Recently I picked up on a Twitter thread from the awesome Erika Hall on the subject of ‘the essential skills or qualities most often see lacking’ amongst designers. I found myself spending longer than I usually would pondering over this question and wanted to delve further into the responses I gave.
Minding the design gap
Reflecting on my own journey, there were a handful of topics that stood out as obvious professional gaps, both in terms of skills and attitudes that I was, in hindsight, missing as a designer. These are skills I would later have to address, behaviours I would need to change or attitudes I’d need to reframe, such that I could progress in my career.
I don’t think I’m alone here either. In fact, having been a hiring manager for a number of years, I’ve seen these topics crop up time and time again from folks I’ve either worked with directly or whom I’ve interviewed for design roles. These are the skills and qualities often absent from folks earlier on in their careers; the things no one ever taught you about being a designer.
There may, of course, be a good reason for that. Maybe these are a set of skills and behaviours that can only be developed over time through exposure and experience. Exposure to the realities of practising design in a commercial context and exposure to the pace and flow of agile development practices.
Often absent, rarely taught
Irrespective of whether these can be taught or have to be experienced, there are what I believe to be three overarching themes, that in my opinion separate good designers from great designers, which are often absent and rarely taught!
1. Pragmatism: Pursuit of perfection vs. delivering value.
As designers, most of us are taught to explore our creativity and project to a desired future state. What might a given experience be like were we to free ourselves from the constraints of time, resource and technology? This is one of those qualities that set us apart from other disciplines. We’re free to push the boundaries of what’s possible, escape the shackles of what’s normal or conventional and operate across different timelines.
However, when we operate as designers in a business context, we can’t confuse creative flights of fancy with that which will deliver genuine, tangible value for customers. This is not the next piece of fiction to present on your Behance portfolio, these are genuine design endeavours, conceived to solve real problems for real people. The ultimate goal here is to deliver something of demonstrable value to the business, and the reality is that in this world, perfection rarely has a place.
That, of course, may be a bitter pill to swallow for any designer. It certainly was for me. I was fascinated with what I could achieve through a combination of imagination, tooling and time, but smacked hard with the realities of constraints and compromises that I simply wasn’t prepared for. When the focus is on delivering value, that must be the foundational principle that guides and governs your efforts; not how far you can push your craft or stretch your imagination…just because you can.
Design, therefore, is rarely about perfection. The reality is it’s about results. Or, as Josh Seiden would put it, it’s about outcomes over outputs. We could all while away hours meandering through our minds and expressing our individual flair for creativity, but if we can’t convert our efforts into delivering value for the customer or the business, surely we’re more artists than we are problem-solvers or designers?
2. Agility: Delivering work in smaller, incremental releases
For anyone working in the web/software industry within the last 10 years, you’ll likewise have had some exposure to working either as part of or alongside, an Agile development team. Characterised by its ability to move fast, operate lean and ship smaller, incremental slices of value; responding to feedback and adjusting accordingly. Sounds amazing right? Surely this is conducive of some great design practices?
Yet, we still see to this day designers struggle to service the demands of these fast-paced, feature-hungry product teams. Why? Designers inherently don’t work or think this way. As per my first point, most of us are taught to design for the to-be experience; to articulate where we want to get to, as opposed to how exactly we’re going to get there. As a result, the scope and scale of our efforts tend to bias towards bigger upfront design vs. smaller, incremental releases.
Don’t get me wrong, some upfront design has its place. How do you know what to build unless you have some idea for where you are trying to get to? We all need that vision or north star by which to guide our efforts, but we also need to be able to work back from that; to be able to break these larger concepts down and identify within these, what are the smaller, releasable slices of value.
Conversely, as designers, we shouldn’t be caught chasing our tails and having to feed design work to the engineers piecemeal and on-demand. For a designer, this is a stressful and often disconcerting place to be; where we might lack an understanding of the bigger picture and how an individual piece of design work gets us closer to that vision or north star. For the wider team, this might also signal a smell of iterating to nowhere; where value is conflated with keeping busy, and where they start to question whether they’re doing the right things and to what end.
There is, of course, a balance to strike here, as between releasing value and getting feedback from your users, alongside developing a general sense of where you are trying to get to and why. Again, this is something that is rarely taught and in my own experience takes time and practice to find a cadence that works for you, the team and your organisation. But, if you can find this balance, you’ll be able to leverage the frequency of feedback and opportunity for regular iteration that Agile practices afford modern development teams.
3. Connectedness: Understand the impact on the business/customer
Alongside delivering value, is the need for designers to truly understand how their work connects to and serves the current product strategy; which in an ideal scenario would cascade from your companies goals. We could be doing great work, delivering tangible value in smaller, releasable chunks, but is that well aligned with and contributing towards your companies bigger goals? Or, are we simply designing in a vacuum, or doing design for design’s sake?
This also extends to our research practices, where we have a duty to be more intentional with our efforts; directing our learning towards helping the business answer some of its key strategic questions. What are the next big opportunities we can help the business to discover and validate? How can we get ahead of the organisation to help shape an inform a future strategy? To have impact, we need to learn to push beyond the more tactical, short-term view of research and design work, again, striking that elusive balance between execution and direction.
Similarly, there is an opportunity for design to push beyond the experiential layer of the product and design at the proposition level. Using approaches like JTBD and tools like Alex Osterwalder’s Value Proposition Canvas can help to ensure the core feature set of a given product/service is addressing your customers’ fundamental needs and goals. As a designer, you might find yourself feeling like you’re drifting into activities that feel better suited to Product Management, but I believe this bigger picture, product-thinking is what it takes to be a great Product Designer.
Finally, to really understand the impact of our design efforts we need to immerse ourselves in the somewhat alien field of Business Intelligence and analytics. We need to develop a level of understanding about the data, metrics and measures that evidence and support your design decisions. Are we really delivering measurable value, or does it just feel like we are doing what would seem like valuable work? Are our efforts having the impact on our customers’ behaviour that we anticipated and can we sensibly see how this might support lagging indicators like renewals and ultimately revenue?
Time for self-reflection
So, whether you’re new to the field of design or are looking to transition into a more senior role, take some time out for a little self-reflection and think about where you currently sit on a spectrum across these three themes. Ask yourself:
1. Where do I draw the line on creative expression and perfection vs. being more pragmatic, and delivering only that which is of demonstrable value?
2. Could I be more agile in my approach to delivering research and design work and am I doing enough to both support the team now, whilst also playing far enough ahead to provide context and direction?
3. How and to what extent does my work align with the business and it’s goals; and furthermore, how do I reasonably demonstrate that my efforts are having the desired impact?
I’m sure folks will have other opinions on skills and qualities they wish they had had earlier on in their careers, and I’d love to hear about these, but this represents the three bigger themes I’d personally love to see the industry cater for. As our practice continues to mature, we should all be thinking about how we can better enable future generations of designers.
By the way, we’re hiring! If you a Product Designer and looking for a new challenge, do take a look at our open roles on our Redgate careers site.