Design in understanding, theory, and practice

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 can bridge these gaps.

I was a self -learned designer working at product companies before joining the graduate program in Human Computer Interaction/Design. The 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, managers, CXOs and so on to build products and they do not necessarily have the same thoughts about design as ours. There lies a gap. A gap in understanding what design is for.

My understanding of design right now is: “the computers were once for trained people with the special skill set to operate them. Now, computers are for everyone. As technology upgraded itself and computers and applications became mass production products, it is on us to represent the users and their goals in product building side and make sure those goals are achieved when the product is in use.” In the heads of non-designers, the design is “color, font, theme, and layout”.

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(In no way I claim these categories are exhaustive)

1. Misunderstand design and do not care about it.

In an interview with a promising startup, the CEO shared the product vision and future strategies with me. I was asked to sketch interfaces and user flow on the spot. They loved it and asked me to make high fidelity mockups that could be used in a presentation for investors. There was no mention of users anywhere by them, the word that was used to address them was consumers. Even then, the users(consumer) needs were not talked about. I hoped I could bring in the change and maybe educate my colleagues about design processes and its value. I wasn’t very successful. The product had more ads than actual content, platform guidelines were ignored, user research was an unheard term.

2. Misunderstand design but care about it.

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.

3. Understand design but do not implement it.

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 the value it brings to the table. But at the same time I wasn’t sure why they weren’t doing it and why did they not have even one designer in the team. When asked, they said they were in fact actively looking for designers but most applicants they had found were either front-end developers calling themselves ‘UX/UI designers’ or were unaffordable.

4. Understand design and implement it, sometimes.

Companies I worked at showed signs of such behavior most times except for in difficult 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 make 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.

What I am trying to illustrate is that while some might be oblivious to the power of design, and for some design is higher up on the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for product companies esp. 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 nondesigners 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 always being made whether a designer is involved or not. If engineers or marketing heads or CEOs are making these decisions and they don’t quite understand design then, 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 in fact 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 interesting feature, but if that doesn’t solve a real user problem, the team isn’t just wasting their time, but more importantly, the users time.

Behavioral and attitudinal shifts are slow to change problems. And people want solutions that work instantly. Braden Kowitz in an article for Wall Street Journal 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 for example, why they did something in the past or ask 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. If the goal is to launch something as fast as possible, user research will definitely slow things down. 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 that we can 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 into using it more, or how could we convince more people to try the product. Knowing these deeper reasons for customer(user) behavior makes it easy to tell what should be 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 actually rare to see a user research in any early stage startup. But that shouldn’t stop anyone on the team to do research because almost anyone with a little training and some practice can interview customers and gather data that will improve the product. And employees that work closely with customers can do this easily.

Just like designers the nondesigners sometimes spend a lot of time on the details when the idea really 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 a real workplace because, at the end of the day, 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 in 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.

In industry-based design communities online, there are discussions about where the tech industry is headed 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 into believing 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 perspective 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, a number of designers turned entrepreneurs will rise, and industry will create space for a design culture like the Silicon Valley has had an engineering culture for years. There’s codified system for building engineering teams, product managers, with a CTO, and 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 better 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.