In our first designer interview series, we sat down with James Butler, a UX Designer at Booking.com. James is responsible for new product development across native apps, mobile and desktop platforms. He also designed and launched a new Messaging platform and chatbot called Booking Assistant.
We’re very happy to have James here.
Tell us a little bit about your past, how did you start with design? What was your path like?
I got into design for two reasons really…
Firstly, I was really into skateboarding and used to love all the graphics on the bottom of the boards. But I initially started out trying to program in Visual Basic. I don’t remember how I came across Visual Basic, but I remember being fascinated by it at first.
You used to be able to drag and drop things into a visual editor and then code them up from there. I quickly realised that I was not so great at the actual programming part. But I definitely enjoyed laying elements out in their interface builder and was quite good at it too.
From there I got into using things such as Geocities and Microsoft Front Page and started doing more with the web rather than clunky software. I loved the ability to be creative on the web and the freedom it gave me. Although I’ve no doubt I would cringe pretty hard at some of those sites now.
What design project that you worked on in the past is your favorite?
For the last couple of years, I was working on a Messaging project at Booking.com and that’s been one of my favourites.
It was my first large project at a company on the scale of Booking.com — so it was exciting and daunting at the same time. We had to tie together multiple sides of a platform. From guests reaching out to Booking.com and our property partners (hotels, apartments etc.) and vice versa.
All those guests or partners had questions or needs that they wanted answering and I was able to help facilitate that. I was lucky that I got to work on multiple sides of that product and really try to take a holistic overview.
I learned how to work and communicate across multiple teams, all moving at slightly different speeds. And I re-learnt that Design is not only about visuals. I had to learn about conversation design & copywriting. I spent more time on continuous research and iteration than I’ve ever done before.
All of this added up to a project where I learnt a ton and I believe that I grew the most as a Designer because of it.
How does your workflow look like? What makes it special?
My workflow varies depending on where I’m at in a project. I think that’s what makes it special. I don’t have a single way of doing something.
But often, it will involve researching what else is out there. I like to think about how I can take something that’s already been done and see if I can create something similar but in a new and interesting way.
Sometimes I’ll head straight to Sketch, other times I’ll draw a little first. If I get an idea, I like to write it down as soon as possible. Or get that idea out of my head and onto a canvas.
Whatever stage my design is at, I love to ask for feedback. You’ll find me user testing and observing people using my designs as soon as possible. That gives me the insights on how I can improve it because usually, I’m wrong in my assumptions. It’s both humbling and exciting to see a user use your design in a way you hadn’t expected before.
What design tools you started with and what tools are you using right now?
I think that the first tool I started with was an early version of Photoshop, maybe version 4 or 5. It was a long time ago. I do remember that it was difficult back then as I’d have different tools at home and at school and would have to constantly switch between the two.
These days I use a combination of Sketch, Atom and a lot of Chrome Inspector. I tend to use Photoshop if I need to do any photo editing. But UI work is all done in Sketch.
I also use a Wacom tablet. A mouse just doesn’t do it for me. In fact, I don’t think I’ve used a mouse in over 5 years.
What’s the one thing you wished you knew when started with design?
I started so early that if you’d asked me back then I’d probably have said that I wished I knew how to program the Visual Basic files that I was creating to get something to actually work.
Being able to design and then build something — making it come to life — is a feeling that you can’t really match for me.
But I do wish that I’d spent more time learning about business. I definitely think that I could have benefitted from having better commercial awareness from a younger age. Understanding how my designs provide business value — as well as providing a good user experience — would have led to better communication. And through that better designs.
That’s something I’ve spent the last few years working on. So I rarely read design related books these days. Instead, I look at psychology, business, marketing, or whatever it might be.
What problems do you face as a designer when working with developers?
I’ve worked with many different developers over the years and I think that figuring out the best way to communicate my designs to them is key.
People are different. So I try to get to know my developers and the way they work and see if I can bend my process to suit that. They have a tough job and are the ones responsible for making my designs come to life.
In the past I’ve worked with developers who were lightning fast. So fast that it was often hard for me to keep up. In those situations I shared my early ideas, let them work their magic and we refined the end product together. When the developers haven’t been as fast, it’s given me more time to create prototypes so I can show them the UX in action.
But mostly I find it comes down to communication. So any way I can help to improve the overall communication process is great. The less time we spend on back and forth about implementation the quicker we can move to release products or product iterations.
In your opinion, what’s the most important skill to develop for designer and why?
You’ll need it. Whether you’re communicating with clients, speaking at conferences, working on products or whether you’re just out and about with friends. The better you can tell a story, the better you will become at all of those things.
Humans are hard-wired to pay attention to stories. There’s just something about them that makes us sit up and pay attention. I remember reading that this is because of how we would communicate in the early days of human evolution. Stories helped us to learn from each other. And that’s no different today.
So if you can think about storytelling whilst designing, you can think about where your product or client fits into a users own story (their life) and how you can reach them on that level.
Do you think self-promotion is important for designers?
As an introvert from a small village in Yorkshire, England, I’ve always struggled to put myself out there and self-promote. It was never really in my nature. It’s only been over the last few years that I’ve started to open up and tell my own story.
I do think self-promotion can be important. Generally, if you want to get ahead, or stand out, it’s something you need to do these days.
What I do believe is that self-promotion shouldn’t come at the expense of your craft. If you’re just starting out, it’s more important to focus on the basics such as typography and composition. If you’re a little more experienced and have nice consistency with your work, then go for it.
I would rather see more self-promotion through people sharing what they’ve learnt and passing that knowledge on to others than something short-lived and meaningless.
Of course, it also depends what your goals are and the position you are in. If you’re working freelance and trying to get new clients consistently, then more self-promotion is going to be needed. If you’re working on a product like I am, it’s less important.
What would be your dream client to work for?
As a huge sports fan, they are one of the fundamental names in that space. I’ve seen them do amazing, creative things in design and digital. Especially over the past few years.
They’ve inspired me to constantly think how I can push my own boundaries as a designer.
I am not sure I would want to work with them on a client basis. But they’re definitely a company whose work I enjoy and admire.
What do you think will be the next big thing in design?
It’s obviously hard to predict the future, but for me, it has to be storytelling. I’ve been working it into my conference talks and I’ve seen others do the same.
The big social platforms have all added “Story” features which are proving to be successful. And we’re starting to see more holistic approaches to brand, design, and marketing. So I think we’ll see designers talking about storytelling more than before over the next few years.
Bonus Question: If they made a movie about your design work, what would it be called?
I would say Whitespace. That’s something I use a lot of in my designs.
Make sure to share his story with someone who might find this story interesting.
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