Talk to a Leader:
Ritik Dholakia of Studio Rodrigo

2020.04.22 by Shift

Shift’s ‘Talk to a Leader’ is a series of conversations we’re having with our team, friends and partners. Our goal is to help amplify their insights on design and technology thinking, work experiences and life.

From design in 2020, to how to collaborate while working from home, to how to stay inspired, we will post conversations around living, working and creating in a whole new world.

We are lucky to have Ritik Dholakia of Studio Rodrigo as our first interview. Ritik is a prolific design and technology leader and a longtime collaborator. He helps us think about things a bit differently.

We’re all seeing and living life through the lens of COVID-19 right now. How do you see digital design strategy shifting to deal with this new global reality? What role can design and technology play in helping agencies and businesses move through these challenges?

Ritik Dholakia: It feels a bit early to be asking and making any predictions about a post-COVID world, since we are still in the middle of it, just from a personal coping and public health standpoint, and we don’t yet know what the world of business will look like once it’s over. That said, there are some shifts we were already prepared for like the acceleration to remote work, how to collaborate remotely on product design and development, building cultures of accountability, and working autonomously. Also, no meetings.

The big questions for me surround what COVID-19 is revealing about some fundamental fissures in the resiliency and stability of our businesses — pretty much across industries — and deep inequality within society. Questions like:

  • How does the hospitality and location-based service sector (restaurants, bars, venues) that define so much of urban life survive? What happens when the virus hits these sectors who for the past 12 years have already been living on the financial edge? What solutions can address both problems? I shared some early thoughts on restaurant resiliency here.
  • Will consumers change how they think of their relationships with the places they love, not just as brands or transactions, but as businesses run by people whose work they value?
  • Will agencies and technology providers help create stability, deepen customer-to-provider relationships, and grow the pie? Or continue to act as a disintermediating force (like Uber or GrubHub or Airbnb), using software as a wedge to cut into the margins and stability of the small businesses and workers?
  • Will those of us who create software-driven experiences be able to more deeply influence the business models, culture of convenience, and winner-take-all spoils that software creates, by making things more efficient? Or is there an ethical responsibility to look at how that software works for society writ large, not just from a consumerist point of view, but in terms of equity, stability, and resilience?
  • Is there an ongoing place for small, nimble, creative agencies - or will we face a world that continues to be dominated by consolidation, where the only way to success in the face of uncertainty is to be too big to fail?

On the positive side, it’s been heartening to see companies big and small step up in the face of adversity — particularly those that have been nimble in shifting their models or capabilities to meet the needs of a global emergency see LVMH producing hand sanitizer; many independent whiskey distilleries are also doing the same) or by taking a human and honest approach to their customer relationships see Allstate refunding premiums since people aren’t driving; restaurants shifting their kitchens to feed hospital workers).

As we weather the storm over the next 12-18 months, I’m interested to see which companies (and particularly smaller agencies) rethink their role as not just about maximizing profit, but creating tools, processes, and cultures that help businesses become more resilient and focused on seeing employees and customers as part of a community to whom they are trying to deliver sustained value.

Three months ago, the expectation was that 2020 would be the year of true customer experience (CX). Does this ring true today?

RD: Admittedly, CX and its partner digital transformation have always kind of felt like management buzzwords. If you aren’t focused on delivering a good customer experience, what are you doing at work?

As a small, smart, creative team, customer experience is part of what we do. I want working with us to be the best part of our clients’ work day. On top of delivering what we promise, helping them achieve their goals, and being reliable partners, I want our clients to value and enjoy their interactions with us. We’re making new and useful things; it should be fun.

The only thing that I would hope changes in the industry is that we add Employee Experience — and maybe Partner Experience — more explicitly to the mix. That probably should have been there from the start — if your team is happy, secure, and free to be themselves, they will deliver for your customers.

You’ve done work for clients as varied as Comcast, Spotify, This American Life, and startups like OpenSpace and Spell. What do these and other clients have in common when they come to you?

RD: Our best working relationships tend to be with clients who are ambitious, have a vision, and want a design partner who can move quickly and iteratively to help them realize that vision. That’s our recipe for success. It’s a template we honed working with motivated startups who place a high premium on smart thinking, quality design, and a humble approach to collaboration and iteration. They’re focused on getting “it” right — whatever that “it” may be for a company and their customers.

That’s what we look for in our clients and what they see in us.

What is unique about a Studio Rodrigo designer? What sets your team apart?

RD: Instead of solving the same problem over and over, trying to create cookie cutter efficiency, we like solving new, messy, and intellectually challenging problems.

What makes a Studio Rodrigo designer unique is a combination of these qualities: wanting to dive headfirst into new waters, but able to visualize and bring ideas to life quickly and at high fidelity so we can pressure test them and make them better.

Design is our superpower for doing that. As a team, we have fun working hard and celebrating with good music and good food.

In the context of building and launching digital products, it’s interesting that design and technology can’t exist without each other, yet turning the corner between design and development continues to be a fundamental challenge for agencies and internal teams alike. How do you approach this at Studio Rodrigo and where have you found wins in creating true collaborations between designers and developers?

RD: Our team has a long history of working in both agency and startup environments. Through that experience, two guiding truths have emerged that really define our process.

The first, from a design perspective, is that “as real as we can make something, as quickly as possible, the more we'll learn.” In some ways, this is a step away from the “everyone is a designer” mode of design thinking. It’s a belief that “good designers are good designers,” with a focus on creating an accessible process for everyone to identify insights and give feedback, but giving designers the latitude to solve problems and create new things given their unique skills.

The second is that, at the end of the day, the software is ground truth. Whatever experience we envision, our goal is to do everything we can to help developers deliver that vision — and that might mean simplifying it for an MVP; adapting tools or processes; or learning new things from a technology point of view. Our development partners bring our visions to life. So in the working relationship, we serve them in order to make sure we can deliver the experiences we want.

Do you have an upcoming product launch you are excited about?

RD: Quite a few — We’re helping a Bay Area machine vision startup called OpenSpace grow, working with a smart AI-driven health tech team in Montreal called Imagia, and collaborating with Redesign Health on some new things. They are all launching soon, and all bring design and tech together to solve real world problems.

What do you wish you saw more of in the industry? How about less?

RD: I wish there was less operational blocking and tackling and more collaboration and transparency across “competitors” — particularly focused on leveling up everyone’s game and helping teams focus more on creating value.

I think the open source software community has been amazing at doing this — making the building blocks available so that people can focus on higher goals. I would love to see that philosophy permeate the culture of more businesses and industries. We’ve tried to do our part by sharing some of our operating philosophies and tools with our peers.

Ritik Dholakia

Ritik Dholakia is a product strategist, entrepreneur, and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He is managing partner and founder at Studio Rodrigo.