Erik Flowers, Principal Service Designer at Intuit
Erik Flowers is the Principal Service Designer at Intuit. If you aren’t familiar with Intuit, you’re probably familiar with at least a few of their products, including QuickBooks, TurboTax, or Mint. He also maintains a highly informative and influential blog about his experience as a Service Designer.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself & your background.
I have spent the last 20+ years glued to a computer almost every day, writing or designing or messing with some aspect of technology or another. Professionally, I started worked as a real web designer at 17 years old in 1998, and have done it ever since. I’ve never had a job that wasn’t in design. It’s a little scary. I was working full time as a designer, making $6.50 an hour, before ever stepping foot in a college or getting any sort of training. I don’t know anything else. Up until working at Intuit, I was never officially a service designer, and that wasn’t even really a term. This is the first time that I’ve been able to carry that title and focus on that aspect of design.
When did you first realize you wanted to become a designer?
I sort of grew into it from a young age. I didn’t actually have a computer when I was a young kid. A lot of people’s parents might have had a Commodore 64 or old Macintosh from the 80’s, but my family wasn’t tech savvy. When I was maybe 10 or 12, I had an electric typewriter I would write short stories with, using it as a creative device. Eventually I was able to talk my mom into getting me a 386, a Windows 3.1 computer. With that, I kept writing stories, but now could play with illustration and graphics.
A few years later, I got a Windows 95 Pentium computer which unlocked a whole lot more design options. And things just progressed from there, I was always writing or drawing. There was never really a time I decided to be a designer, I just slowly became one in my early teens.
What was your first design job? Any interesting stories about how you broke in?
I’ve only ever had design/tech jobs. My first real job, I was 15 years old, was working as an IT Network assistant, just doing basic things like connecting computers to networks, setting up workstations, etc. Entry level IT. At the same time, I was able to mess around with HTML and some graphics for the company website. I had no idea what I was doing, but neither did anyone else, so the aesthetic of the design didn’t matter. At this job, I still remember the day someone called me over to a computer to show me how Photoshop had this new feature called “layers.”
My actual, full time web designer job came when I had just turned 17, working for a 4-person agency in 1998. It was the heyday of the dot-com 1.0, and the day after 11th grade ended, I started work there full time as the single web designer who worked with the single programmer. I never went back to high school, I dropped out to continue working and pursue college. Best decision I ever made. I did get a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology a few years later.
As far as how I got the first job — I just saw it advertised and I brought in a single JPG image of a jet-skier on a weird, wavy background and covered in bubbles I probably made in Kai’s Power Tools in Photoshop. It was proof enough I could use Photoshop, and I also knew how to use FrontPage to do HTML. They were sold.
Please describe a normal day at your current job. What’s the workflow like? What are your primary responsibilities?
Working in a very large company, my normal day consists of a lot of correspondence, meetings, and “setting things up” for future work.
Service Design is a lot different than just doing traditional design, as I don’t really design things that are tangible. Most of the workflow is around defining customer pain and problems with my partners in the product and customer care organization, and then gathering everyone together for big working sessions where we service-blueprint the use cases and look for ways to fix or optimize the experience from an outside-in perspective. When we find ways to fix the experience, the solutions are then translated by the product managers into requirements that the UX and interaction designers then solve via their tangible set of skills.
So really, my primary responsibilities today are teaching the organization how to work more end-to-end, and how to incorporate service design methods into how they work. And in parallel to that, keeping my own projects moving forward so that the methods I’m trying to teach and develop here can prove themselves out. It’s a much different job than any I’ve had before, being so far removed from tangible interfaces and products, and focused almost solely on end-to-end customer experiences instead.
Are there any memorable war stories, client interactions or close calls that have really stuck with you over the years? An event that taught you something important about workflow or how the industry actually works?
There are so many things. I’ll just rattle off some that come to my head, as I am guessing they’ve stuck with me this long is because they were so impactful.
One of the things my first boss taught me was the hairy-arm principle. There is a legend attributed to various classic painters where when doing portraits, they would paint an arm with arm hair that was too noticeable. When the person commissioning the painting got a look at it, they would be drawn to that and comment on the hairy-arm, giving them something easy to critique so they felt they were contributing. It’s a little sneaky, throwing in a hairy arm to keep people from running wild.
While being a freelancer, I would give people a price on work that I thought long and hard about and felt was fair. One time, a potential client got the price during an in-person visit, and tried to knock it down a few hundred bucks. I think the original price was $2,500. I told them, “Look, you wanted the lowest I can go, that is the lowest. It’s a fair price, so to go lower would be unfair to me. Take it or leave it.” They were shocked and a little offended for a split second, but then finally did the “Okay, okay, we’ll pay it.” Since then, I’ve never negotiated prices for freelance or contract work. I’ll negotiate the time, scope, complexity, but a fair price is a fair price, and charging less than you’re worth is not fair to yourself. Designers undervalue their work, and that’s not right.
What’s a common mistake you often see entry level designers make? What are some tips to avoid or overcome it?
The biggest mistake I see is when early career designers focus too much on design craft, and not enough on business acumen. Being good with your skills is essential, but the more years you work, the more your job needs to be about business decisions and looking at things objectively. They confuse being a designer with being an artist. If design is your career, you’re using a certain skillset to solve problems. And the subjective nature of the artistry you put into your work is secondary to solving the problem. It’s a matter of objectivity — the designer works in service of the problem, and even if you don’t like the solution, your design needs to fit into it.
To avoid that mistake, I would say from day 1, remember that you work for a business, which as a whole works for a customer. The more you can be a part of the dollars-and-cents discussion, the better. Because as you advance in your career, more and more you’ll be asked to solve business problems through design, and your rationale and principles will be how you make decisions around how exactly you choose to solve it. Once a designer is sufficiently experienced, they will be judged on how they use design to solve business problems, not on artistry. It’s something I don’t think people expect.
Any industry sites or blogs you read on a regular basis, or anything else you read for inspiration?
I receive most of my design news and inspiration through my Twitter feed, which is almost exclusively smart designers and other folk in the tech industry. I always figure that if something is worth reading or looking at, it will show up there. I also am a many-times-daily reader of HackerNews. It’s not really a design blog/news site, but it is a technology, startup, and problem solving site, and I find that a lot of my motivation as an experience designer comes from the broader scope of not just how we’re solving problems with design, but how people who work in technology are solving problems in general.
There’s something new and amazing coming out every day. What’s something awesome you’ve seen recently that you’re dying to share, or something you’re excited about?
I am super excited for the Oculus Rift VR goggles. I’ve had a chance to try out early models, and the speed at which your brain accepts what it is seeing and experience is startling. I think that well done, hi-res VR is going to start out as a novelty and game, but quickly become something that changes the way we think about and design experiences. It’s something that technology has tried to do for so long, and we’re just about to figure it out. Experiences happen through the senses, and being able to so fully tap into 3 — sight, sound, and proprioception — is a crazy notion.
What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the industry?
The world is flooded, flooded with people who want to design. If you want to stand out, really study what it takes to do so — compare yourself to other designers who are better or more well known. Figure out what separates the good from the bad. Don’t design for yourself, design for solving customer problems. It’s so hard to get that first real design job in the world today, I am not even sure I could do it if I had been born 15 years later. Look around you and ask “what is making designers successful today?” The answer usually isn’t going to be based on aesthetic, it’s going to be based on objectively, the ability to ship designs and products, and to show how it led to real results and outcomes. It’s a bit of a letdown at times, but my advice would be to always remember that design is a business career track, not an artists track. Nothing is beautiful until you can show how it solved a problem.
What do you think is the future of digital design?
I think that more and more, companies are going to rely on how things are designed and experienced as their leading value proposition. We’re starting to see it already, but those are the outlier companies, the Apples or Teslas. There are very few Chief Design Officers at companies. We will know that design has truly entered its next phase in tech when companies who rely on experiences to sell their products have that Chief Design Officer right there alongside the Chief Technology Officer, Finance Officer, Executive Officer etc. That’s really the future of digital design, it’s not about advancing the craft, it’s about advancing its influence.