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Beware design shrinking
The impact that design can have in the digital domain is being stifled by its integration into what are, to all intents and purposes, manufacturing processes.
Digital design is in a difficult position. Slaved to engineering as a sub-process, we are in an era where designers are encouraged to ‘think fast then get building’, solving ever more granular problems in smaller and smaller time increments as part of think fast, build fast, fail fast methodologies.
Let’s start with the root causes
As the business world, and most tech companies in particular, aggressively adopted both Lean and Agile methodologies, design was tied into processes that emerged from manufacturing and software development respectively. Processes developed from, and optimised for, laudable goals like production efficiency, predictability and fault eradication.
Both made important contributions to the development of modern digital product disciplines and are, in their own right, key to how many modern businesses operate. Above all, in the context of digital products, they solved ‘the waterfall problem’ where nothing ever got delivered until it was past its sell-by date. Their impact, on many levels, has been extremely positive.
They’re also turning design into an increasingly systematised and standardised process. And that is sucking much of the real potential out of what design should contribute. Note that I’m not talking about ‘design thinking’ here – which is for non-designers – I’m talking about the role of the designer and professional design disciplines.
This has been rumbling for a while…
Back in 2001, Jesse James Garrett co-founded Adaptive Path, perhaps the first ‘proper’ UX agency. Twenty years later, he penned an article for Fast Company (’UX design is more successful than ever, but its leaders are losing hope. Here’s why’) that addressed the growing concern among UX leaders that everything had ‘gone wrong’.
He said: “What got lost along the way was a view of UX as something deeper and more significant than a step in the software delivery pipeline” and then goes on to “The same things that make agile a great fit for scaling engineering work—regular sprint tempos; clearly articulated outcomes to be produced; breaking down the complex, unfolding experience of users into concrete elements that can be tied to code—are the very things that make it a terrible fit for foundational UX work. The holism necessary to do foundational UX is antithetical to the assembly-line chunks of user behavior agile requires.”
While design is clearly a much broader family of disciplines than UX, I agree with the principle completely: you can’t break design into little snippets of thinking time and expect anything other than patterned, predictable results to emerge.
Last year I read a brilliant, passionate essay from a UX designer at Microsoft lamenting the demise of the ‘real’ designer (The Vanishing Designer). My favourite quote: “Visionary designers have lost their conceptual integrity to an industrial complex optimized for consensus, predictability, and short-term business gain.”
He argues, completely inarguably I believe, that design has become systematised and standardised, at the expense of what design can really accomplish.
“…efficiency is realized by a chain of standardization. The design output has been standardized to interface with engineering. The design process has been standardized to supply design output. The designer’s skillset has been standardized to follow the design process.”
I could feel my stomach tightening when I read that. Design, a discipline that has enriched our existence from the earliest days, is being neutered for the illusion of progress and the reality of predictability.
“The Silicon Valley giants, testifying with their runaway success, claimed to have “solved” design as an engineering problem. The solution substituted the human essence of design — intuition, ingenuity— with the tangibles, measurable, and deliverables.
Companies say they are “design-driven”, but designers are actually driven by dashboards filled with metrics like CSAT, NPS, CES, DAU, MAU.”
This is painfully recognisable to any designers today who were either around before the dominance of these production-oriented processes or are waking up frustrated with their ability to do anything that isn’t already on the roadmap and isn’t found in one of the frameworks their company has adopted.
We’re increasingly sacrificing the potential of something brilliant for the predictability of something systematic
It’s not an either-or. Companies who want to be more than ‘another one’ must do both.
I trained as an architect originally, so I spent my formative years reading books about architects and designers who were prepared to shape a bold vision and fight to realise it. As a result, the world is full of incredible landmarks born of a designer’s vision. These, of course, sit alongside swathes of mediocre, cookie-cutter buildings and mundane monstrosities.
Those landmark pieces of architecture did not come from a few days thinking then some ‘build fast, fail fast’ construction.
Many years ago, I had a studio next door to the late Zaha Hadid for a year or two. She was a designer with a vision and she and her team members fought tooth-and-nail to bring that vision to life. None of them were the product of a quick bit of thinking.
Can you imagine something as beautiful this emerging from a five-day design sprint?
This is as the Heydar Aliyev Centre. One of a portfolio of incredible architectural masterpieces that have emerged from just this one practice – and there are many practices who many would argue have produced even greater impacts on the world. Do you think they wrote a high-level spec on the whiteboard, ran a quick design sprint, then started building – figuring it out as they went, deciding what to design every few days based on what the client decided was the optimal balance of functional ambition and achievability?
No, they explored the problem, shaped a vision for how this beautiful building would sit in the world around it, and developed a version of that vision into the final building. And they didn’t do it using a standardised architecture framework that an architectural Google or Facebook had published.
You don’t get a Guggenheim Museum, or a Sydney Opera House, or a Pompidou Centre, or even a house like Falling Water like this. They, and thousands more incredible landmarks are the product of a design process that strives for individuality and distinctiveness: a specific response to a specific location to achieve a specific purpose in as unique a way as possible.
In the digital domain, we’re increasingly forcing designers to design like this:
It’s frustrating because, unlike more mature design disciplines, digital design has progressively slipped into a single, small-steps-forward mode – which would be fine if it were paired with a second ‘big-leaps-ahead’ mode. But it very rarely is.
Progress is eating potential
Obviously, I picked on architecture, but I could as easily point at the best physical product designers, from piece of Eames furniture to a candy-coloured iMac, a Ford Fiesta or a Ferrari, or iconic graphic design from designers like Peter Saville or Saul Bass.
The argument goes that because software development is complex, the best way to achieve a great result is to break everything down into smaller and smaller problems to solve, making progress against each in small, contained increments with a tangible success mapped against each.
That may be true for software (not a subject for today) but it is not the case for design, at least at formative stages.
Great design emerges from messy, lateral, creative thinking; from taking risks, exploring improbable directions. But most importantly, the greatest impact a real designer can have is a holistic vision of the end result, turning functional objectives into something greater; into something new and original.
We need to factor this in to digital product design to a far greater degree than many companies do today. Endless design compromises are made to make engineering easier or to support a more predictable process, breeding out so much of the originality and brilliance that might otherwise have emerged.
Following the path of least resistance
You can’t always start small and test and learn your way to the end result. I call that ‘following the path of least resistance’. Think of it like walking through a forest with a group of people: you adjust your course as you go, following the easiest route ahead – probably a path that others have been down already. Some of your group give you suggestions as you go: “that field of wild flowers was amazing – let’s find more of those”. So you go that way to keep the group happy.
Bit by bit you make great progress, enjoy the walk and everyone’s happy.
Meanwhile, another group sent up a drone to explore what might lay ahead and, after a tricky trek through some dense forest, they’re now sitting looking at the most remarkable waterfall; hidden away in an unexpected location, it’s something they’ll never forget. They followed the path of maximum potential; a path they would never have found unless they proactively looked for what might be out there before setting off.
Designers have increasingly been required to be part of the first group, doing the best work they can in small increments to support a team who set out early and are intent on making progress based on how hard the terrain is, what they see and hear nearby, or from the feedback of the people walking with them.
Somehow, some of those designers (by fighting hard) get decent products out, and all credit to them for achieving what is an incredibly tough job at times. But imagine what those same designers could do with more freedom and license; if they didn’t have to design to a dashboard or a backlog, and didn’t have to design for short-term buildability or a 2% increase in the customer satisfaction score.
We don’t need to kill Agile or rip up the engineering rule book. We simply need to restore some balance to give designers the ability to create the digital version of those incredible landmarks.
There’s a huge amount of untapped potential out there; bigger ideas that might be harder to get to but which can steer products in a bolder direction.
Car companies know all this already
Perhaps the easiest parallel to end this with is back where this all started: in the automotive industry.
Car companies have done exactly this near/far thinking for decades – with concept cars. I used to get frustrated when we designed a high-concept new service and it never got fully implemented. Then we learned a lot about how concept cars are used: they’re never built in full but they have a profound impact on everything the company does. They’re a test-bed for new concepts and, crucially, they ensure the production-line vehicle ranges evolve coherently into something that will excite tomorrow’s customer, rather than just fixing faults and refining a few features based on current customer feedback.
Remember, Lean’s origins are in car manufacturing (it was born of the Toyota Production System and became known as ‘lean manufacturing’). The same company creates bold future concept cars, as do all of its peers.
We need more digital concept car equivalents; give more license to designers to create bigger, bolder, holistic concepts that can really change the game. They’ll pull you proactively towards a bigger future, and will counter the reactive pressures you get from all the nearby ‘urgent’ influences.
You don’t need to realise them exactly in their conceived form to achieve something remarkable. If you’ve never seen them, take a look at Jørn Utzon’s original designs for the Sydney Opera House and compare that with what is now considered a wonder of the modern world. I’d say his vision did its job – although Jørn may have disagreed.
It’s time to re-ignite the big thinking that designers do so well and release them from the shackles of solving tickets on a backlog. The outcome will be unpredictable, and that’s exactly the point.
Me, I’m always looking for that waterfall. I’d love to see you all there. Bring wine.
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