Design Systems, Sprint Weeks and other UX Snake Oils
If you clicked on this article because the title got your blood boiling, then go make a cup of chamomile tea. It doesn’t get much better from here.
Ok, are you calm? Sitting down?
Then let’s get started. I hate being contrarian just for the sake of it. But I’m also totally comfortable being the guy that voices an unpopular opinion at risk of my peers despising me. I’ll also say that while this article is about to be critical of some very popular techniques, trends and methods; I still believe in all of them to some extent. My goal is to just give us all a little dose of reality (and humor) about what’s behind these things. And after reading it, you can go back to preaching the gospel 🙏.
Obviously I’m starting with this one. And before you start scrolling down and writing a “well actually…” comment, know that I’m a believer. Hell, I co-founded UX Power Tools solely to help people to build design systems faster. But design systems are a means to an end, not the end itself. A great product that succeeds in market and is usable is the hallmark of great design, not a great design system.
I could write about this for pages. Suffice it to say that while I love the concept, I’m not sure what planet’s timescale forces people to come up with ideas this quick (Venus, maybe?). I think it’s a great methodology for large enterprises that struggle carving time out for innovation. But overall I feel like sprint weeks are a great way to create mediocre ideas and what’s worse, there’s usually no need to go this fast. Here’s a helpful chart to use next time this comes up:
Becoming a UX Manager
Every designer I talk to at a big company seems to share the same dream: to become a manager someday. I also had this dream. It came true, and it was a letdown. We equate seniority and leadership with antiquated models of hierarchy so I understand why this is coveted. But the truth is, it’s a thankless position that has hardly anything to do with design and only rarely relates to leadership.
First off, you’re either all-remote, or you’re not. Mixed remote teams are the worst and designers who claim to love being remote probably just don’t hear all their teammates groaning cuz they’re on mute. The future is no less remote any more than the future of reading is all on a kindle — which is to say, the percentage of remote teams will increase but it will by no means become the new standard.
Kinda feel like we’re past critical mass on this, but every time I load up dribbble, my laptop fan starts sounding like a jet engine. Still some work to do here. Let’s see if this handy decision tree helps:
Yeah I mean, everything needs to scale. But man how I miss the days where I could just design something that was good and didn’t have to scale to millions of users and 4,568 languages. Back in the day, a sculptor could just design a pot. One single pot. That person was probably happy.
J/K. I have never met him but he is a global treasure. If I made any negative comment, it’s just that I think he’s a robot. He designs icons for free, he makes helpful videos, elevates the design community, illustrates for books and political movements. And, he’s legitimately funny. Please don’t ever screw up Pablo. We already cancelled so many beloved celebrities; design can’t lose you.
Ok, back to my regularly-scheduled snark.
“State of Design” Reports
I mean, we’re all just reading these to see if we’re getting underpaid, right? Truthfully I like John Maeda’s but these reports are growing in size. At some point we’ll need a State of Design Reports Report. These are great ways for design agencies to show their design chops, but mainly the charts all kinda just tell us what we already kinda know.
You pay thousands of dollars to learn things you can on Medium and to drink beers with people. Sounds like a typical Thursday to me, but at 1,000x the cost! I stopped going to conferences when I realized I was skipping all the presentations and hanging out in the lobby talking to people. I think very few people regret going to conferences, so this one is kinda aimed at those feeling FOMO: you’ll be ok.
Silicon Valley Jobs
It’s easy to write this one off as a bitter midwesterner’s perspective, and I wouldn’t blame you. But I worked in SF for 5 years so I drank the kool-aid. But this is the truth: there’s design work all over the damn world. There’s problems aplenty and people needing design skills everywhere. The prestige and PR won’t be as great but the work is solid. Silicon may have the best jobs, but they do not have a monopoly on the best problems to solve.
Those big floating buttons on every website
Nothing is a bigger letdown than a well-designed marketing site that kills it by plopping down an auto-pop up from the bottom-right that covers all the great copy. I think these tools are great for capturing a visitor’s attention. But, you know, don’t forget a nice site can also capture someone’s attention.
Working at Facebook
I mean seriously, you know what Facebook does, right? I mean if you do and you still want to work there, cool. But yeesh, it’s like a packaging designer getting a job at Lucky Strike in the 50’s telling his friends, “Oh yeah the cancer studies aren’t great but at least cigarettes keep you from gaining weight and make you look cool! Just don’t do it around your kids.” And just when I was worried I was being too harsh…while writing this section, it came out that Facebook was paying teenagers for full-access to their data. Hard to figure out if this is better or worse than tobacco companies advertising to kids. But as a designer, I‘d prefer to work at a place that didn’t have such a moral quandary to navigate.
Yup, I used them in my header graphic. But what the hell is the deal with these things? It seems like a requirement for digital product sites to have blobs somewhere in the page. No graphic skills? Put a blob on it. Want to make your site feel “natural?” Put a blob on it. Want to make something catchy but vaguely ugly? Put a blob on it. (These are all reasons for my header graphic, btw…and I used the Blobmaker App to do it).
AI and Smart Things
The robots, or at least the promise of robots, is starting to take over the design community as well. In grad school, whenever we’d get stumped on a project, we would use “programming” as our fallback (cuz none of us really knew anything about programming). “But professor, I only designed one screen because the app actually learns over time and the user doesn’t actually need to do anything.” Today, AI nowhere close to as good as we claim (read anything by Rodney Brooks to learn more), and designers are still using it as a stand-in for real design.
Ok, I’m going to end with a bang:
I know, I know. They are important. Hell, I’ve written about them and give workshops on them (although I spend no time in my workshop on the visual design side of portfolios). But it’s remarkable to me how often we spend making them, critiquing them, and asking for feedback on them compared to how much they weigh into the actual design interview process. If I spend 15 hours (distributes amongst a team) in the interview process for a designer, reviewing the portfolio accounts for 1–2 hours — about 10% of the time goes to the portfolio. Cut back on the portfolio and spend more time finding a good design job that isn’t at Facebook.