Why writing is the most important skill in design.
Design in tech matters, and companies are finally caring about design. This is especially true in software, where companies are hiring designers at an increasing rate.
But tech is changing, and the designer’s role in tech is also changing. Our daily interactions with technology are becoming less visual, like chat bots and connected devices, and as a result, visual design is becoming more obsolete. Luckily, good design is not just how it looks, but how it works and how it feels; so wireframing in Sketch or Photoshop just won’t cut it anymore.
Despite a decreasing emphasis on visual design, design isn’t going anywhere and it will maintain its importance over time if designers learn to adapt. Most design leaders, like John Maeda in his Design in Tech Report, argue that designers need to code in order to survive. But if you’re a young or aspiring designer, I’m here to tell you, to beg you, to ignore these people.
Design is about people, not technology. In order to design great products, you need to understand not just what you’re making, but why you’re making it. You do that by empathizing with your customers to feel their pain, and designers are effective only after doing so.
Like designers, great writers understand their audience. They do their research, because the plot and character development has to be believable, complete, and without gaps. They develop empathy for the main characters, fiction or non-fiction; understanding not just who they are, but how they became the way they are.
The parallels between writing and designing are strongest when it comes to building context. Both require sensitivity to every plausible situation. Like writing, the design process considers varying levels of complexity in the context of use:
Emotional Context. How does someone feel when they are using your product— not just during, but before and after. What’s their mental state; are they using your product to aleviate boredom or are they using your product during a medical emergency?
Environmental Context. Where are they when they’re using your product? What are they doing with their hands? What else is fighting for their attention? Do they have time constraints? Are they using your product while driving or are they using it at their cubicle?
Social Context. How will they be perceived by others when using your product? Will it make them feel cool or proud? Or do they need your product to help them with a problem that’s too embarassing to share with others?
The answers to those questions will inform significant decisions around what a product does, how it looks and how it will be used. For example, it doesn’t matter what tech stack or programming language Snapchat is using, if I can’t get to my camera view in under 3 seconds to capture a fleeting moment, it becomes much less useful and valuable to me.
It’s really important to maintain that context every step of the way and hold true to it throughout the product development lifecycle. Great designers understand how to articulate and summarize context of use. They know how to share that story with other stakeholders so that product teams can have clear alignment. Sharing intimate details of the customer’s story allows the entire company to empathize with and rally around the customer’s pain points.
Whether it’s in the form of personas, storyboards, journey maps or even a plain old written narrative, great designers start with clear, compelling narratives about the context of the customer’s problem they’re solving for. Like storytelling, every design project has one or more protagonists, a setting, a plot, a conflict and a resolution. Both writers and designers arrive to the resolution in similar ways.
Granted, learning to code can help designers make technical decisions that impact usefulness. For example, Instagram, in it’s infancy, couldn’t afford to allow for both landscape and portrait mode, so the designers decided to make every posted photo a perfect square. It was a smart design decision because it meant you didn’t have to choose which way to take your photos. The designers could not have made that decision without a working understanding of code, so there’s a serious case to be made for designers who can code.
But at the end of the day, if you lose sight of the end-user, none of that matters. What companies need now and in the near future are designers that are writers and storytellers. Good writing skills enable designers to tell a strong narrative of the customer in a holistic, memorable way. The result is thoughtful design; creating products that people love and can’t live without.