Jim Sabia on Designing for Strategy, Not Platform

Jim Sabia is creative director at AOL and has 15 years in interactive design under his belt. From that birds-eye perch, he’s observed some of the smartest (and not so much) evolutions in web design. In advance of his presentation at the upcoming HOW Interactive Design Conference (September 27–29 in Washington, DC), we talked with Sabia about how strategy, not platform, should drive design decisions in the interactive space—and also about what designers MUST see while they’re in his hometown for the conference.

You’re behind the scenes at one of the web’s pioneers—AOL. What’s the day-to-day like there?

I’ve been at AOL for 12 years. During that time, I’ve had the privilege to work on and design for a wide variety of brands on a wide variety of platforms from interactive TV applications, to desktop applications (like the AOL software), the web—and now mobile.

When I tell people that I work for AOL, I usually get a response like, “I didn’t know that they were still around?” or “Do you design those CD’s they send out? … Giggle giggle.”

What a lot of people don’t realize is that while AOL was originally focused on delivering a robust dial-up Internet service, it has more recently pivoted to an ad revenue-supported content business with collection of top-tier web brands like Moviefone, StyleList, Engadget, TechCrunch, Cambio and Huffington Post, and applications like MapQuest, AOL Mail, Editions, AIM, and yes the AOL Dial Up service.

In my current role, I’m working on designing branded mobile experiences for iPad, iPhone, Android Phone, Android Tablet and the mobile web. I usually work with a cross-functional team that includes a dedicated product manager and 1–3 developers on any given project. We start with collaborative white boarding to define the overall structure of what we’re building and then design, develop and refine through a series of builds until we determine that we’re ready to release.

You have a lot of experience designing for the whole gamut of platforms—TV, mobile, desktop, web. What’s the one big thing designers get wrong when they’re trying to design across multiple platforms?

It’s true that there are a lot of platforms available to business that are trying to reach consumers with their brands. The trick is not to get too caught up with considering platforms as checkboxes in a roadmap. Too often, I hear, “We need to be on iPhone, Android and mobile web. We should have a responsive website so that it looks good on any screen size. When can we do that?”

The reality is that regardless of the platforms your product is available on, your product strategy must start with understanding your user’s behaviors, pain points and unmet needs. This will help you to determine what to design. For example, a user may interact with your brand differently on mobile than they would on the desktop. This is what I mean when I say “Designing for Opportunity, Not for Platform.” I will be speaking more about this in my Thursday session.

Amazon and Apple had big new-product releases in the past couple of weeks. What do you see in the new devices that are coming online that will give designers great opportunities—or massive headaches?

Mobile is an exciting space for designers at the moment because the audience accessing the web and applications continues to grow. More and more people are buying smart phones and tablets. These devices are much more personal and intimate to users than the personal computer ever was. The phone is just as important as a wallet or a purse—and in some cases considered a replacement. Tablet usage in the evening is replacing the staple of magazines on the coffee table. Along with these trends, comes a whole new way to connect with users and their interactions.

For a lot of interactive designers, it’s a huge challenge to keep up with trends, theories and technologies that are changing at a ridiculously fast pace. How do you keep up?

It’s not easy. I find the best way to keep pace is to be active in the space. Get on the Twitters if you’re not already (follow Sabia on Twitter) and follow key thought leaders in product, design, and development. Attend industry events like the HOW conference. Hangout with your development team. I find that I learn so much more when design collaboratively with product and development on the whiteboard. And most importantly, have FUN.

Anything that designers attending the HOW Interactive Conference should absolutely do while they’re in DC?

Spend an evening in Georgetown. The riverfront is awesome and there are lots of great restaurants. Visit the National Mall, any of the Smithsonian museums, the White House and the Capital building.

It’s not too late to make plans to attend HOW Interactive Design Conference East (and to explore our nation’s capital while you’re there). Space is limited, so register now. If the East event doesn’t fit your schedule, check out the San Francisco HOW Interactive Design Conference, October 29–31.

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