3 Design Takeaways from 99U

Emily Hurley | 10/23/2019

Recently I had the pleasure of attending the annual 99U conference in the city of dreams, New York City. “99U” stems from the Thomas Edison quote, “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” If you’re unfamiliar, 99U is a career conference for those in the creative field that provides inspiration and guidance on team leadership and productivity, and empowers creatives to take charge of their careers. The event encouraged attendees from around the world to face the design challenges of our future, together.

In the creative space, it’s a really exciting time to be alive. This message transcended throughout various keynote speeches, workshops and master classes loud and clear: creativity is future-proof. With the rapid growth and transformation in technology due to AI and machine learning, AR/VR, blockchain and beyond, it’s critical to understand that creativity is limitless and that we are ultimately tasked with rethinking and shaping the overall human experience as we know it.

And so with great power comes great responsibility; design is, at its core, human, global and technology-agnostic. None of us is perfect, so it should come as no surprise that this ultimately creates a few fatal flaws within the practice:

  • Design can be biased
  • Design can be exclusive
  • Design can be restrictive

As a user-centered design studio focused on digital experiences, we always keep users top of mind in our work. It’s easy to get hung up on the painstakingly nitty-gritty details of screen design, but at the end of the day, UX is more than just an experience with an interface — it’s a mindset. UX is what happens before, during and after interacting with a product. It’s how that product fits within the ecosystem of what it’s used for and how it impacts society as a whole. Does it accommodate all types of people, or does it only work for a specific user group? Does it exercise empathy? Is it innately human? Does it address all its users’ needs? Is it scalable and durable enough to stand the test of time?

These are all questions that we carefully consider throughout our design process. Add clients into the mix, and sometimes the ask might not fully align with user-centered values. As UX experts, part of our job is to advocate for the best experience.

Here are a few key takeaways from the conference that can help:

  1. Be empathetic.

    This is a guiding principle in our studio. When designing for users, we must put ourselves in the shoes of those users to understand their wants and needs. We use research to gain insight and support and inform design throughout the process. A little understanding goes a long way.

  2. Be curious and vulnerable.

    Asking questions is the first step to practicing empathy. At our studio, we conduct user interviews, perform usability testing on concepts to fully developed products, and collect data and information through a range of research tactics at various stages in our process. It’s no secret that we live in a fast-paced world and therefore, assumptions can be easily made and products can be pushed out the door too quickly. However, this exact scenario is where the biggest mistakes can happen and wind up having a negative impact far beyond intention. Vulnerability may be a scary thing, but is absolutely necessary to obtain critical answers that might make or break an entire experience. Take the time to ask questions, dig deep into understanding, and evaluate. Be open to criticism and failing once or twice.

  3. Do the right thing.

    This is somewhat of a double-edged sword when you really think about it. The future of technology can be a controversial topic … I mean, have you seen the showBlack Mirror? It’s inevitable that design can be used for some really bad things. This is why we need to understand the power that we hold in design and how all of our choices can have an impact at large. Be intentional. Here at EY Design Studio PHL, we stick to this idea through our core set of values that we live and breathe every day.

Although these key takeaways may seem fairly obvious, they are often overlooked. By remembering these guiding principles, designers will be ready to take a step toward changing the future in a positive way. As creatives, part of our responsibility is to generate awareness and an open environment to share ideas, encourage one another, embrace failure and learn from our mistakes. And if we can all do a little bit more of that, I am confident that we can build a better future together.