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Is your product a pig? Will you fix it, or put lipstick on it?

What does a designer actually do?

★ jennifer ★
May 18, 2017 · 3 min read

When you hire a designer, what do you expect them to do for you?

Design is not just surface, but also how it works and feels. There are best practices and affordances to consider. Design is not solely about colors and shapes, but hierarchy, relationships, interactions, speed of motion, information load, states, and error handling/prevention. It’s research, testing, and (ht Albert Savoia & his wonderful “pretotyping”).

To breathe out, you must breathe in, so designers research in order to design. It’s part of the process. One cannot design what one does not understand… unless they’re just putting lipstick on it.

Usability is a small piece of the larger subject of accessibility. Accessibility isn’t for blind people, or anyone labelled as “disabled.” When you’re in a hurry and rushing you need design to be accessible. You might need accessibility accommodations if you have eye strain after a long day at work. Accessibility is not solely development’s responsibility. Designers, this is your responsibility, too. It’s color contrast, affordances, alt text, thoughtful use of motion, clear hierarchy, and a list of other considerations, including understanding some code.

Performance is part of the experience. Bloated design, CSS, JS, and images can slow the experience of web apps. You may be on the lightning fast wifi at work, but your users have a wide range of connectivity possibilities. It is not your developer’s responsibility to optimize your app. Designers, this is also part of your job. If you don’t understand what goes into it, start learning. It will involve understanding some code.

Speed matters. See Tammy Everts, Lara Hogan, Harry Roberts, and Luke Wrobleski for more on how performance impacts UX.

I started writing a presentation on Design for Performance & Accessibility, and although it’s an initial outline, it provides great resources for testing accessibility and performance in your design process.

While I advocate for designers coding what I’m really after is in-depth understanding of the medium and consequences of decisions. I meet many designers and developers building web products who don’t know if you tap a label the focus should go to the corresponding input. I see SVG icons replacing seemingly random Japanese characters used as placeholder text. A screenreader or voice UI will confusingly read a random Japanese word in the middle of a string of non-Japanese words. Designers want to use animations, but don’t understand the consequences for people with vestibular issues. As user advocates, designers need to QA UX before production release.

Designers exist to bring the user’s voice to the process, yet must also accurately communicate how a design should work. See Alan Cooper’s latest two posts on the subject. If a designer can “peek under the hood” and inspect code or deliver in code examples, it can clarify design communication.

We don’t know what we don’t know. Mistakes mean you’re learning. Go forth, learn what you don’t know, make mistakes, and learn. Take criticism with humility, gratitude, and grow. Do everything you can to make users’ experiences the best they can be.

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