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Interview with Ruth Kikin-Gil – Digital Design Innovator

Ruth Kikin-Gil is a design strategist, digital product designer, and a practical dreamer who focuses on product innovation across devices, input methods and platforms. She spent the last nine years at Microsoft working in an innovation lab, on a strategy team, and now on future experiences in Office. In addition, she lectures at the HCDE department at the University of Washington, Seattle. Before Microsoft, she co-founded a digital product design agency in Tel-Aviv, was the corporate art director of a startup, worked for Nokia in Helsinki, freelanced in London, and earned her Interaction Design Master degree from IDII in Italy. She’s interested in the interplay between society and technology, and the ways in which people appropriate technology in unexpected ways. She explores how existing social interactions and behaviors can be supported or transformed by technology and influence the creation of new products and services.

Q: POWER in design is…

A: Design is powerful because it solves problems, big and small. Power in design is its ability to improve and change lives, as well as to oppress and limit. The way it plays out is in the hands of the designers.

Design is everywhere and touches everything. Every object, product, technology, is designed by default. You can’t bring something into this world without shaping its form and behavior first. If something is designed well, with good intentions and with a follow through on those intentions, it creates beauty and positive change.

If no one thought about what an object looks like, what happens when people interact with it, or how it will impact the world—it is already designed by default and therefore careless and potentially harmful. This is why designers have responsibility that’s built into the profession—to understand the power we have in our hands, and to use this power for good.

Q: What are three implications of design power that you have encountered?

A: Good design can bring awareness to important social issues, like the protest posters of the French collective Grapus in the 1970’s, or projects like “They Rule” that exposed the power/money connections among the US’s ruling class in the mid-to-late aughts.

OXO’s Good Grips household products are created to enable everyone, even if they suffer from arthritis or have other issues using their hands, to work with them comfortably. Similar thinking was applied to Microsoft’s Seeing AI—an app designed with low-vision users in mind which narrates the world around them, such as reading menus or newspapers. Both examples demonstrate the power of design to improve lives.

Power in design also means helping people be healthier by tracking their steps and eating habits, connecting with loved ones through video chats, or empowering anyone with internet access to get educated with initiatives like Khan Academy.

Q: When have you had powerful impact through design?

A: Office has 1.2Billion users, and therefore working at Office means that everything you do impacts hundreds of millions of users. I worked on making the shift from the desktop version of Word to the Tablet version, and later, to mobile. Each had it’s own challenges, each had huge impact, and changed how people worked. One of my favorite examples is Office’s Contextual CommandBar. The goal of this feature, which introduced a new commanding paradigm for Office‘s mobile apps, was to enable people to take advantage of their mobile phones and work everywhere, efficiently and without context switching.

The screen on mobile phones is small, and though much of Office’s functionality was there on the phone, it was hard to reach, and required switching from one context (writing, thinking) to another (formatting, for example). The Contextual CommandBar is always present, and always presents the right command for a certain context such as writing text, manipulating an image, or editing a table.

The result was that people suddenly discovered that they can write and edit, and not just consume documents on their phone, making the most of their time when mobile. Telemetry showed us that they were taking advantage of this opportunity to do more, on their terms, when the timing worked for them. This made a change in millions of people’s lives.

The Contextual CommandBar in Word iOS – Text as context (Left), Image as context (Right)

Q: Who inspires you?

A: One big influence on my thinking as a designer was the visionary Mark Weiser of Xerox Park. Weiser was the father of ubiquitous computing, today known as iOT. I think of him as a technology poet. He advocated for what he called “Calm technology”—a vision of technology that disappears into the background and leaves the focus on what a person wants to do: on the task, the purpose, the aspiration. The technology is secondary and unobtrusive. This idea influenced my thinking about designing with technology, and is always an inspiration. With an optimistic outlook, he offered this metaphor for what technology should be like: “Our computers should be like our childhood: an invisible foundation that is quickly forgotten but always with us, and effortlessly used throughout our lives.”

Philip K.Dick is another great influence. A brilliant writer, always exploring dystopian futures. From him I learned to question technology for technology’s sake. His dark scenarios inspire me to think of the bigger picture of whatever it is that I design—to take into account not only the optimistic narratives of a product, but to look at the dark side and potential pitfalls, and try to address them before they happen.

Q: How did you get into design?

A: The short answer is that I was always there, but here is also a longer one that I’ll share with you: ever since I was a small kid I drew and painted and created things. Creation and self-expression were always part of who I was.

In high school, I majored in art and graphic design and I remember it was the obvious thing for me to do, it felt like a natural choice. I did have a hard time deciding on my Bachelor degree—I was torn between art, industrial design and visual communication. After much deliberation, and excruciating screening process and interviews, I was accepted to Bezalel academy of art and design in Jerusalem to study Visual communication. I thought that I’ve arrived. But after interning at a leading branding agency, I realized that what I really wanted to do is interactive media.

These were the early days of the field and the focus was on CD-ROMs (look it up). About a year after graduating, I started working at a small boutique company in Tel-Aviv that created CD-ROMs for the international market including companies like Hasbro, NewsCorp and Broderbund. After a while, the company, Zapa Digital Arts, pivoted and we became a start-up working on a bunch of crazy ideas. Everything was new, all the time, and we just had to figure out how to design for everything. What can I say, we made things up as we went, and much of it turned out to be pretty good: figuring out design and navigation for 3D worlds (VRML anyone?) or coming up with an authoring tool with advanced animation features and a unique visual interface that allowed novices to create mini movies for the Web in the pre-flash era.

When I left I was the corporate art director, and took all my learnings and experience to co-found my own company—Max Interactive. We were a digital product design agency, and our services included everything from strategy to icons. As the company grew, the projects became more complex and our clients became more diverse, I had a second realization—I became interested in the design process, and in human creativity. I wanted to understand and explore these topics and have the bandwidth to spend time and think deeply about them. I went back to school for my Masters degree in Interaction design. Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (IDII) in Italy was the perfect place to explore and experiment. Service design, ubiquitous computing, design thinking—it was like a candy store for a hungry mind. People like IDEO’s Bill Moggridge, Nathan Shedroff, John Thakara and Don Norman were involved in the school, and I got my fix for process, as well as many hands-on experiences with physical computing which resulted in my thesis project.

(Fast forwarding through Nokia in Helsinki, freelancing in London and working for Microsoft in Seattle.) In the past three years, I started giving back to the younger designer generation by teaching and sharing my experience and insights with students in the HCDE department at UW, and bringing them into the rich and amazing world of design.

Q: Describe your creative process.

A: For me, everything begins with people. Before I start working on anything I need to understand who is it for, and what value does it bring to the prospective audience. I use various techniques to find that out. Sometimes I do it myself, but mostly it’s a collaboration with colleagues from other disciplines. This part is critical because much of the decision-making is based on who the target user is—what are her needs, her habits, the things that delight her, her pain points—and a big part of the design process is trying to create a solution that will answer those needs.

The other two things that are important to understand are the business goals—what are we trying to achieve from the company’s perspective, and how can the design contribute to accomplishing those goals. Understanding the technology is the third thing—design thrives on constrains, and technology helps design thrive, but it also presents design with opportunities to explore new things based on its capabilities.

Through all these investigations (that some of them may result in design artifacts that are used to explore a topic and get to an answer) I develop a perspective on what the solution should be.

Users are always welcomed to the process—we use them as a sounding board to test ideas, assumptions, and prototypes. Listening to, and learning from the users is essential. But in the end, you are the one that’s designing the product. So every designer should stop, reflect, and form an articulated point of view about the product and its basic characteristics. You’ll earn your colleagues’ respect for not only bringing in the facts but also giving direction about what to do based on these facts. This is leadership with design. User-centered design doesn’t mean doing what your users tell you. It’s about listening to them, then applying filters and insights that come from a range of other sources (including your experience) and creating something new that they might have not thought about, but they will still love. Sometimes it means going further and generating something new based on what the users have said—creating an interpretation that doesn’t exist in the facts, but is inspired by them. This is an opportunity to innovate and to bring fresh thinking to the solution.

To get to the initial concepts we frequently use a method called “design sprint,” or “design jam,” which is an idea-generating technique that moves quickly from the high-level ideation phase to coming up with concrete scenarios and quick and dirty prototypes. This process helps us explore different directions in a short amount of time, and build a vision for a product or a feature.

The important thing for me throughout the process is to keep an open mind, and to not fall in love with any idea too much. Always be willing to change course if the evidence indicate it’s not a good one. I embrace ambiguity, and find joy in the explorations that eventually bring clarity to the process and to the final result.

Learn more about Ruth’s work:
Twitter  – @ruthkikingil
LinkedIn  – Ruth Kikin-Gil

Be sure to see Ruth at the SDF2017 Technology Design Discussions presented by Microsoft as Moderator for panel discussion Humanity-Centered Design: How Ethics Will Change AI.