Product design: More art than science

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Long before the television series Bridezilla, Netflix’s director of product design, Andrew Law learned the hard way that there’s nothing more fearsome than an unhappy bride-to-be. It all started with a wedding invitation.

“It was my first job as a graphic designer to make a wedding invitation for a friend of a friend,” says Law, who was nineteen years old at the time. “I thought I did a great job with the project. I thought the client and I were on the same page. But I quickly discovered we were worlds apart in what she expected.”
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Andrew Law, director of product design, Netflix
Law says he felt crushed by the failure at the time, but through that experience, he learned about setting expectations, having empathy, and growing from his mistakes. 
Designing with empathy 
“I learned a lot about empathy through that and other design projects. I’ve seen that empathy is a muscle, and just like any other it can be build stronger and shaped over time. It’s more than just walking a mile in another person’s shoes, it’s nuanced and extremely complicated.”
As the head of mobile design for Netflix, it’s a lesson that’s served Law well. With more than 125 million people in over 190 countries, the sheer diversity of needs and circumstances mean a ‘one size fits all’ design approach would never work. 
The fact that the streaming giant has achieved a 43% year-over-year jump in streaming revenue underscores the company’s ability to successfully appeal to multiple markets, particularly in the dominant mobile phone markets.
“I was born and raised here in the Bay area in the U.S., where I am surrounded by technology and innovation. It has shaped my view of the world, but I am now responsible for a global product and that requires me to empathise with people I’ve never met, living lives very different to my own,” says Law.
“Living in the Bay area, how do you design a compelling user interface for somebody living in Mumbai or Singapore? And how do you synthesise those learnings and impart empathy to the rest of the team?”
“This is the biggest challenge to the success of my team” says Law. 
You’re going to make mistakes
Law has also learned to be realistic. 
“I would love any product I help to create to be well received around the world, but what we aspire to is never the reality. This means I need to prioritise features through the size and impact of the opportunity.” 
“The Download feature is a good example of this because even though the largest opportunity for downloading usage was outside of the United States, it could still benefit those inside it for a completely different use case,” says Law.
“In the United States, connectivity is a challenge mostly on an airplane or long road trip, but in India people can spend an hour-and-a-half in traffic everyday where they are unlikely to have reliable data service. This means downloading is a greater priority in India than it is in the United States and the UI should be optimised for the India case.”
Observation and Deductive Reasoning
“Fortunately, a mistake in my industry isn’t a question of life and death. Choosing the wrong typography isn’t going to land somebody in a life or death scenario. We do, however, have to be ready to try things that might make me and the team uncomfortable. We have to make big innovative bets—the success of our company depends on it.”
The ability to learn from his mistakes has served Law well over the years. “I remember I designed a workout app without attempting to understand the end user. When my client reacted poorly, I realised I wasn’t designing something to be functional; I was designing it to be pretty,” says Law.
He took a notepad and visited local gyms where he talked to people working out and observed their behavior. It didn’t take Law long to realise that people working out don’t have much time to count their repetitions.
The workout app’s dashboard was elegant, but not useful. The buttons were too small and hard to tap, and various modes weren’t compatible with the user experience.
“Once I understood the problem set I was trying to design for, I went back and redid everything. Good design, for me, now starts with observation and trying to understand the problem. Then I’ll synthesise it into a meaningful and actionable task.” 
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The designer's key to successful business
“The other important factor in the equation is that we are designing for the Netflix business as well, so commercial metrics are just as important. Finding the balance is what I am for.”
Laws knows the designer is not solely an artist. At Netflix, they sit in the cross-section between creating a space that lets the content really sing in a meaningful way for both the user and the business.
“If you look at companies like Apple and Airbnb, they are design-driven and design led, and this has made them more successful. We’re seeing that design is as impactful to business as engineering – it’s not just a soft function anymore. It’s what drives people to use and love our products.”
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