Design in understanding, theory, and practice

An opinion piece written for ‘Foundations of HCI’ class at Indiana University. Nov 2016

This piece highlights the gap between how non-designers and designers understand design, how design schools teach and what the industry needs, advice on how non-designers can do design, and how they can bridge these gaps.

I was a self-learned designer working at product companies before joining the graduate program in Human-Computer Interaction/Design. Formal design education changed my definition & understanding of design, what it stands for, how it evolves and how powerful it is. Designers who go to design schools develop an informed understanding of design. But designers do not work by themselves. We team up with engineers and product managers who do not necessarily have the same thoughts about design. There lies a gap.

I understand design as follows: “the computers were once for trained people with the special skill set to operate them. Now, computers are for everyone. Designers study these people and represent their goals in the product building process.”

I’ve given interviews at multiple startups at various stages with their fundings. In my first-hand experience, the startups or CEOs fall in one of the four categories (non-exhaustive)

In an interview with a promising startup, the CTO shared the product vision and future strategies. As part of my interview, I was asked to sketch interfaces and user flows on the spot for a concept. They loved it and asked me to make high-fidelity mockups for a presentation to investors. There was no mention of users anywhere; the word used was consumers. Even then, they never talked about the users' (consumer) needs. I hoped to bring in the change and maybe educate my colleagues about the value of the design process. I wasn’t very successful. The product had more ads than actual content, and user research was an unheard concept.

At another company later that year, a similar thing happened. During my interview, I was asked to critique their product, and I told them that I needed more context about users and their goals. My guess turned into confirmation when I enquired about the process followed to build the product. There was no designer involved, and the company had not hired any designers before. When asked why they thought they needed a designer now, they said that the product was up and running, so they could now use a designer to make the ‘user experience’ good. I tried to explain that they needed designers before anything else and what they were looking for was, in fact, a user interface designer who could only do so much at this point.

A startup I worked for briefly shared its office with another. They were working on their MVP. We shared some resources, and I got to observe the entire process of development. I hung out with the founders’ post-work hours, too, and it was evident that they understood design and research and its value to the table. But at the same time, I wasn’t sure why they weren’t doing it and why they did not have even one designer in the team. When asked, they said they were, in fact, actively looking for designers. Still, most applicants they had found were either front-end developers calling themselves ‘UX/UI designers’ or were unaffordable.

Companies I worked at showed signs of such behavior most times except under challenging circumstances of close deadlines coupled with low developer bandwidth. For example, once a new feature was requested by a potential client after the product demo. It was a big client, and everybody went berserk to make it happen. The engineers started right away, and I was asked to create mockups for the interfaces to fit the new feature somewhere. I do not complain as long as this is a temporary process executed in emergencies, but some companies and their teams have done this as the norm.

I am trying to illustrate that while some might be oblivious to the power of design, design is higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for product companies, especially early-stage startups, on limited resources. The most important things for them are revenues and growth. Designers empathize with users naturally, but we must empathize with the business and its needs too.

The gap between the understanding of design by designers and non-designers is something we can bridge by educating and informing our teammates, showing them our processes, and having them in designer meetings. This is in no way the solution to all problems but is the first step.

The misconception that the design process takes time is the root of all evil. But design decisions are constantly being made whether a designer is involved or not. If engineers, marketing heads, or CEOs are making these decisions, and they don’t understand design, the product will probably need to be redesigned. For them, it’s about the visceral layers, the fonts, and the branding. But they must understand that design is how it works. It’s designed if the right goals for the customers(read users) have been identified, and users can achieve their goals. It’s common to get excited by the idea of having a new and exciting feature, but if that doesn’t solve a real user problem, the team isn’t just wasting their time, but more importantly, the user's time.

Behavioral and attitudinal shifts are slow to change problems. And people want solutions that work instantly. In an article for Wall Street Journal, Braden Kowitz talks about how in the context of a startup, design isn’t taken seriously.[1]

One common excuse for not doing user research is that ‘Customers don’t know what they want. We do not have to expect customers(users) to design the product. But they can tell us about their goals and frustrations. They can show us what’s working for them and not, and we can watch as they get confused or stuck on something. So if the customers(users) say they want faster horses, what we should read between the lines is that their means of transport is too slow. It is the team’s job to take all that raw data and find solutions to delight customers. Startups need to stop pitching and start listening. By being thoughtful, we can guide conversations with customers and learn much more. By avoiding questions that customers can’t answer very well, such as why they did something in the past or asking to predict what they’ll do in the future. Instead, we should ask them to show what they did today, the problems they have today, and when and where our product fails them.

Another common issue is that user research takes time. User research will slow things down if the goal is to launch something as fast as possible. But if we want to create great products, research will speed it up in the long run. Teams often avoid user research because they believe getting a product into the market is the fastest way to learn. But this is not always true because launching early does not guarantee to learn anything about the customers' (users) need. We would know how many users we have on the product, but we wouldn’t know their motivations behind using it, what could make them use it more, or how we could convince more people to try the product. Knowing these more profound reasons for customer(user) behavior makes it easy to tell the next steps for scaling and growth.
The excuse that ‘We can’t hire user researcher’ is common for startups facing a money crunch. It’s rare to see user research in any early-stage startup. But that shouldn’t stop anyone on the team from researching because almost anyone with a bit of training and some practice can interview customers and gather data to improve the product. And employees that work closely with customers can do this easily.

Like designers, the nondesigners sometimes spend a lot of time on the details when the idea needs fundamental changes. We might get married to our ideas and waste time making it perfecting them without testing or validating that the idea solves the primary goal. A simple concept test or usability test is the best way to end all doubts. And nothing high fidelity is required to test these. Even simple clickable prototypes on PowerPoint can lead to more insights than whiteboard room discussions.
There is no doubt that investing in user researchers is the best way for the consistent generation of a rich stream of data about customer needs and behaviors. And as that data about customers flow through the team, including nondesigners, “it informs product managers, engineers, and just about everyone else. It forms the foundation of intuitive designs, indispensable products, and successful companies.”[2]

In terms of Design school and industry too, there lies a visible gap. Design programs tell us that we can do anything. And we believe so. Even when we are overworked, we do not complain. We have more creative freedom than we would at a real job. We may have some constraints as part of the prompt or even tight deadlines, but it is different than at an actual workplace because we are not getting pink slips for missing a deadline or performing poorly. We get grades on the projects, but again, they do not define the success of our designs. This is fair and for a good reason, because in schools we are supposed to learn by failing fast and often. While in the workplace, the goal is to succeed in whatever metrics the company cares about: sales, growth, revenue.

There are discussions about where the tech industry is headed in industry-based design communities online, for example, how newer technology like Virtual and Mixed Reality will be commonplace. The designers in the industry must identify, understand or even predict the skill sets that the future designers will need. And then, there has to be a mechanism to share this information with design schools so that the next generation of designers is prepared to deal with new artifacts like sensors or headgears and the new affordances that these will bring.[3]

To sum it up, there is no denying that lapses in understanding design and what it stands for exist. We, as designers, must acquire a new skill: sales. We have to sell the design to our team, our bosses, CXOs, and investors. By selling, I mean convincing them that a design process with real user research and deep insights is one of the strongest reasons that make products or companies successful.
Not just designers, non-designers must empathize with the end-users and understand their perspectives and goals. Doing so will not only make their decisions around the product more informed but also research-driven. And questioning research-driven decisions is hard.

Slowly, non-designers will be more aware of design, and several designers turned entrepreneurs will rise. The industry will create a design culture like Silicon Valley has had an engineering culture for years. There’s a codified system for building engineering teams, product managers, a CTO, and a VP of engineering. The designers don’t have that history or know-how for design. We’re still inventing it. Until then, we must keep doing what we do best: solve problems and make a more delightful place.

[1] [2] Kowitz, Braden Feb 19, 2014, 1:55 pm. Why you should listen to your Customer.

[3] Lewis, Aaron Z. On Design Education: A Q&A with Enrique Allen.

Senior Product Designer @ Cisco • previously, Dataminr

Senior Product Designer @ Cisco • previously, Dataminr