A Q&A with Dean Merson, Manager - Experience Design
11th November 2021
Author Dean Merson
“We love having Dean in the Experience team. He brings a really thoughtful, empathetic and methodical approach to all of his work. His experience in the digital world and enterprise technologies is creating bridges between all of our capabilities inside Davanti, showing what connected experiences means in many forms.”
Marijke Preston, Experience Design Practice Lead – Southern
We catch up with Dean to find out more about his role, his background and the role he plays in helping organisations create connected experiences and get closer to their customers.
Tell us a bit about your role and what it entails
I’ve recently joined Davanti as a Manager in the Experience Design team in Wellington, focusing on user experience (UX) design.
The team and I are responsible for the design phase of a project. We can come in anytime from initial kick-off right through the development stage, to completion. While it differs from project to project, the best scenario is when we’re involved right from the start, working with the client to figure out their end goals, business needs and requirements. This way we can bring in the user perspective right from the get-go, which adds a lot of business value.
Once we understand the client’s requirements in the initial phase, we then look at how we can make this usable, taking into consideration what technology platforms we might use, what constraints we’re working with, or how we can push the boundaries. Ideally, we will co-design with the client right through the project, working with developers and other teams to get the best possible outcome. Regardless, we’re always focused on usability, functionality and accessibility.
Tell us a bit about your background, your mission in life, what gets you out of bed in the morning…
I’ve been in the digital space for 10-12 years now, and I’ve been in the UX space for a lot of that time. I started off doing graphic design initially, as well as web development. I also worked for a small game design company. UX was still evolving 10 years ago, but graphic design and web development naturally merged as trends changed and digital products evolved. It became apparent that it was a natural progression and a natural fit for me to move into that space.
In my previous role, I spent a lot of time working with the Microsoft tech stack. Moving to Davanti has been a good challenge in that I’ve had to switch over to Salesforce as that’s the primary tech stack used here. The difference from my career to a lot of designers is that I’ve aligned more with designing to technology platforms, as opposed to custom blue sky websites, for instance. I’ve really enjoyed working with technology constraints and trying to make products usable within that. One of the main reasons I’m in this career is that I enjoy working with people and solving problems, and looking at that through a design lens.
More personally, a big driver for me is my family and being able to support them. I have a wife and a young son, who’s just turned two, with another on the way next year. It’s pretty simple, but I want to enjoy life and create a good life for them, and have a lot of fun along the way.
What brought you to Davanti, and what are you most looking forward to in your new role?
I wanted a fresh challenge and a place where I could learn new things. I’d worked with a few people at Davanti previously, and I had enjoyed working with them.
I saw a lot of alignment between Davanti and my skillset. I’d be working within technology constraints, and we would also be working with many government sector or enterprise-level clients, which I have a lot of experience in.
The biggest thing I’ve noticed since joining is the culture. I was excited to work with the people here, there’s good talent within the team, but it’s more that as soon as I started, everyone knew who I was. It seemed like there was no real hierarchy in terms of how people treat you – everyone is very well respected and will listen to your ideas, no matter whether you’re a junior or a senior, are newer to the team or have been with Davanti for years. I definitely noticed that they’re a very welcoming company and a super friendly bunch. It also seems like they have a lot of fun – they work very hard but they have a good time as well.
One of the main things I’m looking forward to is learning Salesforce. I’ve come from the Microsoft stack, which I know inside and out. Now coming to Salesforce, while a lot of the same principles apply, if I want to do my job successfully and design usable solutions I need to understand a certain amount about Salesforce – how it works, what it can do, and any constraints. Salesforce is a big product with a lot to learn, and I’m enjoying tackling that challenge.
How do you help customers achieve connected experiences, and how does this improve their lives or achieve business outcomes?
We’re always looking at things from a user-centric perspective. It’s important to make sure ensure upfront that we’re getting the requirements right, that we’re doing our due diligence and the research, and really making sure the clients understand just how important the first phase of a project is. If you do this phase correctly, you’re going to get a far better outcome than jumping straight into an agile mindset, developing from day one only focusing on functionality.
Agile methodology is a big trend right now, but in my opinion people often run before they’ve learned how to walk. With agile you start building straight away, when actually you still need to understand what you’re doing, identify requirements and understand the problems. One thing I focus on is trying to reverse that a bit to show clients how important it is to focus on usability. If you’re not going to get your users engaged with the digital product, software, whatever it may be, then it’s not really going to increase business outcomes or customer uptake and you’re not going to get as much benefit as you could. I think why we see projects fail is because they’re trying to build before they’ve actually thought through the problem or understood what the problem is. In fact, I think this is one of the biggest issues in the industry at the moment when working with large technology platforms.
To change this we need a mindset shift from functionality to usability, and then to consider that within constraints such as technology, timeframes and cost. We need to find the right balance and to take everyone with us on the same journey to deliver outcomes that meet the business and user goals.
In your conversations with customers right now, what’s the one thing they’re thinking about and focusing on this year when it comes to transforming their customer experience?
As demands from users change, businesses are starting to look at outcomes from a more user-centric approach. If you think about technology changes, a lot of customers these days are wanting one solution that can do everything, as opposed to having 10 different systems that do one function each. Within this, ultimately users are happy with something that’s perhaps a bit more clunky but does the job. From the designer or developer standpoint, we’re not looking so much at building experiences that are completely custom, but how to integrate different systems. This is especially true in the CRM space, which is a growing area.
Another aspect of this is that businesses are trying to simplify the way they work. If you think about digital transformation and the pandemic, we’re doing a lot more online and businesses are having to adjust to a huge amount of change in a short timeframe. This means they’re trying to simplify where they can, which brings us back to the desire to have one system that can do multiple tasks instead of having 10 systems that can do one or two.
The speed of change is a big one, and this brings us back to how important it is to focus on the initial discovery phase. If you can gather requirements and prioritise adequate research then you can better ensure you’ll end up with a product or service that actually works. If you fail in the first phase it’s generally better than failing at the other end. A huge focus for our team is on gathering information before we jump into building.
When you’re not busy helping our clients get closer to their customers, how do you spend your time?
I spend a lot of time with my family, especially the little one. My family is from Hawke’s Bay, so when we can we head back there. As far as activities goes, I’m into anything sports-related, whether that’s golf, fishing, surfing – anything in that area. I enjoy outdoor sports a lot. I also like to get away from digital and design something that’s not a website, so that might be landscaping or another DIY project around the house.
Sources of inspiration?
I take inspiration from other areas within the design spectrum, and how other industries function or interpret problems. That could be anything, for instance considering how architects design a house and solve various problems within that.
Other people’s perspectives are also a source of inspiration for me. It’s useful for me to have someone else to run my ideas past, and it’s important to mix with people that are driven and hard-working. Friends and family are included in this. There’s inspiration everywhere if you look for it.
Favourite quote or mantra?
“Design is thinking made visual.” – Saul Bass
People often misinterpret design and think it’s just pretty pictures and colouring in, which of course it’s not. To say design is thinking made visual puts more emphasis on the problem-solving aspect of design, which I think is actually the biggest part of my job.