Design & QA

The unspoken role of quality in design

One of the biggest challenges a designer will face in a product-team is to maintain and uphold design standards throughout the duration of a project. They’ll start off strong with great intentions, but as the project evolves and complexity grows, it becomes harder and harder to drive the original vision forward. Tight timelines, scope, requirements, feedback, or technical feasibility inevitably contribute to a compromised solution.

But what if you looked at the problem differently? Instead of compromising the solution, what if you build on a process that enhances rather than degrades? It’s an optimistic view I admit, but as designers, your job shouldn’t stop the moment you hand off mocks to engineers, in fact, compared to traditional models of quality, you’re job is far from complete.

If we look at the Architect/Engineer relationship, Architects will design a building in collaboration with an Engineer, they’ll create detail specifications, and be on site throughout the building process to ensure quality control, quality management, and quality assurance all adhere to the standards set forth.

A typical framework of Quality that most businesses leverage (not just architects), involves five key aspects:

  1. Producing — providing something.
  2. Checking — confirming that something has been done correctly.
  3. Quality Control — controlling a process to ensure that the outcomes are predictable.
  4. Quality Management — directing an organization so that it optimizes its performance through analysis and improvement.
  5. Quality Assurance — obtaining confidence that a product or service will be satisfactory. (Normally performed by a purchaser)

Im my experience, most designers tend to focus their efforts in the first 2 categories, Producing and Checking, and sometimes bleed over into the third, Quality Control (if they feel so inclined to produce appropriate specs). But rarely step into 4 and 5. That’s roughly 50% of the quality process overlooked, or where a designer is not involved for one reason or another.

I admit, that sometimes there are forces beyond our control that limit our ability to manage quality from start to end. Sometimes there are business structures in place that just make it impossible to spend time on quality — like budgets, team resources, or other projects that demand our attention. But if quality is important to you (like it is for me), then there are some basic building blocks you can implement that can make a huge impact.

Let’s breakdown some key ingredients:

Quality doesn’t just happen

Quality takes a tonne of work, patience, and fortitude. You need to be organized and understand how you can influence the product both directly by understanding your strengths, or indirectly by supporting your team as an advocate.

Understand the problem, the goal, and the opportunity

As a designer, you need to ensure a goal is set and the problem is clearly defined before you put pixel-to-paper (so to speak). Realizing the opportunity will also keep you motivated and drive you towards a quality outcome that meets future needs and not just the current.

Build flexibility into your process

Locking yourself into a solution too early will set you up for disappointment and heart-ache. It can leave you feeling vulnerable or make you more likely to abandon any hope of quality when things need to change. Be open to new ideas and accept the reality that your original vision will most likely change. This will force you to design a flexible and adaptive process, one that accounts for increased quality over time, rather than quality that erodes along with you original idea.

Know your role

Make it clear to yourself and your team members what your role is, and set expectations early on around your involvement. This could include outlining your process, defining a schedule of deliverables, or setting up routine meetings that focus on design-critique and quality.

Own your strengths

Understand what you’re really good and own it. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and while we need to be conscious of our weaknesses to grow and better ourselves, leveraging our strengths (especially in a collaborative environment) will define you as a subject-matter-expert and a more importantly, a reliable and trusted peer.

Have the right tools in place

When it comes to quality, having the right tools in place is crucial. As a designer, make sure you have all the necessary tools to execute ideas efficiently and to a level of fidelity required (which doesn’t necessarily mean pixel perfect). Look beyond just Sketch templates and plugins too. Think about a universal design system, how your process dove-tails with engineers, and even how you might log bugs when it comes to final QA.

Be a partner to engineers

The quality of the relationship you have with your engineers will be directly reflected in the quality of your final product. I think it would be impossible for me to do my job without the help of engineers. Much like the traditional architect/engineer relationship, the designer-developer relationship is key if you ever want to build something that works. For me (and some designers might disagree), design is all about building. I design things in order for them to live and function as real objects — not to live as static mockups on a Box-server. After working with hundreds of engineers, the biggest piece of advice I can offer is to be a good partner.

Build bridges

Be the person that connects the team. Whether you are a specialist or a generalist (I’m a generalist for sure), build bridges with the engineers in your team, product managers, researchers, data scientists, other designers, the users (of course), and leadership. Bring folks along for the journey, get them involved, listen to their feedback, and keep them looped in.

Be the advocate

Even if there is no one else, be the advocate for quality. Take ownership of the Quality process, get involved, log tickets in Jira, invite yourself to release meetings, test, evangelize, and communicate like your life depends on it.

Pick your battles & prioritize

Software never ends, so be prepared to pick your battles and pace yourself. Be patient and understand that somethings are harder to achieve than others, and in product-land, most things are prioritized by effort and impact.

Lastly, you will ship something

Inevitably you will ship something, but its up to you to ensure that you ship something great, not good, great (and definitely not mediocre). Ask yourself along the way if you’ll be proud of what you ship 3 months after the fact? What could you do now that will change your opinion later?

As with most things in design, clear definition is the best course of action. Quality is no different. Not only is Quality a subjective topic, it can also change definition from project to project. Along with defining what quality means to me as a designer, I’ll often define it in context of each project — Does it mean pixel-perfection? Does it mean solving the problems and achieving the goals? Does it mean clear communication and building relationships within the team? Does it mean detailed specifications? Does it mean bug-free? Does it mean zero design-debt? Does it mean all of the above? If so, how do I prioritize it all?

The answer of course, is up to you.

Hi, I’m Shane! Currently, I work on the product design team at VSCO in Oakland California, designing a community of expression for millions of photographers around the world.
Previously, I worked at Airbnb where I solved problems related to trust, empathy, and perception for a global community of travelers and hosts.
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