It’s not what you design, it’s why you are designing

Having been a part of several product teams across different countries, I have always witnessed a common trait among designers, not to mention developers and other stakeholders of the product development chain. While design thinking has evolved tremendously in the past couple of years as a result of an increasing amount of resources and online coverage, many talented people are still unaware of the reason they are working towards a specific goal.

And I’m not talking about the delightful user experience, or the harmonious symphony of pixels. I’m not even talking about user-centrism, data-driven design, or designing what the user wants. That’s not the purpose.

I’m talking about the vision that powers what you are creating.

A vision is what powers what you are designing at all times. Most designers look past it and focus solely on the design itself.

It might sound trivial at first, but I think one of the most overlooked things in design is the purpose that drives it. We spend hundreds of weeks doing research, designing, testing and iterating, and yet we rarely take the time to think of why we are doing what we are doing.

You might be working at Facebook, however you will rarely acknowledge that what you do in your everyday makes the world more open and connected. You might be working at Google, but only rarely will you think that the feature you helped deploying will make global information more structured and accessible. You might even be working at a much smaller early stage company, yet even in such situations people tend to forget why they are working, what purpose they are fullfilling.

We designers often work “blindly”, lost in our own world of pixel perfection, micro-interactions, mastery of all 400 prototyping tools and Dribbble uploads. We care too much about the design itself. Is it pretty? Is it functional and user friendly? However, having the opportunity of working for an actual product — a piece of technology that will impact the behavior, happiness or productivity of thousands or millions of users — gives us a much bigger purpose to work towards. A purpose that can drive our creative thinking, a purpose that can give a much bigger meaning to what we do.

Why, how, what

Simon Sinek’s “How great leaders inspire action” speaks about how businesses should inspire and motivate by stating their purpose first, instead of what they are actually doing on an everyday level to achieve it. And I’m certain that designers should often think alike.

I’m also fully aware that we live in a full blown modern, fast-paced era where often thinking about the “why” instead of “what” is considered a waste of time. It’s not as hands-on. It’s not measurable. It’s not what the numbers show and want.

However, I challenge you to rethink the way you design, the way you code, the way you create. It’s what’s going to drive your passion, your creativity, your energy. And that’s as important, if not more, than the design itself.

Picture yourself working for a product, and try to reverse your thought process, by starting from the reason behind everything you are working on, and not with what you are actually doing. For the sake of the argument, let’s take Facebook as an example:

Why — “We are on a mission to make the world more connected through technology.

How — To achieve this, we are going to build a way for people to meet, connect, interact and share information.

What — We are going to design a platform with social features, profiles, groups and multiple ways to interact with each other.”

Instead of blindly starting to design the actual product of feature, think of the end goal, the mission, the way it’s going to impact your market segments. Try applying the same thought process to each and every product, feature, or release you are working on. This is going to widen your scope, make you think out of your comfort bubble and, ultimately, change the way you design in practice.

Start with Why — How great leaders inspire action, by Simon Sinek in TEDx Puget Sound, 2009

Good design without a purpose

In the tech world, we are so consumed in thinking about the technical details, the data, the deliverables, that we often miss the context. We deliver good design, that doesn’t serve a purpose.

Take a moment and think of all your ongoing work. Try and put aside the research, the diagrams, the spreadsheets, the mockups, styleguides and design systems. Think of the actual reason behind each piece, the impact it’s going to have and why it exists in the first place. And try to ask yourself: “Is this the right design for the purpose I’m working towards?”

Understanding the purpose of what you are working towards will make a significant difference in the way you think and design. There are people who are driven by it from day one, while others only discover its meaning after working for several years in the industry. And if you struggle with identifying it, ask the people around you. Ask the stakeholders, ask the fellow designers or product managers to give you their opinion. “Why are we implementing this feature? What is the business goal?”

You might ask yourself, why? Your skills are exceptional, you get consistently good results, no one ever complains about your work. The truth of the matter is, however, that you are — unconsciously — setting limits for yourself . Limits that have to do with the way you grasp and understand design and how it fits into the product development process. By focusing only on the technical details, patterns and good practices, you lose a part of the bigger picture.

Understanding why I was designing instead of just focusing on how I was designing was a turning point for me. For many years I was striving to make things functional and aesthetically pleasing, with great focus on technical excellence. But after having worked for several companies, I also started looking into the business aspect of design, the impact it had on each company and ultimately on every customer. And this changed the way I think and work tremendously. It made me more creative. It made me less stubborn. It gave me a much more complete, solid understanding of my clients or the companies that I have worked for. And ultimately, it made me a better, more disciplined product designer.

Think about the reason first

You have often heard, “think like the user”, and it’s definitely the way to get results, that’s for sure. But I suggest you first try and think about the reason you are working for that specific user. Understand the problem you are solving, understand the vision, understand the “why”. And then think of the way your design is going to reach that user, and how it should ultimately look and feel.

Remember, design is not the purpose, design is the medium. And a design with a purpose will — in the end — give you both better results and a much greater sense of satisfaction.

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Filippos Protogeridis is a product designer and design consultant, working with small to medium sized companies located in the UK, Italy and US, that make an impact globally. He is also a part of the global Startup Weekend facilitator team, powered by Techstars.

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