Designers don’t solve problems.

Why we should focus on the process, not the result.

The world and its mother knows that good design is about problem solving. Smashing Magazine know it. UX Movement know it. Heck, even GE know it. I used to be part of that parade too but lately I’ve begun to reconsider.

It’s not that I don’t agree with the sentiment; of course designers should focus on actual problems rather than mere aesthetics. But in such a fast-paced industry with new devices, technologies and trends arising every other week, can we ever fully close the book on problems and call them “solved”? In most cases, the answer is “no”.

At the very least, we should stop thinking about problems as solved or unsolved. When working on problems, you don’t design until the problem is solved; you design until the interface is as usable as it can be given a set of limitations like budget considerations, time constraints, technology restrictions or perhaps just creative block. At some point in the future, one of those limitations will be lifted and the bar will be raised, rendering your beautifully designed interface less usable than it was previously; then you must revisit the problem you thought you had already “solved”.

Approaching design as a solution to a problem implies that at some point, our work is complete. We can pat ourselves on the back and place it on Dribbble’s mantlepiece for the rest of the design community to applaud, not at all sure exactly what it is they’re applauding. This type of thinking puts all of the focus on the result rather than the process. It’s so shortsighted, so results-oriented. It’s like working on a math problem in your head, then jotting down a two-digit answer and looking up at your professor with a big, stupid grin on your face.

Design is not about solving problems, it’s about managing them. It’s about deciding which ones to tackle, how to approach them, how long to spend on each one and when it’s time to move onto the next. Understanding that problems are rarely solved and can only be kept at bay leads to a more long-term, strategic approach to design; suddenly the focus is on the design process. The decisions you make become much more interesting than the outcome of those decisions. The result is just a point on a map, how you get there is what’s important.

Julie Zhuo (PM at Facebook) wrote about the importance of building a trustworthy design process, in which she says:

If you place your trust in a good process, then the end result will probably be pretty good.

Ultimately, the “solution” is what we present to the client/user but in the absence of process, it holds little value. The value lies in knowing that you’ve explored multiple alternatives; only then can you be confident in the outcome. With each iteration, the process is enriched. With each piece of feedback, the design becomes more informed. With each user test, the product becomes more robust. Each failed alternative serves as a reminder of why the chosen “solution” works. Each prototype serves as a tool for communicating your vision to your client/team. Without process, all you have is your intuition; good luck explaining that to the client.