Antoine Marin, Senior Product Designer at NearForm, is based in Kilkenny, Ireland and is working on a range of client engagements across the globe. We began our discussion talking about drone technology, where he’s been focusing much of his time lately.
What is your area of speciality?
As part of the product team, I facilitate workshops to answer Why, How and What we’re building. This approach helps with aligning stakeholders, capturing requirements and kicking-off the project. I then map the user experience, prototype the interface, and design a visual language or design system.
What project are you currently working on?
We’re working with a drone data company to design their platform. The platform is used by civil engineering companies to survey construction sites. They’re asking, “How does the progress on site compare to the original plans?” and they send up autonomous drones to survey huge swaths of land.
The operator chooses the area to survey and the drones then fly autonomously, taking all the photos required. Data captured is then uploaded and processed on the platform. My specific role here is to design the interface that shows this data. I work with the product team to design tools that empower our users.
How exactly is your work helping the drone data company‘s strategic ambitions?
In short, my work enables operations managers to analyse faster and make more informed decisions on the ground.
Drones are transforming the way civil engineering projects and farming are done. Companies are getting ground data faster and more accurate. But the main challenge with drone technology is treating the huge volume of data captured and making sense of it.
When they engaged us, our client’s platform did not serve their business ambitions. Some of the technology was not scaling for that huge amount of data. They wanted to be able to release features faster.
We’ve completed a whole system audit and we’re rebuilding the architecture. On my side, I designed a system that can support scalability and fast paced development. User experience is focused on key tasks people are trying to achieve. My goal is to make it frictionless.
What process do you go through, with customers, to find the best product design?
Good design is a collaborative effort. Business and technical decisions have a huge impact on customer experiences. Hence, the role of product designers is to communicate the impact on users of these decisions (cost and benefits).
We kick-off projects with a design workshop including key stakeholders from business and technology groups. It’s a series of team exercises that shape the product. It ends with the creation of a high fidelity prototype everyone can relate to. The goal of the week is to define what is getting built, how, and why.
What parts of the design process are most important?
People often underestimate the mindset differences between the product designer, developer and the business person. If you just write documents, people will interpret them differently based on their own perspective. That’s why, during our design workshops, we create something concrete that people can discuss so that a visual language becomes the universal language of the team.
Most people would struggle to focus on a 100-page requirements document so it’s important to have something visual - a prototype - that we can collaborate on.
If you can use technology to complete a task much faster, that’s what will disrupt industries.
Where is the biggest risk of failure?
One of the main reasons projects fail is because of people. Lack of communications, not seeing the bigger picture, working in silos. These are all big risks for a project. When we do a workshop with a customer at the beginning of the engagement, we try to expose the project from many different perspectives.
There are always three types of goals – technical, business, and end-user goals - and these must align. Sometimes you want to build a product and you think it will be amazing for business – but if it takes 2 years to build, well, it’s not as viable as it seems. Another aspect is knowing who you’re working for. The better you know what users are trying to achieve, the more successful and effective you’re going to be.
Where did you work before NearForm?
I worked with a company called Kitman Labs in Dublin. The Kitman system empowers professional sports clubs across the globe to optimise their players’ performance. The team is at the forefront of sport science research and uses technology to minimize injuries and optimise performance.
I designed, with the team, the mobile applications and AR experiences that captured and prepared the required data: a mix of subjective information (perceived sleep quality, appetite, etc.) and biomechanical data (external shoulder rotation, countermovement jump height, etc.). Clubs using the system had about 60% less end-season injuries.
Where are you from?
I’m from Nantes in Western France.
I was so impressed when I went to Nantes – it’s an amazing place, the La Galerie des Machines and the giant robotic elephant is one of the most remarkable combinations of art and science that I’ve ever seen.
Yes, Les Machines des L’ile is one of our city's most famous attractions. Of course, when you mention the combination of art and science, it's what I do for a living! The product design process very much follows a scientific approach. We form a lot of assumptions around what people need, how they will use the product and so on and we use continuous data to refine those assumptions. That’s the science bit that then feeds into the art of designing the product's identity or to refine the user experiences.
As for Nantes as an amazing place, we also love the culture there. There are many reasons to go back and visit. The city hosts wonderful festivals such as the Blues and Jazz Festival and they work hard to bring art and culture into every level of society.
So you’re from Nantes in France, how did you end up in Ireland, with NearForm?
I met my wife on holiday and decided to come here to live. After working in Dublin, I was looking for a product role offering remote options and NearForm came up. NearForm really helps employees at every level, we really feel cared about. At our headquarters in Tramore, we have a chef that cooks really great food, and they offer great health and wellbeing activities like pilates and yoga classes. Although I spend more time in the kitchen than the classes!
Socially there is a lack of ego in the company – and it’s refreshing. There are people with 20+ years of experience, but they never look down on you. We’re all learning and striving to be better at what we do.
Does that ongoing ambition show, to the customers? Is that why they hire NearForm?
People come to us because we impact businesses in record times. We know that technology is not the end but a means to an end. Our clients value that. The majority are going through some form of digital transformation and they like our open approach to innovation, the methodologies we use and the breadth of our technical expertise.
What kind of technology disruptions do you see happening right now?
If you can use technology to complete a task much faster, that’s what will disrupt industries.
The better you know what users are trying to achieve, the more successful and effective you’re going to be.
What’s your career ambition?
To positively impact people through design. Whether it’s the people using the product or the team building it. It’s a real reward to see someone seamlessly using a product I designed. I aim to make sure business, technology and design stakeholders are aligned. If something will affect the quality of the product, it needs to be exposed at an early stage in the process. Successful digital transformation isn’t so much about technology, as it is about people.
Any other ambitions that you have?
One company I admire is Ideo and the way they work in so many different areas of social impact. I especially remember some of their work done in Zambia. They designed beauty centres that delivered contraception and family planning information to young women while they were getting their nails done.
The medical field is an easy one to relate to and a field I’d love to work in more. It touches every one of us. I believe we are at a time where the patient-practitioner relationship needs to be reinvented. People expect a more personalised and on-demand approach in some cases (prescription renewal). A more human one in others (accidents, long term sickness). Technology can help but will only get adopted if it doesn’t get in the way. And I believe a patient-focused design can bring the best of technology.
How do you stay relevant as a product designer? Are there podcasts you recommend? Other sources of learning?
Our design team joined a three-day course at NN/g London last year. It was a deep dive into facilitating workshops, usability and leadership. It gave us the ideal occasion to learn best practices and meet other product designers.
In terms of podcasts. The Futur is the most recent one I've been listening to. There's some great content focused on the value of design. Medium is full of case studies and design discussion .
And I also like dissecting my own customer experiences: Banks, airlines, coffee shops…
What do you think has changed about CX / UX over the past five or ten years?
Self-service has become the norm. People expect brands to provide the same service at their fingertips that they would do in a store or on a phone:
Purchasing a product, subscribing to a service, paying a friend, ordering a taxi, sending back a package, getting a medical diagnosis via video call.
The fast pace of this big shift, that is still ongoing, forces established companies to re-invent themselves. We see national banks being challenged by upcoming players. Feature parity is not good enough anymore. Successful companies tailor their services to very specific user needs. And who better than product designers to shape these experiences? Design is more than ever a competitive advantage. As a consequence, product designers are now seen as business enablers, rather than artists.
*** Many thanks to Antoine for giving us some fascinating points to ponder – about how companies can differentiate themselves on the basis of design, and about how product designers, with their impact on the bottom line, are taking a rightful place around the boardroom table.