Sustainable, Conscious, and User-Centric Design: An Interview with Abhishek Dahiya, CDO at intive

After a year of record growth for the design team in 2021, intive welcomed new CDO Abhishek Dahiya on board in January 2022. We sat down with Abhishek to discuss what excites him the most about the new role, what creating truly user-centric products really looks like, his most surprising lesson learned about design, and more.

Welcome to the team, Abhishek! What excites you the most about joining the intive team as Chief Design Officer?

One of the most exciting things for me about joining intive is the company’s ambition. It’s energizing to see the drive of the people that are behind intive’s success in delivering digital products.

As a designer, it’s also really exciting to be able to balance shaping thoughts and abstract ideas with actually delivering tangible products. When you combine that with the fast-paced nature of intive and the range of business units and industries that we work with, you’re faced with quite a unique proposition.

intive is a design-led engineering company. How does this set us apart from other technology and engineering companies?

I think what makes intive uniquely great is the quality of what we do and how we do it. This combination of being design-led and an engineering company makes us uniquely able to form and shape a vision – and then execute on that vision – ultimately realizing something really valuable for end-users.

As designers, we represent users and have traditionally put them front and center. I think intive has struck the perfect balance between design and technology, allowing us to build innovative, exciting products without losing sight of the end-user.

You’ve previously said that “systematic design judgment and a long-term perspective” are key to true user-centricity. What does this look like in the practice of creating exciting digital products?

Design as a practice is rooted in making usable and useful things. Systematic design judgment essentially means making these usable and useful things in the most effective and efficient way.

As researchers and designers, we have models, frameworks, and methods – systems that we use to apply rigor to our decision-making. These systems make working with end-users and available technology more efficient and even enable us to foresee problems that our users or technology might not.

For instance, nowadays, designers must consider sustainability – whether environmental, ethical, or economic – while making sure their product is still valuable to the end-user. Incorporating “systematic design judgment” here means constantly talking to end-users about their hopes and ambitions and removing their pain points while not getting carried away with the technology.

It’s about creating environmentally, ethically, and economically sustainable products that are born from solid value systems and good design practices. The long-term aspect comes in here too – as we need to assure a level of quality that means that 10 years from now, the product is still useful and does no harm. We now have enough ways to test products and enough advanced technology to ensure that any product we put out there – MVP or not – is absolutely top quality.

You mention some of the constraints that designers now have to take into account in order to create sustainable, exciting digital products. How do these constraints impact the creative process?

Without a doubt, constraints result in more innovation and more creativity. For example, for a long time, making products accessible was considered a constraint to the beauty and function of the product. And it’s simply not true – some of the best products out there are fully accessible, beautiful, and functional.

Just take SMS messaging. This was originally created for people with a hearing impairment but has now become prolific in the way we communicate digitally. This is just one example of how prioritizing accessibility has led to better digital products.

What’s also exciting about constraints is there’s always a clash. As long as each party is coming at the problem in good faith, this creative abrasion between conflicting ideas can result in really interesting solutions.

Many would argue that designers are finally being given a seat at the table when it comes to driving business results. How can we measure their role in these outcomes?

Until recently, design was fundamentally about the crafting of the thing, rather than the selling of the thing. Business leaders have realized, however, that designers craft things well due to our unwavering focus on users. This power to help drive business objectives from a human-centric standpoint merits us a seat at the table.

While this may result in conflicting forces – responsible, ethical, and sustainable design doesn’t put profits at the forefront – I think it can help create a new, more balanced way of operating a business. Designers have the power to help businesses become more humane, conscious, and long-term-oriented – the zebra rather than the unicorn. So while I don’t have an exact metric, I do think designers have huge potential to drive long-term business value.

intive’s design team grew by 100% in 2021. What are your strategic priorities and goals for the team in 2022?

One of our primary strategic objectives for this year is to become an employer of choice. We’re seeking to build a brand value proposition and, particularly within the design team, a shared sense of purpose that we all stand for. I want to make sure that we are driven by that value proposition and our principles as designers.

This sense of purpose will help provide exciting new opportunities for progression for our designers – and we want to make sure that all of them have the ability to upskill, cross-skill, and progress across different business units. Our goal is to create structures that give our designers the autonomy and flexibility they need to be able to run their own careers.

If you had to choose the most surprising lesson you’ve learned about design over the course of your career, what would it be?

This is a hard but exciting question. The thing that comes up for me the most, is that actually, design on its own doesn’t matter. This view is always evolving, and I have learned to be less precious about design over time. It doesn’t matter how much we stress about the fonts, the beauty, the expanded functionality, etc if, in the end, the product doesn’t help the end-user. That’s the single point of failure, and it’s the ultimate truth.

I remember working on the design of an alternative to some features on Microsoft Excel as part of a project for a client earlier in my career. Our alternative offered measurably better capabilities than Excel for what the client needed – but it didn’t matter. They were accustomed to using Excel and that’s what they wanted to do, so despite our platform’s specific functionalities, they stuck with a system that did not meet standards, was broken for me as a designer, but was still clearly useful for the end-user.

You bring a wealth of design experience and have worked with a range of companies and across industries – what do you see as the most important design trends for 2022 and beyond?

Over the last two years, the pandemic and the resulting isolation and trauma have taught us to be more empathetic to others (I hope). The opposite might be true as well. But as humans, we continually seek meaningful connections and better ways in which we can understand and be understood. I think we’ll see many products and services in the near future rising out of this hope – this human need to feel there is a brighter future ahead of us and that we are stronger as a collective.

One other trend I find intriguing is Web3. It is still finding its definition but in theory, the idea that we can create, control and govern entire digital societies is powerful. The ability to decentralize key orthodoxies like finance, information and art will bring about big structural change. We can already see this taking place with decentralized finance and NFTs, and it will only expand further into other industries.

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