The evolution of the design discipline

I’m not a designer by trade (which means I have never been to design school or worked as a designer professionally), but I spend a lot of time designing things – websites, apps, experiences, presentations, flyers, posters and so on. The tools and resources needed to design beautiful things are more accessible than they have ever been before.

But what does this mean for designers? I mean, for people who call themselves designers; who are designers by profession?

I don’t think the design discipline is at risk of disappearing; of being absorbed by the greater masses. It is, however, becoming increasingly democratised and accessible. The lines between amateur and professional are blurred. That doesn’t force the designer into another profession – but it does force the designer to articulate his value in ways that differentiate him from the crowd.

Try this for a parallel: take a look at journalism. Journalism was also once a ‘closed system’, now it is hugely open and accessible. Journalism once required a degree in arts, journalism or literature, and your career started in the pit of some local rag newspaper writing articles by the thousands on local fairs, traffic jams and pub brawls. Now anyone has the ability to write something that reaches a million people instantly – and you don’t even need to be able to write a grammatically correct sentence to do it.

Modern forms of democratised media are changing traditional print journalism in big and irreversible ways – a situation nobody denies but nobody has a solution for. Partly because, I think, there is no ‘solution’. This isn’t a problem to be solved – it’s evolution.

What enabled this disruption? The internet, of course. But abstract it a different way and you see it was enabled by ubiquitous access to tools; tools that facilitate both creation and distribution.

Do should journalists start worrying about their jobs? Will they be replaced by citizen journalists and bloggers and twitterers? Maybe… it’s clearly happening faster than they think. Sure, a random blogger sitting in their bedroom cannot replace the TIME journalist who goes behind the lines in Afghanistan, Syria or wherever. But when a witness to a disaster or tragedy can upload a video to YouTube in seconds (think the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria), the role of that TIME journalist changes.

There’s another example that you might not have thought of: software engineering. Back in “my day”, you needed a computer engineering degree to write software (I know, I have one). Code was complicated and inaccessible. Now, anyone can write an app or build a website in minutes. There are frameworks and programs that let you build an app with a WYSIWYG interface and publish it directly to the store. There are code camps for designers and even code camps for CEOs.

So as a software engineer, does this make your profession less valuable? Maybe, maybe not. Right now there’s enough complexity in the growing infrastructure to keep plenty of software engineers busy (someone needs to build the frameworks and WYSIWYG editors, right?). But what it certainly means is that the lines between amateur and professional are becoming blurred. And why? Tools: tools that facilitate creation and distribution.

We can debate for hours whether using a WYSIWYG application framework to publish an app makes you a ‘software engineer’ or not. But in the end, does it matter? If the goal was to publish a well-crafted, functioning app, who cares if you’re a ‘software engineer’ or not?

So too with design. Like with software and journalism, the tools for the production of design, the availability of resources and materials and means for distribution have made design an accessible discipline. The lines between amateur and professional have blurred.

If I was an automobile designer, I wouldn’t be too worried that the average joe would put my job at risk. Yet. But what about the future? Imagine a time when you can design and build your own car with special software and a 3D printer? What role does the automobile designer have then? Would there still be automobile designers?

Professions evolve. You had to be a computer scientist to operate the first computers, now there’s one in your pocket. I also hear there used to be a profession called “Typesetter”. Where are they now?

My point is not that design is at risk of becoming extinct… on the contrary. Design is growing, evolving – it’s reaching the masses.

So where does that leave designers? I’d say: learn the lesson the journalists struggled to learn: lamenting the state of things and reminiscing on the days when only a ‘designer’ could design won’t stop help you any more than it helped the Typesetters. Embrace the evolution – see it as an opportunity to influence how millions (billions?) of people design, create and enjoy the world around them.

On monetising consumer experiences

At this weekend’s Product Camp in Berlin I held an interesting session on Monetising Consumer Experiences. The discussion was good and we had great input and perspectives from everyone in the room.

Here are my notes from the session:

Why do we care?

Every product manager needs to understand their business model. Remember, an idea is not a product – and it’s certainly not a business. Irrespective of who ‘owns’ business strategy in your organisation – whether it’s you, your CEO or a distant corporate strategy department – it’s critical that you understand the complete business model your product is a part of. A customer’s journey through your product doesn’t just start at the welcome screen of your app, website or whatever.

Monetisation models

  • User pays
    • Pay once per app/device/download
      The user pays one fee for each device they install the app on. Example: Angry Birds. The three main mobile ecosystems all have payment platforms built in, but beware: they’ll all take their 30% pound of flesh on every transaction.
    • Pay once for all devices
      The user pays once, and can use the app on any device they choose. Example: Diablo 3, or generally media content like eBooks or music.
    • Subscription
      The user pays a recurring fee which generally allows the user to access the app or service on any device. This model is most often seen with services, such as Evernote – but also traditional apps like Feedly have adopted the model.
  • In-app advertising
    The mainstay of traditional app monetisation. All three major mobile ecosystems offer an ad platform as part of the SDK, allowing app developers really easy access to ad content and revenue.
  • Demo/Trial
    Make your app available to users for free with a limited feature set, for a limited time, or a combination of both. The idea is to make the value of your app available in advance to make it easier for users to know what they’re in for and to help with the purchase decision. This method is great for apps or services where the value is hard to imagine/quantify without actually experiencing it.
  • Freemium
    In contrast to the demo/trial model, the freemium model aims to give all users a fully-functional, completely free app or service. The monetisation lies in the percentage of users who are willing to pay for a premium level of service. Here Evernote is another great example. Everyone has access to the basic app and service model, all for free. Those interested in the range of ‘power features’ pay a yearly subscription fee. Another example is Spotify.
  • Commission/Referrals
    • Lead generation
      If your product can identify sales leads for another organisation, you might be able to sell those qualified sales leads to other interested parties.
    • Affiliate model
      Take a commission/fee for forwarding a consumer who makes a purchase. There are many examples of this in the travel industry, where websites or products referring consumers who purchase a flight or a hotel take a percentage share of the revenue. Another example is Amazon, where as an ‘Amazon affiliate’ you can earn a small commission when you refer an Amazon product to a customer who buys it. This is also a model being used by Pinterest to monetise, where by the Pinterest experience is used not just as a product discovery portal, but also connects consumers with retailers (online and offline) who sell the product.
  • Content/Data monetisation
    If you can generate market insights through the usage of your data, you might be able to sell that to other companies or advertisers.
  • Bundling
    Group additional similar services together to increase the overall value, such that you can reach a point where a consumer is more likely/able to pay. A great recent example: Amazon’s planned Matchbook service, which bundles traditional print copies of books with their eBook equivalent for free or for a nominal fee.
  • Donations
    Popular among indie developers, you can try appealing to your users’ sense of charity.
  • Licencing
    If your product can fill a need within another company’s product portfolio, perhaps you can provide your app or experience as a white-label offer for a licence fee.

Whatever strategy you use, each requires you to understand where the value is, and what value a user is likely to be willing to pay for.

Also remember to ‘zoom’ out and look at the broader ecosystem. Who else is benefiting from your product? Who else should, or could, pay?


  • Everybody wants free.
  • You need traffic before you can monetise it.
  • Changing or updating existing business models can cannibalise existing business.
  • Advertising
    • Old methods of presenting online or in-app advertising are becoming less effective.
    • UX designers and even product managers generally don’t like advertising in their products (ok, this is a gross generalisation), and there is often a perception that in-experience advertising degrades the quality of the experience for the user.
    • Hyper-targeted advertising appears to be the silver bullet for marketers, but is it all it’s cracked up to be?
      • Effective targeting is hard. Real hard. Even if you’re facebook – and most of us aren’t – the best targeting is nothing more than an estimated guess. The mobile marketer’s wet dream is the case: It’s 8:30am and sunny. You’re on the way to work. We know you like coffee in the morning, and there is a cafe just one block away that your friend really likes, and they have a deal right now. Ping! Your mobile sends you a notification that solves your need not only for coffee, but a new cafe, before you even knew you were thirsty. The problem? We don’t know that you want a coffee – we can only guess. If you don’t want a coffee right then in that moment, then that notification is just more noise that you’re likely to quickly disable.
      • Do people really want to be hyper-targeted? Lots of evidence and many studies point to increasing consumer distrust of services who try to know people better than they know themselves, especially when that knowledge is used to push products and services.

Monetisation at ProductCamp Berlin 2013

UPDATE: Added Amazon Matchbook service as example of Bundling.