MacDowell garage shop, Austin, Texas

Made by Ian MacDowell: The secret to designing for return on time.

an argomade series

This week’s featured argonaut is a creative technologist and proud Vermonter with a history as an adjunct professor at Champlain College and as head of mobile and interactive at Burton Snowboards. But Ian Macdowell left all that behind as soon as he discovered that Austin, Texas had its very own death metal pizza.

Since then, Ian has made his mark as co-founder and VP of the Sons of Technology motorcycle riding group, an alternative and informal forum for personal and professional development in the tech industry. Composed of developers, software sales professionals, and business owners, SoT has grown to over 1600 members in three chapters across the state, representing each of Texas’ major metropolitan areas. Their credo? “We are made of code and oil, and believe in open roads and open source.”

When Ian isn’t on a chopper or making use of his skills as an Eagle Scout, he wrangles all things code and plenty of creative at argodesign, where he lives by a UX philosophy he’s developed over the course of his career. It’s simple, but it affects every decision he makes: Return on Time.

How’d you get here?

I grew up in rural Vermont in a log cabin on a dirt road next door to a horse farm. However, we did have a computer in the house, which in the early 80’s was fairly unheard of. My formal interest in both design and technology began around the same time when I enrolled in a high school “Technical Communications” class. After getting a design degree from Champlain College, I went into the Tattoo industry for a few years before going back to Champlain for another degree in Computer Science.

My career in design started as a Flash Developer at Then I spent several years at Burton Snowboards as the Tech Lead for Mobile and Interactive. But Burton kept sending me to Texas for SXSW, and I fell in love with tacos, the weather, the music…basically everything about Austin. I moved to Austin in 2012 when I got a job with R/GA as a Senior Open Standards developer; a couple years later, I joined the team at argo.

Why are you a designer? What is the intention that drives your work?

I love solving problems; nothing brings me more joy than that. Whether it’s through technology, UX, or design, I enjoy fixing or improving things. I was that kid in high school that hated standardized tests but would jump at the chance to solve problems with a less tangible (yet equally correct) answer.

I truly enjoy helping people, and solving problems in the digital space allows me to help far more people than I ever could in person. Knowing that the solution I’ve applied to a problem might relieve someone’s anxiety, shorten a task, or just make someone’s day a little better is what draws me to this line of work.

What’s the unique element you add to the argodesign team?

I believe it’s an “all-around” skill set and mindset that I bring to argo. Besides being equally comfortable working in UX, technology, and design, I have a wide swath of varying experience in separate verticals: I’ve worked in marketing, e-commerce, startups, enterprise, and brand. I’ve worked with Fortune 500 companies and 2-person startups. I’ve lived in cities and in the country, the south and the north, liberal meccas and conservative strongholds. This diverse life and career experience helps me craft understandings about potential users from differing perspectives. Designing for diversity is extremely important; it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of designing only for yourself and your personal use-case.

What’s a creative life-hack you’ve developed as a result of design thinking?

Return on Time. It’s my UX and design philosophy. The one thing that everyone has the exact same amount of, regardless of their socioeconomic status, is 24 hours in a day. Even if something is completely free, a user is still trading their time to interact with it — time that they could spend with their family, enjoying a hobby, or getting work done. If you as a designer treat your user’s time with the same respect that you give your own, you will ultimately deliver success.

We all make daily decisions in order to use our time efficiently. How many times have you skipped out on an experience simply because the line looked too long? How many checkout lanes will you walk past because the next one might be 30 seconds quicker? We rarely ask how far away a place is; instead we ask how long it will take to get there, always striving to optimize our time spent on each activity we undertake.

Sometimes you can’t speed things up, but as a designer you can still show respect for the user’s time. Uber does this by tracking your pick-up car in real-time. Calling a traditional taxi might take the same amount of time as the Uber experience, but without that visual feedback, idle time feels like wasted time.

Another great example of this type of design thinking comes from the Houston, TX airport, of all places. An inordinate number of complaints were flowing in about the long wait times in the baggage claim area. To address concerns, more baggage handlers were hired and wait times decreased — but the same number of complaints kept coming. It was only when the airport took a closer look at the user experience that a different solution emerged. They found that while it took passengers only one minute to walk from the gate to baggage claim, passengers then stood waiting about seven minutes for their bags; that’s 88% of their time spent idle. So the airport moved the arrival gates farther from the baggage claim, increasing the time spent walking six-fold. This simple change dramatically reduced perceived wait times even though total time to receive baggage was essentially the same. Complaints dropped to virtually zero.

In digital design this “Return on Time” philosophy can take shape in many different ways: from removing an unnecessary animation or loading screens, reducing a form down to its bare essentials, or reducing image size to speed up a website. This is one of the primary reasons I advocate for a mobile-first design approach to websites; it forces the designer to reduce clutter and start with only the most necessary elements. To invoke a classic design mantra, “A design is only finished when there is nothing left to take away.”

What personal characteristics are essential to your design work?

Taking ego completely out of the work will always generate the best results. Deeply listening and taking criticism goes a long way towards creating the best work possible. Remember that it’s ultimately about the end user (not you, the client, or their boss); it’s the person that is going to use the product that matters most. Be the user advocate in the equation, and you will generate success.

What are you obsessing over presently?

My new Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail, my Mustang GT, my Wrangler Unlimited, and my other Harley — I like things with motors. There is a finality with a mechanical engine that is somewhat lacking in the digital space. As much as I love the engineering involved with digital products, there is always something so obfuscated that you’re never 100% sure how it all works. An engine is decidedly different in this aspect; you can break it down to see every component and how they interact. There is a simplicity there that’s gratifying to me.

In what area should design play a stronger role?

Government. I honestly think most people see government as a bother — even a blocker. If you think about most of your primary interactions with government, they’re not great experiences. Filing taxes, dealing with the DMV, and even voting leave you with the feeling that these systems are intentionally inefficient, or at the very least designed to be more confusing and frustrating than necessary. I believe a better-designed experience with these same agencies could radically change people’s attitude on government.

Tune into our feed next week for another installment in the argomade series; we’ll talk to designer Matthew Santone, one of the original argonauts who cut his teeth at an AdAge A-List agency, holds five patents, and is studying to be a sommelier.

ian macdowell | argodesign | facebook | twitter | linkedin | instagram

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