One of my favorite “design” bloggers out there is Josh Porter of Bokardo. In his most recent article, Josh contends that “designers need a place at the strategy table because their work depends on and is a direct result of it. If it’s not already, realizing the business strategy of the organization in an interface should be the designer’s primary job description.”
If you’ve ever given a designer a “we’re happy with how it works, just pretty it up” job (whether it’s a web site or a word doc), you need to read this article. Preferably right now (I’ll wait).
Unfortunately, I think Josh is overestimating both strategists ( “…off using terms like “conversion”, “user-generated content”, and “ROI”” ) and designers ( “…opining about “grid-based design”, “cross-browser rendering”, or “web standards”” ).
I’ve thrown out the idea in the past (and it tends to piss off a bunch of web designers): stunning visual design (as most people define it) isn’t very compatible with usability and usually only a coincidental relationship with lofty things like “business strategy”. Designers’ brains (and the brains of the people who hire them) simply aren’t wired that way.
Don’t believe me? Take this simple test to see if you’re thinking about design in the wrong way:
- If you’re a designer: Open up your portfolio. If you don’t have a portfolio, pull up a mental picture of the last one you had. What does it look like? Lots of screenshots, no? Next to each screenshot, do you talk about the business goals of the client/employer? Do you talk about how the design performed after launch? Do you know how the design performed after launch? Do you CARE how the design performed after launch? Answer that last question honestly– of COURSE you care how it performed, but was acquiring that knowledge a higher priority for you than your next pixel-slinging / xhtml-wrangling task?
- If you’ve hired a designer: Look at the last time or two you’ve hired a designer. What type of person did you hire? Why did you choose that designer over the alternatives? Did you ask about business strategy? Did you ask about post-design performance metrics?
Maybe– hopefully– you are the exception to the rule.
What stands in the way of making things better?
Unfortunately, things aren’t likely to change soon. There are a few attitudes that stand in the way:
- Designers need to stop thinking and acting like artists and start acting like scientists. I’m honestly not sure this is possible.
- Non-designers need to stop thinking that they are good at crafting user experiences. Don’t get me wrong– they should certainly have an opinion, voice ideas, express concerns, etc. I’m not saying that they should shut up and let the expert do their job… They just need to realize that it’s possible to BE an expert.
- Everyone need to be willing to sacrifice pretty and sacrifice “cool”. At my last job (the only time I haven’t been self-employed in the last decade), the product team united around a user experience to create a public “resume”. It was a gorgeous multi-step experience with a few inline “wizards”. Users could edit their public profile after the fact in a seamless inline manner while viewing their profile (imagine lots of “edit” links next to editable data). The team loved it. The CEO gushed. The designer was proud. The users, however, were confused as hell.
- Non-designers need to hire designers with the right attitudes and reward the right successes. If both parties think the designer’s job is done when they hear, “Wow– that’s beautiful”, then there’s a problem.
I love pretty much everything Josh is proposing, but I’ve only met a tiny handful of designers who have the discipline to purposefully make something LESS PRETTY and LESS COOL to make it more effective. And I know even fewer product managers who have the discipline to ask them to.