Larry Johnson: I was always fascinated by brands—a weird thing to be into! As a kid, they seemed like magical, shiny and interesting stories. That led me into advertising and copywriting, and I eventually ended up at Ogilvy & Mather. I learned a lot because Ogilvy develops and educates its talent well, but the work felt shallow. I became more interested in design for the way it can deeply impact businesses. And that led me to Odopod.
Molly Dowd: My background and education is in art history, and I explored a few different jobs in my early career, like garden design and art curation. Odopod’s innovative, creative and intellectual components, along with digital design, have inspired and motivated me for the last fifteen years.
How has Odopod evolved from when you both started ten years ago?
Johnson: When Molly and I first started, Odopod focused on creating customized, one-off, highly produced online marketing experiences that we usually delivered through Flash. Thousands of hours went into crafting these experiences that lived on the Internet for three months.
Then, over time, we started moving into projects like e-commerce and publishing platforms—designing big, complex systems that clients use to operate their business. Shortly thereafter, the proliferation of smartphones required us to design these types of platforms to be more responsive.
Now, we’re working with digital products and connected places—meaning location-based experiences—not only because we have mobile devices with location awareness, but also because there are now place-based technologies, whether that’s something as crude as a touch screen or something as sophisticated as a beacon that connects to a profile to learn something about you as a consumer. We’re starting to bring some of the great qualities of online shopping—its personalization and intelligence—to the physical world. We infuse places with digital.
One really great example of a connected place is the Levi’s Stadium experience. We worked with the San Francisco 49ers as the team was building its new football stadium down in Santa Clara. We focused on how we could make a better customer experience for people who are at the game. By using a mobile app, we connected fans to valuable services, including finding parking, getting tickets and ordering food to be delivered to your seat.
Dowd: We focused on enhancing an already fun experience rather than complicating it. By connecting you to powerful services, this technology elevates users’ opinions about the 49ers brand and stadium.
Your house becomes a digital product. A stadium becomes a digital product. A cruise becomes a digital product.
What does the new landscape of digital products look like?
Johnson: Now that we always have our mobile devices with us, digital capabilities flow out—I always think about the metaphor of water—into all kinds of everyday objects and spaces around us. Your house becomes a digital product. A stadium becomes a digital product. A cruise becomes a digital product. The fragmentation of digital in so many places challenges designers. But it’s also really powerful because it enables a continuous digital experience.
Dowd: A few years ago, the landscape of technology was websites and Flash, and today, it’s virtual reality. And in a few years, we don’t know what it’s going to be. So we’re always asking, “What is it that we need to do to evolve with that technology?” We have to stay ahead of what our clients need. It’s constant evolution.
How can agencies approach user experience design in this new landscape of digital products?
Dowd: Firstly, digital services help brands build stronger, more trusting relationships with their audience. So agencies should keep users at the forefront of their UX design considerations. Successful digital experiences are really simple, focused and subtle—not a lot of noise or interruption.
It’s not about marketing your brand anymore. So much of it we did in the early days of technology was creating brand marketing websites. Like, “We’re going to sell this product to you, and you’re going to believe in it because it’s flashy and new.” Now, it’s about creating a seamless experience that lives outside of direct marketing venues. There’s a whole ecosystem of touch points with intersections between digital and physical experiences. You have to give consumers a better experience within this ecosystem. As an agency, it’s our job to help marketers and product managers understand that while they may have a marketing plan, we’re here to provide a valuable solution through design because there is so much competition to grab users’ attention in a new, more profound way.
How does digital fuel the future of design?
Johnson: New technologies require new kinds of interactions. As new technology comes out, design has to answer the question: How are people going to use it?
For example, mobile forced designers to consider how visual, touch-driven interfaces work. Now, technology like Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa lets designers explore voice and intent-driven interfaces.
What was it like to work with brands like Tesla Motors to rethink its retail experience?
Dowd: We started working with Tesla many years ago when it was just coming out with its Roadster, and electric vehicles weren’t pervasive in the market yet. So we faced a few different challenges: convincing people to buy an electric vehicle for many reasons, and transforming Tesla’s selling experience from a traditional car dealership to a retail environment with a digital core.
Displayed on a large touch screen, the car configurator guides people through the process of learning about electric vehicles and Tesla. If I’m a curious buyer who engages with the touch screen experience, I can configure and create my own car right there. Compared to going out into a big lot and pointing to premade cars, the configurator provides a very customized, compelling experience. And once Tesla had that first digital experience, it was able to roll that out into multiple stores throughout the world.
What excites you about interactive and digital design right now and in the next few years?
Dowd: The rise of utility experiences. It’s less and less about creating clever interface design and more about simple experiences backed up by powerful services. There’s such a plethora of amazing services. The platform for these can be really simple. For example, I use the super easy-to-use, powerful services Lyft and Instacart a lot.
Johnson: Google Translate is also really amazing. It’s the simplest interface, but its capabilities are so incredible, it’s like science fiction. To talk and have your voice translated into another language in real time—it’s cool from a technology standpoint, but amazing when you consider the possible interactions you can have with that technology. You can buy something from someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you, solve a problem together or create a friendship.
What advice do you have for someone just starting out in digital design?
Dowd: Fifteen years ago, when I was getting started in digital, it was uncommon for people to study digital design. Now, a lot of young people understand digital design right out of college, and they’re all jumping directly to agencies or startups. So diversify your experiences. Broaden your exposure outside of those startups and agencies. You’re going to get the most out of your professional experience through exposure to a range of different careers and companies.
Johnson: Don’t worry so much about design. You’ll learn design and get to practice it, but it’s more important to look beyond to the broader world. Find interesting problems wherever those might live, like inside an agency, a museum or a hospital. Apply your design skills to those real problems. Stay off of Dribbble, and engage with actual art out in the real world. That’s how you get good.