Keeping our seat at the table

Posted September 1st, 2014 in Opinions

The article ‘Designer Duds: Losing Our Seat at the Table’ written by Mills Baker a few months ago has provoked a great reaction from designers. I say ‘great’ because a) opinion pieces that lead to constructive, inward self-examination are a good thing as far as I’m concerned and b) noses of the established design hierarchy that are occasionally put out of joint often lead to compelling counter viewpoints a la Cennydd Bowles’ related piece.

Sinclair C5

Perceptions of a designer

My personal experiences as a user experience (UX) user interface (UI) designer are probably quite similar to most of my fellow practitioners when it comes to how our position has been regarded over the years.

When I started out in agency land during the burgeoning new media revolution, designers were very much at the end of a long chain of command and ideas. We always felt undervalued in our input and our well thought out conceptual ideas were often discarded for not having the commercial sensibilities or more importantly, client friendliness that was required.

I suspect on both points the account managers, who were then the arbiters of what would and would not fly, were quite often right to a degree but it was the perception that we were there to window dress rather then to contribute to the core ideas that really riled me and my colleagues.

Today the structure of teams is very different from the segregated design, development, account/project management, business development environment of yesteryear. The focus is on multi-disciplined teams with everyone owning the ‘idea’ and with the advent of the maker/hacker culture, everyone also actively contributing to the end product.

This has meant designers working directly with business developers (or ‘growth hackers’ in todays nomenclature) leading to much more cohesive output. Recently though, the playing field has seemingly once again become uneven with design now dictating business decisions and value.

Mills Baker affirms this by suggesting that with the monstrous success of organisations such as Apple, the tables have been turned and in fact it is the designers that are now the arbiters of what will and will not succeed. In Baker’s view this hasn’t necessarily been a good thing.

It’s a point he goes on to substantiate further with several recent examples including products such as the social network Path and Dropbox’s photo album and sharing service Carousel, which he regards as ‘brilliantly designed’ but hard to differentiate functionally from several other products in the sector.

Baker’s article has (again) led me to ask all kinds of searching questions about the value of design and what design actually means in the work that we do.

What do I do?

What makes good design? are we applying the right metrics or is it aesthetic alone that drives the notions of what makes good design?

I can’t answer these questions succinctly but what I can do is relay a method that I apply to my work in order to make sure that good design means more then just aesthetics:

Apply best practice

Best practice is something that evolves over time and from hundreds of real use cases. It’s a phrase that gets banded around to death in our industry but does really mean something. Find out what is best practice for your use case and why it has become so, look at the opinion of thought leaders on the matter and cross-reference with real world scenarios then record what they are in your own Wiki for future use.

Keep justifying your choices

Be ready to justify the design decisions that you make firstly to yourself and then to whoever asks. Even if it’s slightly annoying to be asked by an internal team member why you’ve chosen grey instead of blue, it’s good to be able to articulate your choices and who knows, it may even lead to a modified and improved solution.

Push yourself

Just because the client is happy it doesn’t mean you should necessarily be happy too. In my agency days we used to cynically quip that we weren’t in the business producing great work or even affecting bottom lines but in the business of keeping people happy. Your clients and key stakeholders are of course essential but may not be as well versed in the medium as you. Push yourself to your own high standards and don’t settle for an easy sign-off.

Do your own research

How many times have you asked someone outside of the project for their opinion of what you’ve produced? We are getting better at getting feedback but it still happens surprisingly rarely. As humans we naturally seek acceptance and confirmation from others around us that we know and more often then not we are told what we want to hear. Go beyond your close knit group, collar someone in a neighbouring office or in a cafe and get them to take a look at your work, You really will be surprised at what you learn.

Make sure it’s fit for purpose

Finally, what you make needs to do the job it’s meant to do and go beyond just looking good and superficial utility. A simple point but something that often get’s lost in designer naval gazing. We love large type, powerful full screen imagery and line icons but will our target audience be able achieve their goals when using your product? Test and then test again to make sure they do.

It’s a fairly simple mantra driven by common sense but has helped me stay on track when producing my work – I hope it helps you do the same.