Students of the class of 2017...

By Harry Harrold

(Specifically, those of you on the BSc user experience design or interaction design courses at Norwich University of the Arts to be honest. It's a comparatively tightly focused rant, is this.)

I am jealous of you.

Not just in the usual, shallow, way the aged are generally jealous of the young.

Not simply in the way of one who finds to their mild disbelief that they went to university 30 years ago and wonders how that happened.

But in the way of someone who wishes that they'd had the chance to do a Bsc in Design. A degree in the considered construction of creative solutions. A degree which declares in its very acronym that you might consider there's science to the activity of design and that that attitude is of sufficient value to be recognised.

Your interest, your chosen profession, your vocation if you want, is on a pendulum's swing.

It has swung from design as art, where the assertion by a designer that this was a good design was sufficient for a customer to nod and take their word for it, perhaps with a shared joke that "half my advertising spend is wasted but I don't know which half.". It's gone from the hypothesis that design is simply an art.

It has just left the antithesis of design as art, design by data. Local optimisation might have been the thing that killed that, and I'm not even sure it even existed in reality much. It has just reached the moment where design as process is breaking against the rocks.

(And if you want more on this - this tweet from Sarah Drummond at Snook will lead you on the way.)

And it is just heading back towards a synthesis. Somewhere in between. I suspect both the artists and the data-driven will tell you that that's been the way good design has worked all along. Look at them suspiciously. I've heard "Because I'm a designer" to justify the primacy of personal taste, and "Because that's what the numbers say" from folk whose knowledge of statistics I didn't trust so much.

I'm not sure what - specifically - the synthesis will be. Maybe it'll say that a quantitative approach might tell you where a design might have problems, but you need an artist to tell you how to solve that problem. I hope and believe it'll be flexible. Whatever. I'd be extremely surprised if a driving concern for people and the situations they are in when they encounter the product of a design process aren't at the heart of it.

So, if I can give you one piece of advice, it would be to take great care over your user research.

(And if you want more on that - Leisa Reichelt's reading list is the place to start. Absolutely essential reading, every week.)

Not only that, but the tools you have at your command are becoming ever more sophisticated, and their possible integrations ever deeper. I'd be surprised if you are being asked to "design websites" much by the time you hit your first job, let alone further into the future. Organisations I talk to have learned from "we need an app." and the money they wasted on yet another narrow-beam of contact with a customer. They're treating the many different forms of contact they might have as a whole, and looking to jump from voice to chat to app to web to augmented reality in the course of a single encounter, and using that as the start-point for the next.

So, if you want another piece of advice, read more sci-fi. Preserve us from the cult of "out of the box" thinking that simply glorifies the new, but don't be bounded by the screen, let alone the static. Pixels are not your medium, code is. If I show up to your degree show, and I see nothing moving, if I simply see single moments in a journey, I'll be deeply disappointed. It might sound trite - hell it does - but you will be designing experiences. Try to focus them on people, and what they think and feel and find useful.

Try not to design dystopia in to what you produce, and treat your next three years as a damned good start to a lifetime's learning.

(As it happens, I managed to leave university 27 years ago, and I left with a BA in a scientific subject. They used to say my writing verged on the pretentious. Not much has changed.)