ve been doing this long enough that when I started in Design first it’s studio archetype and then with Adaptive Path, both of which were consultancies, most people doing design, at least around half of the people doing digital product design were in agencies. They weren’t, and most companies didn’t touch what we would call UX design at all. It just didn’t even occur to them. And so I think something we lose sight of is how pretty much every company now recognizes they need to make some investment in user experience that as a categorical change over the last 20, 25 years.

(00:10:54): And I think one for the better, right? Recognition that the experience of the digital products you’re delivering warrant paying attention to some degree. We saw one of the reasons I left Adaptive Path, this was around 2011, one of the reasons I left Adaptive Path is we were starting to see the shift of the energy going from agencies into in-house, notably tech companies at the time, et cetera, ramping up with massive in-house design orgs, new companies coming up that were investing in design. And so we were seeing that shift happen. What we then started to see starting around that time, but I think really taking off five or so years later, five, six years later, so let’s say 2016/2017 is what is sometimes called agile transformation or digital transformations of legacy enterprises. So every major bank, every major insurance services firm, all these kinds of companies were, they all had built up these big IT practices. They realized they needed software in order to do banking or to do insurance work, and they built up these big IT practices, but they were operating under in archaic ways, namely Waterfall, very, the IT department was in service to everyone else. So they’d get tickets and then they’d do something and give it back to the business.

(00:12:35): It was very slow and bureaucratic. What happens is you have this digital / agile transformation starting to occur around that time. As part of that, these companies started to change how they develop product and as part of that, you started to see now legacy firms hiring more and more designers because there was this understanding that in order to do Scrum or scaled agile rights, and we’ll get to these, you needed design and so you needed designers. And so you had this wave of mass hiring of designers inside these enterprises. I was at Capital One with supporting Capital One in 2016, so they had acquired Adaptive Path, but I wasn’t at Adaptive Path any longer. And a couple years after the acquisition, I did a six month project helping them focusing on recruiting and hiring where I think, so when they acquired Adaptive Path in 2014, they were 90 designers by the time I was there in 2016, it was like 300 some, and they very quickly got to 500 or 600. And the reason they had all these designers was they recognized they needed designers to support all these product teams, these scrum teams. So there’s this massive investment in design, which you would think is a good thing.

(00:14:08): So this is where it gets all squidgy and intertwining. The kind of design work that these teams were looking for their designers to do was basically very was basic user interface design. How can you design wires and mocks fast enough to keep engineering going? And so you had this, excuse me, this immature awareness and appreciation of design. You mean of the front end of what design, all the others, all these designers, you had this investment in design, but they were investing in if you were to use, and I end up using it a fair bit if you’re using the double diamond, they were investing all in second diamond design. There was no recognition of the upfront. And so now where we’re at today, so where are we at today? Something that I, and so this unfortunate trend continues where design has been relegated to production and a source of that.

(00:15:24): There’s many sources, but a perceived source of that is that that’s what product managers are asking for. And there’s this kind of perceived conflict between product management and design. And if you go back to that agile and digital transformation, something that I’ve only recently realized was happening then was that these companies, these legacy enterprises didn’t know how to transform. They just knew that they needed to. And so they did what they always do, which is they turned to their management or development consultants and say, Hey, how do we change our org to be more agile? And if you’re McKinsey or BCG or Deloitte, you’re never going to say, we don’t know.

(00:16:07): Oh, that’s interest, but they didn’t. But what they did was they looked around and many of them found some flavor of scaled Agile framework or the Spotify squad model productized that and sold that into their clients as agile transformations. Now, there’s a number of issues with this one, none of them actually understood agile. So it was like cargo cult, right? If we’re going to just teach you all the ceremonies and these diagrams of it and just do exactly as those say, and so you get this very kind of rote thoughtless approach to agile and agile development. So that’s one problem. Another problem is that if you follow the Spotify squad religion or the safe religion, you need product owners everywhere. Every team of seven or eight engineers needs a product owner. And in order to do all the work that these big legacy enterprises have, that literally meant in some cases thousands of product owners.

(00:17:12): The problem is there weren’t thousands of qualified product people in the world at the time, especially in these companies. And so what they did was they re-tasked one of three types of roles, program managers, people who could organize and distribute work, business analysts, people who could try to understand the impact and analyze what was going on or subject matter experts. And this is the ones that I’m seeing more and more recently where someone who’s been at the company 10-15 years understands the product well, which means they kind of understand industry, they’ve had some interfacing with customers, they understand the details of the product, and so they are now put in charge of the product. The thing is, none of these people, program managers, business analysts, nor subject matter experts, none of them understand the single most important thing we want from a product manager, which is how to run a product development process.

(00:18:12): And so that’s where you get this butting of heads where designers show up and they’re just told what to build. And when they try to push back and try to introduce process, they’re told No, we figured it out. Just follow the requirements. You get this confusion and frustration and there’s people like Melissa Perri and people like Teresa Torres and people like Marty Kagan who have been trying to drive a better understanding of product development processes, things like dual track agile, so product discovery separate from product delivery and people working three or four in a box and an equal team product design and engineering collaborating. But they are, and what they’re doing is they are looking at models from Silicon Valley of healthy product environments and trying to teach that to these legacy enterprises. The problem there is these legacy enterprises are just so different in so many ways that you can’t simply drop in a model that works at Netflix into, I don’t want to name names, I know people at all these places, but into name your big insurance company. I’ll say Allstate, I don’t know anybody at Allstate right now. You can’t just turn Allstate insurance into Netflix.

(00:19:27): And so that’s led to all this chaos and confusion about how do we build product inside these companies because everybody’s kind of got a different point of view. Everybody’s listening to different thought leaders and they’re all just kind of talking past each other when they’re trying to do the work.

Andy Polaine (00:19:53): One of the things that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot, I probably write something about this actually, is it’s about mediocrity actually. And part of it is about pushing a button on a jukebox and part of it is about the comfort with mediocrity, which I was surprised, a little shocked by. Part of it was also actually about AI brought it up again for me recently, but also

Peter Merholz (00:20:21): I have thoughts on mediocrity.

Andy Polaine (00:20:23): So I was quite surprised when I was in a large consulting company and is in a design function and that obviously that designers really wanted to do the best possible thing usually, and the classic call outs are just being kind primadonna. That’s fine. The thing that struck me that I was from the consulting side, the management consulting side, they were kind of happy with I would say was mediocrity. I mean a lot of the times it was good actually. I’m think I’m being a bit mean, but not as good as it could be, put it that way. And clients were kind of happy with it too. And I was quite surprised by that until I realized, well that’s because obviously from the consulting side, they had sold the thing, they delivered it and next project and line it up and all that stuff from the client side then I’m talking about those kind big enterprise clients.

(00:21:25): Normally whatever we delivered, even if from our point of view it was sort of 70% of what it could be was still twice as good as what they’d had before because what they had before was so awful. And I sort of come round, I think what the consultants got was no, we get the trust from doing that first bit at 70% and then we get the permission to do the rest. And it came up with the AI thing because obviously AI is going to have a bit of impact in some way. But what AI is really actually quite good at is when I first played with chat GPTI was really surprised about how much it sounded like a management consultant. It had that kind massive learning of this huge database, a knowledge exchange or whatever they call it, their in-house library of stuff and ingested all of that and was able to spit it out with a massive confidence in a way that sounded very convincing, but it was generally quite shallow, sometimes correct, sometimes completely, completely wrong.

(00:22:30): And that’s what made me think about the management consultant thing. But what I’m constantly amazed by is how good it is at being mediocre, kind of good sort of banal but shallow, but good enough. And obviously then wrapped in that whole kind of alluring sense of though it feels like it’s intelligent in a chat interface, which has a very clever slide of hand, I think kind of you X, Y, and when then you see it generate design patterns and things like that. So yeah. Yeah, they’re all right. And actually whether it’s bootstrap or design patterns that have been floating around and design libraries, Figma libraries and all the rest of it, it’s sort of pretty easy to make something pretty mediocre. And there’s an equivalent in music actually, which is if you download something like garage band, you can get to a mediocre sounding kind of pop tune really, really quickly because the tech allows you to get there.

(00:23:32): And I kind of think that the danger is there, not that AI is going to be able to do what an amazing design team can do. AI is going to be good enough for lots of people and I’m wondering if we should, we’ve just been snoot in, well maybe good enough is good enough for people. The thing that I was getting to with the mediocrity is that I think what had happened with at least my sense is, and I’m seeing it through kind coach or particularly having problems, I’ve got a very bad sample example, is when they are having problems with their product managers usually or heads of product, it’s because those people are terribly mediocre. And actually when I hear it going well, they have really good relationships with their product folks and things are going really well and they have different problems. But it’s usually someone, as you said, who hasn’t been trained in any of that stuff has come through, maybe has been a project manager or a program manager and has gone into that role, doesn’t really get it. But at the same time it’s really heavily laced with that kind of dogmatism. And I think I feel like product might be facing a bit of a reckoning just because it’s been very popular and it’s been very well paid. And so it has dotcom boom memories of lots of fairly low grade talent being attracted to that kind of bottom third and it starts to sour the whole barrel. I dunno what your thoughts are on my prepared talk there.

Peter Merholz (00:25:05): Mediocrity. So by nature, isn’t it that many people in any function are going to be mediocre at that function. I tend to see bell curves everywhere, and in this case, you’re going to have, and I’ve seen this with product people, most product people are within one standard deviation of mediocrity and that covers 55 to 60% of product managers types. And there are some who are excellent and they add to things and then there’s some who are terrible and they detract. And that’s definitely the way of the world. The thing that designers have real trouble coming to terms with is that you can run a perfectly successful business with perfectly mediocre design much of the time. Not every business can someone like Apple and the standards that Apple has now set for the at least say hardware, smartphone market, you need to have good design that is now that has become part of the plan. But enterprise software where the buyer isn’t even the user and you have all these kind of factors involved and rarely is the quality of design and user experience a real deciding factor. Occasionally it is you get someone like Slack emerging because it turns out in certain applications that matters. But if you look at the world of HR software, it’s just littered with crap because that’s not how Oracle or Workday or whomever competes is not on quality of experience. Well,

Andy Polaine (00:26:59): It’s also because the buyers aren’t the end users of that, right, as well,

Peter Merholz (00:27:03): Right? And so one challenges, but one of the challenges that designers face is you can make a perfectly rational argument to optimize design for not say mediocrity, but when you optimize, you optimize design for return and where you end up as mediocrity. So I think about this with respect to Amazon. Amazon famously for 30 years now has been very data-driven, very evidence-driven. And I was struck a few years ago, I was watching Amazon Prime on one of my streaming devices and when it launched the Amazon Prime, the prime video launched and I could tell that that was a raster as opposed to some SVG or other type of file that they had just taken a smaller image and blown it up. And I’m like, that showed a level of disregard in quality. You know what, we have a bug, just put it in there. If it scales and it looks a little fuzzy, who cares?

(00:28:14): And then I thought about it, that started having me think about the suite of Amazon tools. I at the time was using Amazon music. We were already on Prime, so let’s use Amazon music instead of Spotify Prime video, obviously Amazon store, the retail experience and the insight I had is that Amazon invests and I knew a lot of people inside Amazon, so I’ve heard things Amazon invests in design exactly to the point that it continues to get a return and no more. And so they’re like, why would we go for excellence when the cost of excellence doesn’t return the delta between what it would take to deliver excellence compared to where we are today? And that’s just a fact of life. That’s the world we live in. You could we rail at it, but you might as well yell at a cloud. So mediocrity is a state of play in many organizations and that becomes something we just have as designers who strive for some degree of excellence, hopefully have to unpack our relationship with this mediocrity reality.

Andy Polaine (00:29:36): There’s all that stuff around design has failed to prove its ROI and all that kind stuff. And I dunno that it has in some respects the whole kind of design project if you like. And I guess design thinking it’s kind of been successful because of the way you just said, which is there’s a lot more designers and design teams in large enterprises and organizations where there never was. So in a sense it kind of worked and now of course there’s lots of people being fired. My guess is that design has been successful enough that in a lot of organizations they have a design system set up, but they have, they’ve broken the back of a lot of the design stuff they needed to do in whatever transformation they were going through. And I am a big believer, you wrote a book about this though, tell me if you think otherwise, but when we talk about organizations, we talk about them as if they have a kind of personality and as if they have a, but it is made up of people and so there’s this constant degradation of memory going on because people leave or they move to other departments.

(00:30:50): I wrote a piece about organization amnesia. It’s like they’re constantly having Alzheimer’s and so I think I’m wondering if part of what’s happening here quite apart from just capitalism, those organizations have fired lots of people and the market has rewarded them so they’re going to do some more of it. That designers actually got them to a certain point and now new people come and go, why do we need these guys? We’ve got all of this stuff here, it’s all working fine. And I’m wondering whether there’s going to be a moment in a few years time where all that stuff starts to sort of fall apart or they get behind again and they’ll just go through yet another kind of transformation, whether it’s just sort that kind of cycle going on,

Peter Merholz (00:31:38): A bunch of thoughts starting with our industry and maybe concentric circles out, we we’ll see where this goes. My first thought is design and design leaders have been suboptimal advocates for design in business contexts. They haven’t known how to connect the work of their teams to that which the business values. And so because of that, they are often seen as not credible or just there to produce on behalf of the business, but not to really contribute. There are design leaders who are making those connections and are making change. And I just saw on stage last week at this design leadership summit Kaaren Hansen who’s at Chase, she’s taken a team from 350 and it’s going to be close to a thousand if not over a thousand soon. Daniella Georgia just left PayPal and is at Capital One and is growing a team there. Rachel Cobes just took that role at PayPal and is growing a team there. There’s a cadre of design leaders who know how to talk that talk and they are showing that with the right advocacy you can continue to elevate and evolve design, but most design leaders are ill-equipped in that regard. But there was another thread that I wanted to unpack.

(00:33:12): I’m trying to remember.

Andy Polaine (00:33:13): I was talking about this, whether it’s going to kind of design has been actually been successful and whether there’s a cycle where a bunch of people, as those people get fired with, it’s going to come back and they’re going to go, oh, does anyone know how to turn this thing on?

Peter Merholz (00:33:26): Yeah. Well organizational memory, you mentioned that and that’s something I think a lot about. That’s what I was going to go to so much something that it’s going to take about five if not 10 years to figure out the impact of is the fact that this design inflation and I mean that hyper

Andy Polaine (00:33:52): Cambrian explosion.

Peter Merholz (00:33:54): Yeah, exactly. Like what happened at the earliest stages of the universe, this design inflation which started, and I can remember in 2007, 2008 at Adaptive Path when we were not able to compete with Google at the time, this is in the Bay area because they could just pay literally 50% more to candidates than we could afford for the same kind of caliber. Well it’s also 2008-2009 with financial crisis for 15 years from about 2008 and nine through to 2022 with a blip here or there. We had 0% interest rates. And when you have 0% interest rates, you have a lot of businesses with access to free money and design happens to have inflated during that period of time as did product and engineering these other functions.

(00:34:53): And I think when you mentioned you used the word reckoning when talking about product management, I do think there’s going to be a reckoning probably of all sorts. I mean it’s not going to be we’re going through it, that’s what all these layoffs are, but I think we’re still coming to grips with what the impact, it’s going to take two or three years to work through this false unsustainable environment that we all just happen to get caught up in for 15 years and in which we level set. But we were level setting in an environment that was deeply irrational. And now that the is getting more rational, it’s also getting frustrating. It’s disheartening with things like layoffs and all that kind of stuff. I don’t mean to dismiss it, but we need to realize the gravy days was a bubble. Were a product of insanity. So these less gravy days, the reverse of the gravy days are going to be what happens when the hangover sets in. I actually want to touch on one thing though, given our shared age and what I see as responsibility to the community, which is around this institutional memory,

(00:36:16): Yes, companies, they’re all ships of Theseus changing every three to five years and where, so with things like design, new people come in, have to understand what it means, they leave. And so design, it can be hard for design to get traction in an environment where there’s so much change. But for me, my bigger concern is that we as a design industry have done a terrible job maintaining our professional history, our professional knowledge and understanding. There is no credible professional association for digital product design. The closest you get is IXDA, which is fine, but it’s mostly a social club. They’re not really doing advocacy for interaction design at the government level or whatever. There’s no library of amazing IXDA journals that we can turn to look back on. You do have Kai, but Kai is very academic and feels awfully irrelevant. You’ve got, I’m assuming you’re part of the service design network and you’ve got things like touchpoint and I think they’re doing a really good job, but for a very niche.

Andy Polaine (00:37:30): Yeah, very narrow.

Peter Merholz (00:37:33): And so when I think about the lack of institutional memory, this is a conversation I have with some other old heads is like every three to five years people learn what we’ve known for 20 years but has never been codified, has never been articulated, is not part of any curriculum. And so everybody’s relearning this stuff over and over again. And I think that has as much to do with designs two steps forward, two steps back, three steps forward, two steps back as anything else is our own just lack of professional knowledge.

Andy Polaine (00:38:12): It’s been very ephemeral I think. And you mentioned the CD ROM stuff, the Voyager stuff before, I dunno about you. I keep some really old kind of Mac laptops around because I saw, I can actually look at the old work I did no other, those old city ROMs and anti rom stuff, can’t view it otherwise on any other thing. And I definitely noticed when the CD ROM boom and then Bain was a kiosk thing happened in multimedia. This is real kind of kids go in my day. But there was definitely a thing where when the internet happened for a while there was stuff going on and then there was boom.

(00:38:56): If it wasn’t online, it didn’t exist. And so there was that whole institutional memory of all that kind of interaction design and UX that we learned then. And then you had bust where people would go to work and there were bailiffs in front of the door and they’d been logged out of the system. So they lost all of their work because they didn’t steal it as they should have done to make a copy of their work. And so there was a whole library of work that got lost as well. And then I think it has got funneled into a look at so many websites and they all look the same and all loads of apps that all look the same and the kind of design patterns. And that’s what I mean. And I think there is a reasonable thing there around, there’s been such a emphasis on velocity and speed regardless of whether you are a startup or a kind of established organization or company as a legacy thing that it’s meant that people kind just churning through.

(00:39:55): And one of the things I think the way software leaves its imprint on a, I think John Maer once said that Adobe, back then Adobe was the world’s art director. Now it’s kind of figma that the tools always leave their mark. And one of the things is when people are going really fast, they’ll lean into what the tool does easily and obviously not bend themselves out of shape trying to do something that’s difficult. They don’t have time. And so I think one of the things that then happens is everything starts to look the same as well. And I feel that, yeah, there is a kind of bit of institutional memory and I think design has done anyway compared to the sciences for example. I think design has done a terrible job

Peter Merholz (00:40:39): Of terrible,

Andy Polaine (00:40:41): Not just in the industry, I mean in sort of public discourse I would wage and most people have a better idea of how films get made than how design gets done. There’s a kind of script and then there’s a storyboard and then they shoot some stuff and then they edit it and they do some sort of post-production. I think most people would get that. I think people would be a lot harder pushed to understand that. I dunno why that is.

Peter Merholz (00:41:06): We’re at a point now where designed for software literally touches almost every human.

(00:41:17): This has gotten way too important and I’m not signing up to be the industry archivist or memory keeper or whatnot, but it is until we take seriously a kind of stewardship of our intellectual foundations, understanding developments, et cetera, we as an industry are going to just keep, we’re just going to stay on a hamster wheel. We’re not going to make progress. We’re just going to keep doing the same thing over and over again. I sit in these design reviews for some of my clients and they’re doing onboarding flows for signing up for an account that look identical to stuff we did 20 years ago and I’m just like, how is this still, how are we getting paid to do this now? It’s one thing if you’re getting, I’m sitting in a building, so people build buildings all the time. People are paid to build buildings, but you have codes and regulations and stuff that everybody knows what to do. So it’s fairly perfunctory and straightforward how to create a building. Most of the time

Andy Polaine (00:42:33): People know that a door is the thing to get from one room to the next

Peter Merholz (00:42:37): And you have to have certain widths and tolerances and heights and supports and all that kind of stuff as well. Understood. That should be true in our industry as well. And it’s not,

Andy Polaine (00:42:48): It’s funny isn’t it, because given the origins of pretty much digital human computer interface out of ergonomics where that really was a thing or it still is a thing of a code of this is how human beings interact with stuff in the world, we really lost our way. What would that look like, you think? I mean I know you’re not signing up to be the guardian of the design library, the world’s design library, but what do you think it would look like apart from professional bodies or accreditation?

Peter Merholz (00:43:23): Well, I think we need that. I’ve been reflecting on this a fair bit recently. One of the themes or memes that’s been happening for the last few years is how nobody can hire junior design. Nobody wants to hire junior designers. It’s hard for entry level folks in order to get

Andy Polaine (00:43:41): Junior designer with three years of experience,

Peter Merholz (00:43:44): Right, exactly. It’s hard to get established, but the issue then that I see, I mentioned these onboarding flows, you end up hiring senior and lead level designers and they’re doing onboarding flows, the only people around and that doesn’t make sense either. And so a thought I’ve been starting to socialize is this, I think we need to turn UI design for, let’s go very basic to start with visual UI design for software. We need to turn that into a trade like plumbing, being an electrician, being a contractor, a builder where you can go get in the United States, you could go get a two year degree at a community college in UI design and come out of that being hireable at any number of companies and your job will be onboarding flows and that other very just basic UI interface design that we just need truckloads of people doing in all these different contexts. In order for that to make sense though, you then need a body of work that they are learning from. That is codes and as can to architectural codes of this is is an acceptable workflow. People have to understand human information processing. There’s going to be things around things whether it’s accessibility or all those types of concerns, all of that coming into play.

(00:45:21): So you need a body of examples.

Peter Merholz (00:45:30): Design understanding, design repositories, et cetera, that are essentially, I mean I’m assuming this would be kind of ISO standard type stuff where this isn’t exactly right. Where basically what you are learning is how to design to these codes so that after two years or however long, maybe it’s three years, maybe it’s four years, I don’t know how complex it would be. You can then say, I am a credible, you can just throw me at basic software problems and I am licensed or certified or I have the credentials to do it. And because hopefully you’ve, one of the things I hope for in something like this is that you can start attracting a much more broad and diverse set of people doing this work because you lower the bar to, you don’t have to go to a fancy design school and spend 50, $60,000 a year and you’re giving people a leg up into this industry where you do that for two to five years and then yeah, maybe you’ll graduate into a different kind of what we would think of as a more on the path to strategic design type of role. And part of the reason this keeps coming up too is I work with design leaders who are realizing they need people to do that production level work and they don’t know how to solve that problem besides offshoring,

Andy Polaine (00:46:55): Right? Yeah.

Peter Merholz (00:46:56): And that’s a solution. It’s a pain in the ass though for a lot of folks to manage a team nine to 12 time zones away and all that kind of stuff. They’d rather have people more at hand that they can work with. Anyway, that’s a thought.

Andy Polaine (00:47:11): It’s funny you say this because one of the things when I was thinking about that mediocrity thing, and I’m doing that classic thing of writing an article in my head by talking about it to people was the Boeing disaster recently? Well, because I made the connection, you said the trades, I made the connection to manufacturing really. And that thing where I was saying it’s got to a point and it all seems fine. And then so why do we need all these people? And then the kind of cost cutting will start and or you offshore it and then there’s this gradual kind of, what’s the word sort crumbling of the kind of edes that there was there, but it’s not noticeable for a while. And then at some point you have this moment, why is this, are we sort of creating all this kind of shabby thing? I dunno if you read it on the Boeing stuff, but a lot of it was Boeing’s been very anti-union and so a lot of stuff’s gone offshore. It went to

Peter Merholz (00:48:19): Being an engineering driven, engineering centered culture to an MBA centered Culture, right?

Andy Polaine (00:48:23): That guy, I can’t remember his name, but said it wanted to change it from a great engineering company and run it like a business. I was like, okay.

Peter Merholz (00:48:35): Even though it had been a perfectly good business for a long time, it hadn’t been a financial instrument, it had just been a good business.

Andy Polaine (00:48:44): And a lot of the folks at the engineers at Boeing are saying, well we offshore that we lost our institutional memory because literally we let it walk out the door and then it or we outsourced it. And that’s what made me think, wonder if there’s a kind of similar thing there. I live in Germany where apprenticeships are still really a thing. So if I get someone to come and paint my house, this is someone who’s done several years of being what’s called a Marlermeister to become a Marlermeister. It’s a painter who really knows how to do quite a lot of stuff. Part of that’s also running a business, but they also, they know their craft incredibly well. And when I did renovate my house, I learned so much from those tradesmen because they were really, really good. And with it comes this thing, I was thinking as you were saying it, I can imagine lots of designers thinking, well that doesn’t sound very glamorous, but actually one of the things I really like here is

Peter Merholz (00:49:42): Design is glamorous. Well…

Andy Polaine (00:49:44): One of the things I really was going to say is I like the idea of design is

Peter Merholz (00:49:46): About glamor.

Andy Polaine (00:49:47): There is less of that kind of class thing in the UK. If you say, well I work as a plumber or there’s definitely a kind of class thing that immediately kicks in. I kind think there is in America too, but it’s not like it doesn’t exist here. There is definitely a you doctor professor, but a lot of the trades, they’re very socially I that’s going to sound really terrible, socially acceptable. They’re not looked down, recognized in the same way. Well they’re ever valued. Yeah, that’s the word. Yeah, that’s the word. And it’s,

Peter Merholz (00:50:17): It’s not blue collar versus white collar or at least not as much.

Andy Polaine (00:50:20): No, not so much. I mean it’s obviously there but much less and it makes a difference then people you get to do that stuff are really, really good. They’re really good.

Peter Merholz (00:50:29): And again, there’s tons of people who are doing, I dunno, telesales who would die to be able to do the unglamorous design that Yeah, if you went to RISD or choose your European design school, I don’t know them as well, but RCA in the UK or whatever, they couldn’t be bothered with certain things. But there’s folks who are like, yeah, sign me up. That’s way more interesting and better than trying to sell cell phone plans, which is the only other job I can find.

Andy Polaine (00:51:08): There’s a thing down the other end though, I think in leadership, and this comes up all the time in coaching obviously, which is you’ve talked about this whole thing of managing downwards, sideways and upwards and how the percentages of that change. And I think it’s fair enough for people to say, I really hate all that stakeholder management stuff and I hate all the sort admin of management. I don’t want to do that. And I think I don’t want to shame anyone. I think there’s no shame in saying, do you know principal’s where I want to go? Or I don’t want go hide. I just don’t want to do that stuff or even focus on my craft. I think that’s okay. And I think actually what you just described would give a better pathway to that of someone being really, really, really high at their craft and then being the kind of mentor for other people. But on the other side, there’s also the kind of, you can’t get away from stakeholder management and wrangling and interacting and all that stuff is part of the leadership role. Right.

Peter Merholz (00:52:06): Well, I mean something I reflected on recently, I attended this design leadership summit in Toronto last week and this came up is design is still taught as if the people who graduate from a design program are going to work at an agency and are going to work in a context where they can really focus on the craft and they can focus on process and methodology and that excellence will be what is rewarded. Whereas in the United States, at least 95, maybe more percent of people graduating from these programs are working in-house where half the job of any function at a company, not just design half the job is stakeholder management. It’s relationships with other people and navigating this space and designers are just not even ill-equipped. They are unequipped to handle that reality. Getting to the point where I’m like, they shouldn’t teach digital, I don’t think they should teach things like UX and digital product design and design at art schools. They should just remove that from that program because they’re setting those people up for pain. It should only be taught at business schools or in engineering programs or somewhere where there’s some recognition of the reality of the work that you are going to be doing.

Andy Polaine (00:53:35): I’m very proud to say I teach a masters of service design in Switzerland in Luzern, and there we have in that a whole suite of courses, you might call them modules depending on where you come from. They’re called leading conversations and it’s basically all that. And it was exactly that thing of this is the stuff you don’t normally get taught in design school

Peter Merholz (00:53:57): And service design. If you didn’t do that, you wouldn’t be credible because the only way for service design to be realized is through the manipulation of the organization.

Andy Polaine (00:54:07): Absolutely. Yeah. So look, I feel like I should be saying thank you for listening to two old guys go on about the problem with design, but it is been fascinating and very insightful. We are hitting time. There’s one final question. As you know, the show is named after the powers of 10 filmed by Ray Charles Eames and different zoom levels. The question is what one small thing is either overlooked or should be redesigned or could be redesigned that would have an outsized effect on the world?

Peter Merholz (00:54:47): My problem is, I want to say democracy, which is not a small thing, not

Andy Polaine (00:54:52): A small thing. No, no,

Peter Merholz (00:54:54): But maybe there’s something so it’s not quite the right, it’s a different way in. I’m assuming you’re familiar with Dan Hill. Yeah, yeah,

Andy Polaine (00:55:06): He’s great.

Peter Merholz (00:55:06): I saw a talk he gave recently. He’s now in Australia working I think in a kind of quasi-governmental or NGO capacity there. After having worked at these, he worked at a, but then he also worked in these innovation centers in places in Europe that had this kind of government purchase. And the thing that I took away from his talk more than anything else is the most important thing that he designed was not the final product. So this was urban planning stuff and I remember, I think there was a kiosk in a park for selling certain items, it doesn’t matter, those details don’t matter or being able to sell, actually being able to sell out of your home.

(00:55:55): And the most impactful thing was not the end product, this new designed experience. It was that they changed the code, the regulatory code to enable new kinds of designs to exist that were going to be more citizen centered and friendlier. But this recognition as he went through his design process that the problem citizen experience out there in the world, the problem was the process by which we arrive at that had these bugs, at least in terms of what they wanted to be able, the impact they wanted to be able to have and to recognize we need to focus on how communities, how societies enable or disable certain decision making. And so shifting that focus, if there wasn’t a real applied focus from a design lens on these types of processes, civic design types of stuff, I think you could have an outsized impact for fairly, there’s still a lot of politicking and work to go through, but fairly little effort or cognitive effort. You just need to change that lens and layer at which you’re focusing and instead of focusing on that end product, focus on the system and just a couple little pieces in the system that will allow the end product that you want to emerge.

Andy Polaine (00:57:39): Right. Very good. We’ve sort of talked around architecture quite a lot actually today, and I think there’s probably quite a lot to learn from that. I was thinking when you were talking about people doing onboarding process and stuff, have a friend who trained to become an architect and in his first job, literally his first couple of years, I said, how’s it going? He said, well, I’ve been designing a lot of doorframes or guttering and things like that was, there was a lot of that before he got to do the kind of big building or somewhere and things like that. But there’s also, it’s a recognized accredited discipline and trade and all that thing. But there’s also this idea that if you don’t do that stuff, people get hurt. Right? Things go wrong. And I feel that’s a thing that’s really missing. Lou Down actually said this about services. They said that there’s so many broken services. If these things were physical products, they would be recalled. And as you said, these things are at the center of our lives and they touch most people

Peter Merholz (00:58:38): Well and kind of shifting even from architecture to planning essentially how do we enable, how do we get cars off streets and create spaces for more other forms of transit and travel? How do we in the United States, how do, and this seems to be true all over the world, but how do we build housing and enable folks, it’s not just single family homes. How do we discourage suburban or suburbanization and all that kind of stuff. It’s in the design of of that planning practice that I think little things will end up having these outsized impacts.

Andy Polaine (00:59:26): Very good. Stuart Brand learn is a good one for that too.

Peter Merholz (00:59:32): Actually my 15-year-old son a few months ago came to me and said, I think I want to be an urban planner. And I asked him what, how, why, and what had happened is he’d gotten new urbanist pilled by YouTube. We’re all afraid that our kids are going to go down these weird alt-right rabbit holes and instead my kid is watching not just bikes and city beautiful and now wants to remake the world car-free, appropriate density, 15 minute cities, all that kind of stuff. So I actually feel good about that.

Andy Polaine (01:00:08): Yeah, that’s pretty hopeful. That’s nice to hear. Hey, where can people find you online? You’re at Peter Merholz. I see you on

Peter Merholz (01:00:15): That’s my professional website. I semi-regularly post my thinking there. Articles, blog posts, that kind of stuff around leadership and organization design. And then the other place that I hang out a lot is LinkedIn. Just my name, Peter Merholz, you can follow me there. More thoughts. I also teach classes and I have my own podcast and so all the announcements for those kinds of things are always shared on LinkedIn.

Andy Polaine (01:00:50): You’re on Mastodon, aren’t you?

Peter Merholz (01:00:53): I am on Mastodon. I don’t use that in any serious business way.

Andy Polaine (01:00:59): Are you on any of the others?

Peter Merholz (01:00:59): That’s become this little kind of Twitter replacement for silliness and memes and this thing I like,

Andy Polaine (01:01:05): It reminds me of Twitter in the very early days. Yeah.

Peter Merholz (01:01:09): Yeah. It,

Andy Polaine (01:01:10): You know,

Peter Merholz (01:01:12): Low key, low low heat.

Andy Polaine (01:01:15): Yeah, it’s much more water cooler,

Peter Merholz (01:01:17): Which is fine by me

Andy Polaine (01:01:18): Yeah. Yeah. I like, it gives me, I feel a bit more there

Peter Merholz (01:01:22): I’m S fba, San Francisco Bay Area. Do social, ah,

Andy Polaine (01:01:29): Is that what it stands for? Okay. I wondered. Yes. Thank you so much for being my guest on Power of Ten.

Peter Merholz (01:01:34): My pleasure, Andy. Thank you for having me.

Andy Polaine (01:01:37): You have been watching, and listening to in fact, Power of Ten. You can find more about the show on where you’ll find, you can find my leadership coaching practice online courses and all newsletter doctor’s note. If you have any thoughts, you can put them in the comments on YouTube or I’ll just get in touch you or find me as I’m apolaine, A-P-O-L-A-I-N-E on on Mastodon, and we’ll put all the links in the show notes. Thanks for listening and watching and I’ll see you next time.