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CMA Interview with Argodesign’s Chief Creative Technologist Jared Ficklin

by Neil Follet - September 16, 2016

One of the great things about my job is that I get to meet amazing people. Through hosting Innovation Day(Opens in a new window), working with our clients, and doing extras like Co-Charing CMA Future, I am constantly exposed to new and challenging ideas (see, you can teach an old dog new tricks!). One of the most interesting, articulate and engaging people I have chatted with in a long time is TED Alumni, and argodesign’s Chief Creative Technologist Jared Ficklin.

Jared and I spoke about interface design as product design, the role of the Chief Creative Technologist and more… twice.  The first time I couldn’t get the recorder to work, clearly I am not the technologist in the room! Check out our interview below.

N: Thanks for taking the time to chat.  We are excited to have you as part of the CMA Future event, and having just watched your TED talk, I am now aware that we can see music with fire!  So let’s start our conversation back at the beginning. 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!

J: 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 1990’s. 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.

J: 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 partnered at Argodesign.

J: 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.

N: 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.

J: 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. I’ve always been more interested in that space. Throughout that entire thread, that’s always the place where I’ve played. And the part of the crossover was this practice of user experience simulation. It’s standing up the idea as early as possible to check its reliability, so you get the feel of it.

That’s really important in this space where every now and then you find a brand new technology or a brand new application of a technology that the user is extremely unfamiliar with, and it can be very hard to connect with the user. In that case because 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 in western cultures 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.’

N: 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?

J: 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.

It’s something we do. We have a credo at Argo called ‘think by making.’  It’s something that we incorporate in our practices when the moment is called for and that’s that unique place.

I understand how with a startup you could lead bringing a product to market. Or with the innovation department of a large organization, you guys are going to be working on those products that still need a feel to them.  Where do you guys typically, interact with traditional brand, if at all?

J: Definitely we oriented our business to be able to work with startups, but we like to work with large companies as well. What you have in large companies right now is a lot of gap filling. We spent the first 20 years of the connected computing age building very large systems – social media, the communication channels of messaging and email, the social channels of Facebook and Snapchat, and the rest – and then a whole gadget economy around them that’s supported by the Cloud. Well, it leaves a lot of gaps.  So you’ve got big technology, but you have all these gaps.

The next 20 years is going to be about closing those gaps. That’s one of the places that we apply very well to large companies. We have this big platform and we don’t feel like we’re getting as much connection out of it as we could. We need to close these small gaps. This is where you go in and you’re like, ‘okay, let’s see what’s wrong here, let’s apply these techniques to it and see what experiences we could pull out of this existing technology.’ As opposed to, ‘where do we find the place where it’s leading edge?’

Don’t forget that we are in an age of design thinking.  So increasingly big brands are coming to us. Big companies are coming up with new technology that have new experiences that they have come up with themselves, and at that point they’re lost and they need guidance. That’s where agencies really come in.

N: Are they coming to you because we’re in this age of design? Are they coming to you because they’re sort of scared and they’re trying to figure out what’s next? Are they coming to you because they fell their models somehow need to be disrupted, or are going to be disrupted? Where’s the driver? Or maybe it’s all of the above.

J: Disruption’s a good thought about it, but industry in the last ten years has shifted quite a bit. One of the things that have happened is big companies are more capable of generating ideas. Sometimes they still need help there. So they’re like, ’hey Argo we need some clever thinking, we have these two pieces and we don’t know how to connect them to the consumer.’ They’re starting to have their ideas, but no one’s helped them to step two. Now they’ve hit a barrier. They’re like, ‘how do we move this to our organization?’ How do we get this next step towards turning this into something we can bring to the market? And we help a lot in that area as well.

N: Do you see those organizations then evolving their capabilities in and around step 2? Is that sort of the next opportunity for them?

J: Well, no because that’s little like a sushi restaurant buying a fishing boat and going to get tuna, right? There is a point where it just reaches so far out of your core competencies that you just don’t get the highest mark for that. I’m not a believer in that design is all going to go internal, ever.

N: I was thinking a little bit when you were talking earlier about how you started in New Mexico. You’re in Texas now. Do you see kind of a regionality playing into product design, or into the way of thinking – south or southwest versus the east?

J: I don’t. It’s about quality – what quality you put out and what culture you put to that quality. We love being in Austin and we’re an Austin shop, and it’s really great that people don’t consider us with any kind of bias. The world has opened up to the point where they’re no longer regional. You don’t have to be in New York, Chicago or San Francisco to be considered a major player. If you are putting out great quality, it’s just too easy to set up a project or come to you. I see quite the opposite. I think the regional barriers are starting to break down. I mean we’re working with Japanese clients, European clients, American clients, and what we’re seeing is the language is open. The need for this kind of design is what we’re seeing.

N: Thanks you for the time and insights.  I’ve really enjoyed our conversation and can’t wait for your keynote at the Future Conference.

J: Thanks, I’ve enjoyed it too and I’m super excited to come to the 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.


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