Normative’s Matthew Milan on the Universal Importance of Design

Normative is a software design firm that uses design practices and principles to make software and help other companies improve their software.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to go into design?

A: Both my parents were designers – graphics and interior – so I grew up in a household where design was very prominent.

When I went to school I thought I’d be using technology to design the physical world, doing things like urban planning. Along the way I became interested in the emerging digital world but soon realized software is what allows us to interact with both the physical and digital world.

Q: What is your take on design being a competitive advantage?

A: Design is really fantastic to really help reduce risk in a business context. Design really helps you solve the right problems; it is about more than just making it look pretty in the visual aesthetic level or even the interaction level.

You look at the Eames and Herman Millers making furniture in the 50’s. They made beautiful chairs that were also cost effective and created new markets for the business. They solved problems that impacted the bottom line of the business in a positive way, it wasn’t just about is that chair comfortable or pretty. In contrast a lot of the digital design we talk about these days, people are still saying “I made the chair comfortable look at how good it is.” So I look at our design practice at Normative as wanting our digital design practice to be at the same level as Charles and Ray Eames had or Paul Rand had with IBM.

Here at Normative we say that when you design software you’re designing a system. You’re designing a part of a system, that with its interface and programming changes the way people and machines interact with each other. So fundamentally when you design software, the purpose of software is to give someone superpowers. The Google Search bar gives you superpowers – it’s like a memory you never had but you have perfect access to. As designers what we should really ask ourselves is: what is the capability we want to design for the person and what is the value exchange?

Q: How can you justify the business case around design?

A: A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine talked about the ROI of User Experience. At that point the thinking was – if you can prove ROI, you would have a better chance of selling design to business. I personally believe that is not the right approach now. I believe that showing that you have a real business problem and what needs to be done to solve it and having that understanding with your partner or client or boss is a more valuable way of establishing design as a tool for business.

Q: How do you create the culture that encourages this kind of work and thinking about problems?

A: It is really hard. It is one of the hardest and most humbling things for me to try and do really well. Especially when as you try to create culture your personal biases and perspectives come into play and actually go against the culture you want to create so it’s impossible to create culture in purely prescriptive way.

Because everyone sees the world differently and respects and values different things, finding common ground is really hard especially when the way you talk and look at something is really different. I’ll be honest it is both a struggle and a point of success that we have be able to become so attuned to the needs of the businesses we’re working with.