The path of a designer is complicated. (2018 Greg Walsh)

8 Principles for Designers

In May 2018, I posted “An Unsolicited List of 8 Principles for Designers” on medium. Purposefully (or lazily?) I did it without explanation or putting the principles in context. The response was great and people stopped me at my work to talk about them with the overwhelming sentiment being “Please explain them!” So I did using Medium’s story format. Not many people seemed to engage with it, so I re-rewrote it into this article.

One of the advantages of being academic is the luxury of reflection. I design, I teach design, and I research design. The most frustrating thing about working with and teaching new designers is their naivete of the power of Design and what one can do with the power it wields. As such, I wrote out a list of guiding principles that are based on ethics. When I say ethics, I mean morally-based and human-centered ideas.

1. The user is not a product. The user is not a statistic or persona. The user is a person who deserves respect.

This one is supposed to be self-evident. First, designers need to lead the charge that we should not be offering free services in exchange for personal information. The recent events involving Facebook were a wake-up call to many people about what Facebook really is and how they make money. We have the ability to create products for people that don’t make them the product.

The other thing we need to remember is that every single user is an actual person with real goals. They are not just a number in our system’s log nor are they an amalgamated person we created to evaluate our site. They are interacting with our products because they think they will makes their lives better in someway. Perhaps, they want to keep in touch with loved ones online or pay the water bill they’ve forgotten or they want to experience something fun with their children.

They are humans who deserve our respect.

2. Always design for inclusion. Never design for exclusion.

Baltimore is a city designed around exclusion. If you read about the history of my city, you’ll find deliberate design solutions were created to keep wealthy white people away from everyone else. An urban legend tells of Robert Moses designing low-height bridges to keep buses off of Long Island highways, thereby keeping poor people off the beaches.

While architecture and city planning may not be the things we’re designing, these ideas permeate digital products as well. Sometimes, price is used as a way to exclude. Should an iPhone or Land Rover really cost as much as they do? No, but, they are prestige brands and are exclusive to those who can pay.

We design for exclusion by using jargon and limited-audience metaphors instead of what’s best for the user. It’s like when you spent time on your grandparents’ yacht in the south of France and would only use Louis Vuitton luggage instead of the Coach luggage you received for 8th Grade graduation from boarding school. Ok, it’s not like that extreme example at all. But, we are all guilty of using jargon and insider language to separate what we know from others. (Side note: I believe this is the reason that most Agile processes exist- to create a secret language for dev teams.)

Another way we design for exclusion is the interoperability of technology. Sometimes we create objects that don’t use standards or we insist on using an extension for the site we are making. Perhaps our designs require the latest browser or force us to cut corners on accessibility. Without realizing it, we are excluding users who could benefit from the things we make.

3. Involve users in the design process.

I hope this idea is abundantly clear.

When I say involve users in the design process, I want to be clear that we can’t just have a focus group and check this box. I mean real user involvement in the design like that of co-design.

The Scandinavian model of co-design puts the involvement of users, or participation, above the actual “design”. For example, a town park designed with the input of the park’s users may not be as aesthetically beautiful as one created by an architecture firm BUT it is better because people participated in the design process.

This is a deontological view (thanks to this discussion on Thanos for introducing me to that concept) and takes into account the humanity of Design. Compare this to the usual utilitarian view of designers wanting to make a thing better in quantitative ways as an expert.

In reality, designers can involve users in the design process for both deontological and utilitarian outcomes.

There’s a quote that is attributed to Henry Ford and was possibly a favorite of Steve Jobs: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” While this quote is clever and seems to give an ironclad reason for not involving end users in the design process, it actually misses the most important thing we as designers can do and that is translate the users’ goals into design requirements.

Yes, people would have said they wanted faster horses. A good designer would hear “People want to go faster” and could iterate on that idea while working with end-users on a solution.

That’s our power as designers: to work with end users to translate their goals into actionable requirements for our creations.

4. No matter who funds a project, a designer is ultimately responsible to the end-user.

Someday, we will all be faced with the dilemma of having to choose between what we think is right for our end-users and what our client wants. Ideally, we will persuade our client to ultimately do what is right.

Unfortunately, that’s not always how it works. I know I have been in situations where the funder wants something that goes against the users’ needs. Perhaps, they want to include a technology in an app that requires specialized hardware that their personal phone has or conforms to the unusual layout ratio of their monitor. If these things don’t negatively impact our end-users’ experience, then go for it. Why not make the client happy?

But, if our users’ goals can’t be accomplished or we block out end-users with features and requirements beyond their means, then we are failing as designers. Imagine working on a project for inner-city youth where the funder insists on using the Apple Watch as the deliverable. That’s a terrible idea! Today, they are expensive and fragile pieces of equipment which are the two adjectives least likely to be successful in a project for children. We must tell our funder that will not work and insist on a better solution.

Over the years of teaching design, I have met a number of students who have gone on to work for US Federal Agencies. Many designers would scoff at working for a government entity because of the perception of lacking innovation or design sense. In reality, I’ve never seen a more user-centered group of designers. The professionals I’ve interacted with understand that people’s interactions with government, like Social Security, are critical to survival. When we realize the true nature of what we are responsible for and design for the end-user, we have the potential to elevate their lives.

Note: If you are interested in learning more about Gov design and the end-user, I highly suggest reading about Caroline Jarrett (start here) and her awe-inspiring work on forms. Also, look for local Gov hack-a-thons to meet the people who exemplify this rule.

5. Do not confuse stereotyping for empathy.

Personas are powerful tools in a designer’s toolkit. Many of us use them to help understand our target audience and empathize with their goals. Unfortunately, some designers rely on lazy personas that are based in stereotypes.

Older women are not bad with technology. According to Pew, older adults are (were?) the fastest growing user group of social media. Millennials are not always technology geniuses. Digital natives don’t necessarily know more than older generations when it comes to computers.

But how many times have you seen other designers use these two stereotypes? The hapless older woman who has trouble using her device but wants to share pictures of her grand kids or the recent college grad who is technology savvy and gets frustrated at slow interfaces…

These examples are not personas…they are stereotypes. Stereotypes are dangerous in design because they are borne from bias and misunderstanding. I’m reminded of a recent class where I asked the group to come up with technology that is inclusive (particularly to underrepresented populations). During the design critique, one group told the class how their technology targets inner-city youth to teach them to behave in school and how to speak “properly”. This designer never engaged in a dialog about the audience they were trying to design for and skipped empathy for, at best insensitive, and at worst racist, stereotypes of children.

Are we this egregious when we create personas? Hopefully not, but, it is a slippery slope from lazy empathy to terrible stereotypes. I suggest designers go meet real audience members and try to make an amalgamation of several users into one persona of your group of personas. It’s great to give them backstories, but, don’t rely on stereotypes to flesh out their faux lives.

6. Do not exchange usability for aesthetics.

You know this. I know this. We all know this. But we are all guilty of ignoring it.

The more experience I get in this field, the more I have come to realize that usability is inclusion. When we sacrifice our usability for short-term aesthetic gain, we rob ourselves over the long term of users and impact. Every after-the-fact redesign for accessibility or usability is us not following this. And it could have been so simple had we just heeded these words.

Don’t Do It

7. Use social science as a means to benefit a user and not as a way to exploit the human condition.

One of my favorite books to use in my design classes is Evil by Design. I like this book because it shines a light on how certain patterns can exploit people’s hopes and fears. It’s really quite terrifying how little things that humans have a tendency to do can be used against them.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is one of the big things that social networks use to continue their sustained use. If you don’t log on for awhile, your given an alert that So-and-so from your high school just posted something. Does this social network really care about our interests in that long lost connection? No, the social network wants us to want to log on to keep itself relevant and in order to do that, it needs to get us hooked and then pull us back in when we break free.

Mobile app developers are notorious for this pattern of behavior over utilizing system alerts to remind you of important things to do with your apps like “You haven’t logged in today” and “Extra Super Bonus Boxes when you play today!”. Marketers use our insecurities of missing out to sell us things that may or not be better than the things we already have.

Another big exploitation comes from targeting addiction susceptible users. This is clearly evident in products like freemium games and social media sites. Beyond exploiting regular insecurities, these systems often create dopamine-inducing loops. Some people like them, some people don’t, and others become addicted. If you’ve ever gambled and won, and then lost and stopped, you’re lucky. Some people have trouble regulating those actions and that is being exploited in modern games with elements like loot boxes. (For more information on dopamine, please see my favorite episode of South Park, ever…warning: language)

The good news is that design patterns that exploit can be used to help people. Turning dark patterns on their side can lead to positive outcomes. Adding game elements to exercise or reminding people to be more physically active are concrete examples of how this can be done. The Garmin Vivofit watch has an excellent indicator when the user is at rest for too long. Its red color and ever growing length targets Evil by Design’s Anger and Gluttony patterns.
As designers, we have a responsibility to our users to help them achieve their goals and not necessarily our goals. We can use social research to benefit users and give them the tools they need and experiences that benefit them.

8. Treat other designers with the respect you would want extended to you.

I want to be very clear, this isn’t (necessarily) the Golden Rule. Instead of being Mr. Rogers-eque, my intention is to be very career aware. In fact, this is one of the more self-servicing principles in this collection.

When I was new in the field of design, I despised feedback and critique. When you’re fresh and full of hubris, it is hard to accept other peoples’ input. Mostly, it is due to the emotional immaturity of being able to separate yourself from your design. But in some circumstances, critique and feedback and weaponized against other designers.

In order to be able to give useful and thoughtful feedback and empathize with your colleagues, you need to understand what is going on. As I finally learned, your work is not you. That means that when someone critiques your work, they are not critiquing you. Understanding this leads to growth as a designer and better designs.

When you understand this, you can also give better feedback to other designers. Your critiques can include comments and questions but they should be focused on the work and not be used to highlight your own skills or knowledge. Phrase your critiques in a way that reduces misinterpretation from constructive to personal.

This is the key to being respectful of other: knowing how to provide feedback and being empathetic to the other person’s feelings. By focusing on being respectful, you model behavior to other designers and create an environment conducive to design and somewhere you want to work. For more information on facilitating positive critiques, I recommend Discussing Design.

Dr. Greg Walsh is an associate professor and the program director for the University of Baltimore’s MS, Interaction Design and Information Architecture program. He is available for user research and design consulting. You can follow him at @gxwalsh or email him at greg@gregwalsh.com.