What I Value as a Designer

These are my values around design process that I’ve learned over the years. There are many like them, but these are mine.

Solving problems over selling solutions. Sometimes you have to sell some solutions to bridge the gaps so you can get back to solving problems. That’s cool. BuzzFeed’s listicles pay for some great reporting. Murrow had to interview Liberace and shit. As a designer, I want the selling of solutions to be a means to an end of solving more problems, not the end itself.

Understanding the problem before solving the problem. User Experience design requires knowing the current experience of your users. It’s right there on the tin.

Keeping users top-of-mind and center of process. Some day this will go without saying, but that day is not this day. Do you want your business to grow robustly? To be resilient? Or even anti-fragile? Then you need your users to love you. Business needs are important, but the thing a business needs most are happy, loyal customers.

Effectiveness over hipness; satisfying over sexy. I’m not dismissing aesthetics. Great visual design is powerful and can take great solutions to the next level. But it can also be used to try to distract from faults or to glorify a portfolio (corporate or personal). You want to create lasting relationships with users. If the beauty is only skin deep, the romance will be fleeting. The Alexa rankings tell a clear story: usefulness and content are still king. Dare to be more like Wikipedia and less like the affordance-phobic flavor of the week.

A culture of debate over a culture of consensus. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the biggest fan of confrontation. But it’s good for me. And for design. If you want to innovate, you gotta have equal measures of data, rational argument, and impassioned debates. If it’s good enough for Pixar it’s good enough for me.

Celebrating failure. I picked that word “celebrate” purposefully. There’s a spirited philosophical debate to be had about the difference between taking risks and being reckless, sure. But a culture that fears failure is not going to succeed very much. It’s not enough just to say it, though. Washing away the inherent discomfort of failure is an active process. Throw a party for the person who failed in the most productive way this month. Build failure celebration into your design process. Do something.

Triangulated reflection. This is perhaps the one thing I learned in grad school that I don’t think I would have ever learned on the job. (And this list of values wouldn’t be possible without it.) Stopping once and a while to reflect on what the heck has happened over the last little while is how you reaffirm your strengths and how you decide to apply what you’ve learned from failure. Just like research, a variety of scopes and methods helps produce better outcomes.

Letting people own their work. Everybody — everybody — on the team needs to own at least some decisions. This is where experience and judgement comes from. This goes hand-in-hand with the values around failure and reflection. It’s hard for someone to learn to take responsibility if they feel like responsibility is always taken from them.

Being a person in a community over of a cog in a machine. Yeah, we’re getting paid to work. I get it. There are times where you gotta do your best cog impression and just grind it out until the work is done. But for a team to be comfortable with telling each other ugly truths and leaning headfirst into possible failure without crumbling into a pile of bruised, pulpy egos, the team also has to be comfortable with each other as people. They need to be able to be vulnerable with each other. They need to fervently support each other and bond over things that aren’t on whiteboards. They need to be a community.

Designing iteratively and holistically. It’s fine to work on the engine this sprint and the engine housing next sprint. But if you’ve already built out the engine housing while the engine is still in blueprints, you’re gonna have a bad time. An iterative fidelity process that builds out all stories at roughly the same pace helps a team build something that is more than the sum of its parts instead of something that is just a bunch of parts lashed together with duct tape and twine.

Thoroughly exploring design spaces. Running with the first idea that sounds good is easier and faster, sure. But without exploring other options, how do you know you’re pursuing the right solution? Plus, a few extra days of whiteboarding and brainstorming is a lot cheaper than having to rebuild things.

Doing well by doing good. I need a better world more than I need more money right now.

Coming up with this list was hard, but worthwhile. I recommend trying it. Feel free to crib from me, but you should really try to reflect on it your own self. If nothing else, an accounting of your design values will help you figure out which battles to choose at your current company and will give you good, hard-nosed questions to ask next time you’re interviewing.