Shit Not-Designers Say: “Design is Subjective”

Adriana Gallardo, Flickr, 2011

This is something foolish I occasionally hear intelligent people say when they talk about design: “Ya know, it’s Design: it’s subjective.”

No, it’s not. It’s really not.

The issue is that most people regularly confuse the creative endeavors of Art and Design as roughly the same thing, and so consequently most people approach evaluating them the same way.

The reality is that while Art and Design may be rooted in the same fundamental principals (line, shape, hue, value, composition, etc.), they differ significantly in motivation; and any episode of any Law & Order will teach you two things:

  1. Sound is a user experience (DUN DUN! — and instantly we’re all on the same page)
  2. Motive is everything
Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, 1917 (Photographed by Alfred Stieglitz)

Art is the expression of a point of view manifested through any medium chosen by the artist. It can have as much, or as little, meaning to as many, or as few, people as desired. The artist can choose to express their vision in any way ranging from oil painting to interpretative dance. Art can convey whatever the artist wants, however they want, to whomever they want — narcissism with a spirit!

Marcel Duchamp says a urinal installation in a museum is art? It’s art. Dogs sitting at a poker table? Art. Bicycling naked down the street wearing only a gimp mask? … Well, that’s probably just the Folsom Street Fair.

Design is about successfully communicating functional ideas into concrete forms to an intended audience. It’s about everything but the designer’s ideological or emotional interpretation.

The stakeholder has an objective, the user has a need, and the designer is there to reconcile the two — while making the experience awesome, making everyone happy, and looking very dapper. This dictates the language you use, what outlets and formats you work on, and a whole host of other variables.

Art is ruthlessly subjective and requires no validation. It simply “is”.

Luke Wroblewski (aka Luke W), http://lukew.com

Design must be validated to be deemed successful, and it can only find validation after it has been measured using qualitative and quanitative data.

Before you review or evaluate even one more designer’s work, get this “subjective” notion out of your head — way the fuck out of your head.

What you should do is be ready to listen and ask one, or both, of these questions:

  1. “What data did you use to inform your decision making?”
  2. “What data are you going use to validate your decisions?”

Designers: These are questions you should be thinking as you design; so if you’re not yet, start doing that. This is applicable to all design, from graphic to industrial. It’s okay if you don’t have all the answers; but you need to demonstrate how you’re going to get them and how you got to your current hypothesis.

Not-Designers: If you’re working with a seasoned designer that you trust, go in trusting their work with the blindfold half-on. If you’ve seen what they’re attempting hasn’t worked in the past, be prepared to point to data backing-up your hypothesis. Otherwise, conduct a simple, functional study to prove the merits of conflicting points of view. If you think you can’t do this “because we’re in a startup”, you’re full of shit.

It’s less expensive to test a design for a week and tweak than it is to develop, deploy, fail, redesign, redevelop, redeploy, and fail again — the Apple App Store submission time involved alone, I mean… duh.

Everyone: Be quantitative and qualitative. One without the other is “peanut” without the “butter” or the “Hall” without the “Oats”: they’re things that can exist independently, but less than half as great as when they’re together.

Testing is a way bigger topic than I’m gonna cover here, but the point is: design has to be validated, and it has to be validated with qualitative and quantitative data. The responsibility of obtaining and extracting that data is the responsibility of anyone who wants a say in the evolution of a product or project.

Moving to a mental model that reflects objectivity in Design is critical to all matters related to Design: interviewing, starting new projects, iterating on existing experiences, and the entire Design process from Product to Visual Design.

Visual Design is perhaps the most prickly of these topics, because people evaluating a design often can’t look past their own subjective taste. The design’s aesthetic is the most micromanaged element of a design (I’m looking at you Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick) that has the least impact of any part of the design’s success unless it impacts the usability of the design.

Am I ordering an Uber or paying my Chase Bank credit card? I’d love to be a fly on the wall then those studies were being conducted — or not conducted.

If you want to debate me on that: fine; but look how long it took for Craig’s List, the ugliest site on the Internet, to start seeing viable competitors in just some of it’s categories. Spoilers: it’s still going strong and still hasn’t changed its visual design.

You can also look at Reddit, the worst site on the Internet, and see the success they’ve had over the years with users (despite themselves).

That’s not to say Visual Design isn’t import and every site should be purely “aesthetically functional”; my point is that the varied, subjective opinions about the visual design of those sites hasn’t impeded their success.

The subjective nature of Visual Design is a myth propitiated by:

  1. Designers who don’t have experience seeing their work validated
  2. Engineers who don’t give a shit about Design
  3. Project managers and executives who want to have proof they touched the success of a project

You can in-fact measure the success and failure of a design’s aesthetic, you just have to do the leg work:

  • A/B Testing
  • Usability testing
  • Accessibility guideline adherence

An example of typical feedback without data: “Can you make a call to action bigger?”

Would you believe that making your Call to Action (CTA) button bigger can actually postitively and negatively impact the success of a flow?

Whelp, that’s a thing.

Screenshot from case study by Michael Aagaard, “10 Call-to-Action Case Studies w/ Takeaways & Examples from Real Button Tests”, 2013 | http://contentverve.com/10-call-to-action-case-studies-examples-from-button-tests/
Screenshot from case study by Michael Aagaard, “10 Call-to-Action Case Studies w/ Takeaways & Examples from Real Button Tests”, 2013 | http://contentverve.com/10-call-to-action-case-studies-examples-from-button-tests/

Feedback such as “just make it bigger” and “just make it smaller” are common observations made by designers and non-designers alike, and can be good feedback so long as those making the comments are presented with data that informs those hypotheses.

In the example provided, say the current value of the Control CTA is $1 million a month.

With a 10% drop in conversion on the line, are you willing to risk losing $1.2 million per year based one subjective comment?

Are you willing to give-up an increase of 31% resulting in a extra $3.72 million per year because you didn’t move from Subjective to Objective Design approaches?

We’re talking about one button in this example.

One. Button.

Once you add data, the thinking around Design moves from Subjective to Objective; Art to Design.

Only then can you really have a substantive discussion on the success and failure of a design.

Everything else is a fart in the wind and trying to guess what someone had for lunch.

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