Build a Trustworthy Design Process
About four years ago, the arrival of three new grads from the University of Washington—Drew Hamlin, Francis Luu, and Joey Flynn—changed the DNA of the Facebook design team forever.
It wasn’t the fact that they brought flavors of sitcom life into the office (though they did all work and live together in an apartment called Cloud City) or that they were heavyweights in the boxing ring of design (as talented as they were), or even that they were really really ridiculously good…er at puns (Drew today: “honor roll” to describe something that was, well, on a roll).
No, what the Seattle boys brought to the team was the rigor of design critique, deeply instilled after four years in the visual design program. And what I learned from them is that if you place your trust in a good process, then the end result will probably be pretty good. It’s that simple.
Oh, there are caveats, to be sure. The results of any process are only as good as the strength of the team, so if your team isn’t strong, you shouldn’t expect magical unicorns to suddenly start leaping out of the work. But the key here is the strength of the team, not the strength of a single individual. Teams are generally stronger and more well-rounded than any one person, so the power of a rigorous design process is that it elevates the work of everyone—even the most junior members—to take advantage of the collective talents of the whole.
For me, a rigorous design process has the following characteristics:
- You have gotten feedback from enough people such that you understand at a deep level all the reasonable perspectives one could have.
- You have thoroughly explored the solution set of the problem.
#1 is why design critique is so important, and that in turn helps reinforce #2. Every time you show your work to a room of designers, questions spring up like geysers at Yellowstone. “Did you consider using a visual to explain what’s going on instead of a paragraph of text?” “How come you decided to go with a segmented control instead of a preview of each section?” “Why does this pane slide in from the side instead of from the bottom?” “Have you seen App X? It does something similar and feels better/worse.”
The goal of critique is not to say that something either does or does not pass the bar. It’s not about gatekeeping. It’s not even about making sure everyone’s concerns are addressed, because honestly, if you try and make everyone happy, you’re probably going to end up with a camel. It’s about recognizing that the set of choices in any design problem is enormous, and the more that all of us can help each other anticipate the pros and cons of these choices, the more considered the decision we will make, and therefore the better the decision we will make.
I repeat, the goal of critique is to help the designer make intentional decisions.
I consider it a night-and-day difference between arriving at a solution on the first try and arriving at a solution having gone through rounds and rounds of iteration. The latter tends to produce better results, and even if it doesn’t (maybe because you just so happened to design a great solution right off the bat) the process matters.
It’s like the difference between going on a nice vacation because you just won the lottery versus going on a nice vacation because you’ve worked hard at your job and built up a solid career. Sure, the end result may be the same, but one of those paths is more reliable and repeatable. One of these paths is going to help you when you’re at a high-stakes review and somebody asks “why is this thing you’re proposing better than [some alternative design]?” If the solution is your first and only attempt, you’ll go “uhhhh” because [some alternative design] will have never crossed your mind until now. But if your process was air-tight, you’ll smile as you make eye contact and deliver a buttery-smooth reply: “Well, I tried [some alternative design] and it’s better at [X] but worse at [Y]. Here, let me show you what that looks like…”
Nothing should be done at random; ignorance is the enemy of good design. To make a subpar decision because you didn’t get enough context or feedback is to fail. But to make a subpar decision when you considered all the angles but ultimately made the wrong tradeoff—that kind of mistake is honest, and far easier to learn from. When you put in that much careful thought, you don’t fall for the same trap twice.
So rely on the wisdom of the Seattle boys. Utilize the hell out of tools like critique. Build up a trustworthy process.
After that—for pretty much whatever what you’re selling—I’m buying.
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