Dmytro Kovalenko on good design, AI, and the future of the profession

Dmytro Kovalenko is one of the first people who took part in and witnessed the rise of Readdle. He has become a key player in overseeing seamless design strategy and solutions for our consumer apps and Readdle's workflow automation platform Fluix. We spoke previously about Dmytro's approach on building an in-house design department. In this interview, we focus on gaining some insight into what good design actually means, and whether AI is posing a threat to it. 

How did your perception of design change over time?

I would begin by sharing my perspective on design itself, as understanding that context makes it easier to comprehend my changes in perception of design and roles.

Even at the beginning of my career, I held a broad view of design. To me, design has always transcended mere visual aesthetics. It encompasses every facet of human activity—whether it be a process, a tangible object, or something intangible like digital or psychological constructs (e.g. languages we speak).

I firmly believe that everything humans engage in is a form of design. We design tools for use, shape cities to inhabit, create languages to convey information, structure societies to progress collectively, formulate scientific principles to explain our surroundings, develop vaccines to study cells and combat viruses, you name it. Essentially, we engage in designing every aspect of our lives in one way or another. Unlike nature, which inherently designs itself, humans actively participate in the act of designing for various purposes.

Thus, my role, I believe and hope, has remained consistent over time—to design solutions. These solutions could range from addressing customer problems to tackling challenges related to cross-functional team collaboration, processes efficiency and/or transparency, and so on. In recent times, my focus has predominantly been on DesignOps — collaboration, processes, and mentorship for my teammates; both internally and externally.

As for the title itself, my journey started as a graphic designer and evolved through roles like web designer, UI Designer, Product Designer, Head of Product Design, and eventually Head of Design. However, frankly, the title is somewhat political. Regardless of the specific designation, my core mission remains consistent—delivering the best possible experiences to our customers, whether through direct work on product, guiding and leading fellow designers, or fostering efficient collaborations and business processes within the team.

How do you balance user needs and desires with the technical side of building a product?

For me, it's a no-brainer; when you're building a product for humans (which is almost always the case, unless it's specifically designed for a particular animal, for instance), the primary focus should always be on the actual needs of the users. This involves delving in, asking questions, conducting extensive research, and the like, all aimed at understanding and addressing those genuine needs.

As for users' desires, if I interpret “desires” correctly, they can indeed serve as a valuable source of ideas for evolving the product further. This is particularly relevant when there might not be sufficient predefined plans, goals, or ideas in your arsenal. Users' desires can spark creativity and guide the product's development in meaningful ways.

How do you find solutions that are both innovative and consistent, familiar to users? 

In my experience, the extent of innovation required in product development strategy depends heavily on the nature of business, product niche, and the current stage of its growth. I firmly believe that constant and extensive innovation may not be necessary until your product effectively addresses its goal, solves customer’s problem, AND your business demonstrates a predictable and needed growth pace. If the primary objective is not to “disrupt” an industry or rapidly increase business revenue, a more measured approach to innovation may suffice.

Consistency and familiarity, on the other hand, remain crucial across various stages of product development and growth. They are not just important in and of themselves but also play key roles in maintaining user retention, building brand awareness, reducing churn rate, lowering development and design costs, alleviating support burdens, and more. This holds especially true in the B2B market, where stability and reliability are often highly valued.

How did new AI like MidJourney impact design in general and has it affected your work personally?

Certainly, AI has become ubiquitous, influencing operations across various industries and niches. Its impact is felt in daily operations, leading to changes in approaches. I think the widespread adoption of AI is expected to result in the elimination of numerous human jobs in diverse fields, a transition that is anticipated to occur swiftly. However, as with any new technology, AI will also give rise to novel roles and niches, something like "Senior Graphic AI Prompter" or "AI Usage Controller Comity," offering opportunities at different levels and in various directions.

In my specific role, AI hasn't significantly altered my responsibilities thus far. My primary tasks still involve working, communicating, and mentoring real humans, along with constructing collaboration and development plans. However, I am exploring ways to leverage the benefits of AI in my daily routines and workflows. The objective is to enhance efficiency, improve quality, reduce decision and delivery times, and more. I anticipate that AI will bring about substantial changes, particularly with future releases, which is quite scary, frankly.

How do you stay up-to-date with the latest design trends and technologies?

In my approach to design, I prioritize design principles over fleeting trends. While design trends, like any other trends, are temporary events (with exceptions, of course), design principles are enduring and permanent. I believe in adhering to these principles and leveraging knowledge to craft the best possible experiences for people. By giving careful attention to the quality, emotional side, and visual appeal of those experiences, I desire to create designs that stand the test of time.

The motto I adhere to is: "By focusing on foundational design principles and emphasizing quality, you have the potential to establish your own trends.”

Looking ahead, what do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges facing the design profession?

The most significant opportunity and challenge in our field, in my view, revolve around fundamental education. Many designers in IT today lack knowledge in essential areas such as ergonomics, color theory, cognitive science, social behavior, and accessibility (fortunately, there's been increased awareness about accessibility in recent years). It's frustrating to witness this gap because we live in an era where even the smallest detail can go viral globally, impacting hundreds of millions (sometimes even billions already) of people instantly, with little accountability for the consequences. While I acknowledge that I also have much to learn, I'm committed to consistently enhancing my knowledge and skills.

Another formidable challenge lies in the visible impact of AI on digital assets, including images and videos. Particularly in politics and global human behavior, it is already noticeable. The challenge stems from the increasing difficulty in distinguishing real content from generative. Urgent regulations and limitations on the use of AI in the social media space are essential! I am genuinely concerned about the potential effects on our children and future generations if the current generation fails to design proper mechanisms and limitations for AI usage. Collaboration with researchers, sociologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, and other scientists is crucial to ensure responsible and ethical AI development that serves as a tool to help humans, rather than unleashing "world-conquering" algorithms without due consideration of their societal implications.

How do you think designers can best position themselves to succeed in the future?

I believe, at least at this point in my career, a steadfast rule should guide design approach: "Follow human-centered design principles and you will always be able to design a solution—whether digital, physical, or intellectual. As long as there are humans alive." DKO

This rule underscores the relevance and applicability of foundational design principles and heuristics across various domains and emphasizes their timeless value in crafting meaningful solutions for all of us; humanity.

Interested in contributing to Readdle's PDF Expert vision and design? Check out open roles on DKO's team. 

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