Design Leader Insights - Donnie D'Amato on Config and Design System Updates

October 30, 2023


Alex Smith: Design leader Insights is brought to you by FICO UX, UX research strategy and design consultancy. Hey, Donnie, thanks so much for coming on the show today.

Donnie D'Amato: Thanks for having me, Alex. This is great.

Alex Smith: Of course. And yeah, as we get started, can you give the audience a little bit of insight into your journey in UX?

Donnie D'Amato: I mean, we could go back a long way if we really wanted to, because I mean, I've been doing design related stuff for design adjacent stuff. I think since I was very young. Recently, I guess we'll talk about that a little bit. I was the first UX engineer at Compass. So that was the real estate company, the real estate tech company. And I worked there for a few years. And from there, I moved to GoDaddy, where I'm the design system architect for UX platform. So it's not traditional design in that kind of way in terms of my day job. But prior to that, I mean, I've been doing a lot of different design related, guess extracurricular activity as well. I've been, you know, designing websites since the late 90s. But really just ultimately, for me, the reality of it is that engineering ends up paying better. But I have a lot of, you know, thoughts about design. And I have a lot of colleagues that do trust my opinions about design, so much so that I've been hired at the Parsons School of Design, here in New York, to teach user research and interaction design as well. So I have the chops for both, really, and I actually have a much more of a passion for design than I do for engineering.

Alex Smith: No, I love it. And there's a lot to dive into there. First, I just want to say Compass, probably one of my favorite design languages as a company, what they've done with black and white, and like turned it into luxury. And that must have been awesome to experience any thoughts or insights into that. I'm a huge fan of their design language.

Donnie D'Amato: Yeah, actually, I do. So Matt Spangler was the the person who kind of led the design language from the start, they actually he was the person who told the CEO at the time all come on, as long as you change the name of the company from urban compass to compass. And that's what he did, they actually did that. One of the things that was his principal was that, for real estate, company photography is meant to drive the lack of design language. So we're looking at beautiful photos of real estate properties and, and things like that. And he didn't want the UI to take away from that photography, right? Because there's a lot being put into that photography to like, you know, create that emotion about, you know, buying your new house. So that's a lot of the reason why it's all black and white, for the most part, or at least it has been for a while, I actually just visited the site a couple of weeks ago, and it was like, they're using blue a lot more often now. And maybe that's because Matt has since left to his own ventures, of course, and really probably doesn't have, you know, that backstory anymore. But I really liked that idea of really, you know, driving that simplicity and being like, Okay, how far can we go with just black and white, which is a great kind of constraint. I mean, you know, I think design actually does a lot better when we have those constraints in mind where, you know, you can't can't just put color wherever you really need to think, you know, a little bit more critically about how you how you make those design choices.

Alex Smith: Yeah, no, thanks for that background. I didn't, I didn't realize the story there. And I think the other thing was chatting about his config. I saw you there. And really everything you mentioned in your intro engineering, there's a new engineering mode, and design systems, variables, tokens, a lot of those are the kinds of new things that they're diving into. So I'd love to hear your thoughts on those new new releases. And also, what do you what do you think it config

Donnie D'Amato: Overall, for me it was really great meeting people in real life that I normally would see online. So as a whole bunch of people that, you know, I converse with on a regular basis that are just all around the country and the world that you know, because this is like the design Coachella, like it was that kind of thing. Yeah. Yeah. So that was really good in terms of the experience. It is funny, because I was at schema in October last year, which was another figma event. They were here in New York. And Jake Miller mentioned that they were working on tokens to actually expect them next year, so we were all kind of Yeah, okay, it's coming. And, you know, variables came out and everyone you know, lost, they're lost. They're lost there. aren't they, all their minds are on the floor. And it is a very powerful thing, and especially the way that Dylan demonstrated it by moving like components from one section to another, and seeing, you know, things change is very impactful. And then I guess from what you originally asked about the death mode stuff, the definite stuff is actually really good. Just marking parts of the design as ready for Dev is monumental. Yeah, because it's very common for a developer to go into a figma file and go, Oh, my God, where do I start? And from what I've seen, so far, the Inspect panel is a lot better, I wouldn't say it's like 100%, in terms of what I would actually do for the final implementation, but it's a lot better. And I think also including, and all that plugin system that they have, that they've Wikus, they've had for design into dev mode is actually really exciting as well. So there's a lot of exciting stuff. Yeah. And, I actually would be interested to see what your take on this particular part is, there are a certain group of people that are really excited about all those changes. There's another group of people who are completely overwhelmed. And they're like, I, you know, this is too far. I just wanted to move my rectangles around. And that's a spectrum. Right. Where are you on that spectrum?

Alex Smith: Yeah, I think it just relates to design maturity, right. And like the, you know, the organizational design, maturity and their knowledge of figma. I saw it as more of a, like, I think their business strategy behind dev mode is, is super smart, right? Get the dev invested in and dependable on this tool. And then let's have some product lead growth, expand into devs, that are better now sharing figma links, because it's an easy way for them to work with designers. And that's, that's really what I was thinking about is like, why would they do that? Oh, they mentioned 30% of the users now are devs. And like, I think last year, the stat was the majority of users aren't designers, AKA a lot of product folks in there. But I think you're right, then it becomes an overwhelming tool that has all these different decision makers in there that don't necessarily know where to focus. So it creates interesting problems. And I was going to ask you, where you think it's going next. I'm wondering if they go even further with Dev, focused front end development and try and build their own, like Webflow instance, for example. And like, actually have it build pages and potentially apps,

Donnie D'Amato: I would love to see it, kind of go into actually like framer territory, where when you're actually making, you know, experience, it's basically more or less like, you're using the real coded components that already exists that come into your design tool that you can play around with, because I think framer was actually really on the cutting edge of that kind of stuff, where, you know, you would have your coded design system, these are the assets that your users will ultimately see. So why not use exactly what the users are seeing in your designs in your artboards? You know, maybe, I mean, there's a lot of other places, like they talked about AI, a lot of config, it's a lot of opportunity for AI to come into the space. There's a lot of opportunities for growth in here, especially with the AI stuff. I think it's gonna be an exciting time.

Alex Smith: Donnie, what advice do you have for new designers that might be entering the field today? And maybe, maybe it's designed to some advice to you. I know the designers that are like, how do I get into that?

Donnie D'Amato: I think the best thing to think about is to think about your users. All a lot of the time I see designers that are looking to make a name for themselves by doing this kind of, you know, cutting edge design are this, you know, novel way of interaction and, you know, something that's really interesting. And granted, those are really cool to explore. But the fact of the matter is, is that many, many users are used to the same things and providing those same experiences over and over again, for them to achieve their goals is the stuff that actually brings in the money, right? If they can't, you know, check out in their experience and use the thing that they just bought, they don't want to be a part of your experience. So it's important to provide an experience that they're familiar with, that they actually can use and otherwise purchase. Of course, they make money out of this whole thing. Ultimately, those are really nice for like, you know, experimentation and exploration and stuff like that. But you really have to think about those foundations that are tried and true.

Alex Smith: I think that's a great point. It's just, there's not a need to reinvent the wheel so much, and just get those foundations down. Absolutely. And where can people go? To find more about you or reach out,

Donnie D'Amato: Well, I am a  That's my website. I'm also, actually that probably the easiest thing to do is that I have a And it's And all my links are there. So if you're looking for some socials or whatever, I will be there. And then, you know, a lot of design system community stuff. I'll be hanging around there too. So if you're already a part of that, I'll be right there with you,

Alex Smith: Donnie, thanks so much for coming on the show today and sharing these insights.

Donnie D'Amato: Yes, it's been great Alex, I appreciate talking with you. And we'll have to catch up next time you're in New York.