A Skater, a Cowboy, and IBM Watson Walk into a Bar...

By Neil Follett & Brie Taylor 

argodesign’s Jared Ficklin talks about product design driving user experiences and how design sandboxes are like golf or kissing

Jared Ficklin is the Chief Creative Technologist at argodesign. He has been designing with technology for over a decade, focusing on innovative or unique interaction models, especially those involving interesting inputs like touch, multi-touch, voice or gesture. His philosophy is "Think by Making, Deliver by Demo" and employs user experience simulation as a method for quickly bringing products to life for clients like HP, Microsoft, AT&T, LG, SanDisk, Motorola and more.

For many years, Jared directed the SXSW Interactive opening party, which served as an outlet for both interactive installations and a collective social experiment. His passion for sound visualization has also led to the honor of being the first to bring live fire onto the TED stage in his talk "Eyes Can Hear."

Neil Follett, President, Brightworks and Brie Taylor, Vice-President, Client Services, FUSE Marketing Group spoke with Jared about his work and his upcoming talk “A Skater, a Cowboy, and IBM Watson Walk into a Bar...” at CMAfuture.

We are excited to have you as part of the CMAfuture event, and having just watched your TED talk, I am now aware that we can see music with fire! I know you started in digital in previously told me the story of starting out as a flash developer. Maybe we can quickly go back to the olden days to get a sense of how you got to where you are now and then we can talk about what “now” really means!

Excellent. Actually, product design was the second half of my career. Fresh out of school back in the turn of the last century, in the 1990s, I worked in advertising. When I started in advertising, I was a jack-of-all-trades. I did Flash, I coded up webpages, and I worked for this little company that was a part a large ad agency in New Mexico.

It was very interesting. I worked a lot on that side of the industry, and then I moved to Austin and picked up a job at Frog Design where I started getting more of a taste for what the full product design process was. I did that for 14 years and now I am partnered at argodesign.

What was really interesting is that in interface design and in product design you are actually working on opposite sides of the black box—and you both really need to connect to the consumer, so advertising and marketing is really important. For example you have this product, or experience, and advertising can create a story a story on how it can help the user’s life. You’ve got to communicate to them: this will meet your needs, wants and desires.

Where, on the product design side, you have this technology. You find out what people would think, what’s useful about it before you even get to the part of connecting it to them, but all in the middle of the black box of the user. And it is very difficult for users to really communicate their needs, wants and desires to you.

We all want to orient ourselves around the same thing, and, actually, I think my time early on in my career in advertising really helped the product design to develop a much greater empathy for the user than I think was normal at the time.

Way in the early days of product design, it was a lot about material—make it beautiful, give it great packaging, people will pick it up and figure out how to use it. Now it’s all about experience. The very depth of which people will focus individual product experiences in their life gets really personal, and we’re all having to deal with that phase.

You said to me in a previous conversation that when you reflect on your time designing interfaces you appreciate now that it was actually product design, that the interface was the “product” to the consumer.

Oh absolutely. There was a chapter in there where I was working on the client side, although at an increasingly faster pace. The interface was becoming the product, and suddenly you couldn’t have a physical thing that didn’t have a digital interface anymore. Right?

Printers started getting touchscreens put on them. Now it’s refrigerators! And we all watched what happened to personal computing. The interface took over the whole device. So we’re all walking around with our smartphones now. Interface is the product and the experience. It’s that line between the consumer and technology.

You can’t do traditional design research. You can’t go to them and ask, “How would you use voice and gesture in a car?” They’ll just lie to you because they don’t know the answer. That’ll just set you up on a very long course. So instead, we thought about putting up these sandboxes; we would think by making it. We actually would start exploring the technology for what experiences it has to offer the user, and then stand up very quickly.

We built a voice gesture controlled mirror and started interacting with it, and immediately found the parts that felt good and the parts that felt bad. They were so different from the ideas that people would spit out in a room in a focus group. At that point it becomes like golf or kissing. It’s hard to get right, but when you get it right you know it right away. You feel it immediately. You’re like, “I want that again.”

If we flash forward to today, as the Chief Creative Technologist, is it about finding that feel? Finding that magic? Finding the “kiss” between technology and user experience, both for your clients and also for work that you are incubating yourself?

Absolutely. There’s a base part of the job. A Creative Technologist or the Design Technologist is someone who designs using technology. They’ve built up a bunch of skills around building interface and interaction in the way that a visual designer’s built up a bunch of skills with Photoshop or Sketch.

While they can use those tools to express the esthetic, we judge the esthetic in the beauty of the pixels. A Creative Technologist can put together code, interactive downloads, and prototypes, in order to get that feel of how the technology will express itself is a big part of the job.

Thanks you for the time and insights.  I’ve really enjoyed our conversation and can’t wait for your talk at CMAfuture.

Thanks, I’ve enjoyed it too and I’m super excited to present for CMA. Really, I know I’m going to meet some interesting people. It’s all part of product design, but they are on advertising side to it. Like I said when I started, it’s really fun to get to hang out with them, pick their ideas about the future, as well as talk about ideas of the future. I think it’ll be a really resonant space.

Check out www.CMAfuture.ca and get your ticket to see Jared Ficklin on November 1, Toronto.

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Tags: CMAfuture, argodesign, creative technologist, advertising, sxsw, future, digital