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Product design leader Craig Saila shares lessons learned and best practices from a 20-year career in media

It was a huge failure. And the most memorable experience of his career.

As a senior product design strategy leader, Craig Saila has launched several successful digital products, but one of his most prominent memories is the project that didn’t work out. It was 20 years ago when Saila was at Canoe, then one of the most popular websites in Canada.

“We were redesigning our website and launching a new financial portfolio and stock service at the same time,” says Saila. “We had the design down pretty well. We understood what the new service looked like. But we mucked up the launch in a terrible way.”

Saila says the project was memorable because he focused too much on the wrong thing.

“We got distracted by the aesthetics of the redesign instead of focusing on the functionality of the service. We ran into data problems and the service was down for several days. That was a major hit. Our core dedicated audience we had built up for years went elsewhere.”

Design for problems, not for people

Since that foundational lesson, Saila has blazed a highly successful trail in digital media and experience design, including stops at The Globe & Mail and msnbc.com, as well as teaching UX and UI design at OCAD University. He’s currently the Head of Experience Design at the CBC.

Over the last two decades, Saila has worked as a collaborator and leader for a number of digital products and design experiences. All of them have helped him identify a common pitfall in that creative process.

“The mistakes organizations often make,” he says, “is trying to solve something for a person as opposed to solving for the problem that person is experiencing.”

In the digital world, where user personas often guide major strategic decisions, that’s a bit of a counterintuitive insight. 

“One single person may have different needs and different problems,” Saila notes. “That’s what you’re solving for — the needs and problems, not the person.”

Saila uses device experiences to illustrate his point: You are designing for someone who wants to access digital content, and their primary device is their smartphone.

  • Designing for a person: You put the content into a mobile app because that’s what they use most. You made the content accessible, but it’s highly unlikely the user will watch an entire full-length TV series on their phone. 
  • Designing for a problem: You instead focus on the problem of them wanting to access content, and you think about how they will consume it. Instead of a mobile app only, you may consider a connected TV experience that lets the user cast the content to their TV, or even watch from their computer where long-format content is more likely to be consumed.

One useful way to make sure you’re solving the right problem is by incorporating inclusive design principles into the process.

Design for everyone in your audience with an inclusive approach

Inclusive design focuses on designing a digital product or service to be used for as many people as possible — especially groups of people who are traditionally excluded or not considered in the design process. 

Inclusive design approaches may address age, economic situation, education, gender, language, location, and race, for example.

“Don’t assume there is a uniform audience,” he says. “Make sure you listen to and consider the needs of all types of people. People have different lived experiences, racialized experiences, and even technology experiences. Take those into account.”

Saila is not a fan of working with generic personas, as he says they may represent only one person in your audience, and building to solve that one person’s problem can exclude too many other people.

What should you do instead? 

“Talk to as many different types of people as possible,” Saila says. “Understand their needs. By being inclusive you get an audience and understanding of a problem that you won’t get any other way.”

The way we’re solving digital design problems is changing

Over the years, the way problems have been solved in product development and digital experience has evolved. 

Today, Saila says a new approach is taking hold that helps companies rethink both how they work together and think about their customers. It’s influenced by some elements of “dual-track product management” which is a process where you simultaneously release features to your customers, while also doing discovery and research for the future. 

With dual-track product management you are looking at the business opportunities ahead of you, unpacking them, and starting to identify potential solutions while at the same time providing solutions to current needs.

“The goal would be that you’re prototyping and designing ahead of the delivery work,” Saila says. “And ideally, if you’re moving in sync, you’ve got insights from the delivery release feeding into that discovery cycle.”

Products in a dual-track product management process are also getting better because of the way internal teams interact. Saila believes digital transformation has reconfigured how people talk within an organization, and that opens up opportunity.

“It’s about rethinking how we talk, flattening hierarchies and representing areas of expertise in the business that aren’t tied to seniority.”

Saila says the end result is a more flexible organization, and giving more people the opportunity to have a say in meetings and during planning.

“The pandemic forced organizations to work remotely,” he says. “That means everyone is a square on the screen. It has allowed conversations to happen that wouldn’t happen before. Those social bonds hold when you go back to hybrid work. And that energy is where innovation starts.”

Three things to keep in mind in order to create best-in-class digital products

1. Make it easy to use

“The first thing I pay attention to is how easy it is to use regardless of how complex the service is. Can I quickly get to the thing that app wants me to do? Can I do it right out of the box? If the product can’t do that, it won’t last.”

2. Demonstrate a clear product intent

“We have seen apps that are unsure of what their business model is. Companies are testing new revenue streams or pushing the wrong revenue stream too high up in the cycle. A user might get a bunch of ads they don’t expect or a paywall. These are signs that an organization doesn’t understand their customer needs or they’re taking a legacy business and forcing it into a new venture.”

3. Deliver what’s needed 

“This is critical. As an example, CBC pushing a food or restaurant app probably won’t work because it’s not what people expect from CBC. They don’t associate CBC with restaurant reviews. Never forget what your audience truly needs from you.”