Better-making: Creating a Statement of Design Intent

“Do you need to be involved right now? Don’t we need to finish defining the functionality and give you wireframes, then you’ll just apply the UI?”

In the middle of a planning discussion a dev manager throws that out at my boss—the VP of UX—and me. Of course we’ve heard it before, but it still takes us both aback a little. I want to retort that coding can’t start until design tells them what to build. I refrain and instead offer that we’re here to help get the product flow and structure right. That we want to make sure that the complex product we want to build is going to be delivered in a way that gives customers the best chance of being successful. Then when it’s time for UI, we’ll be more confident about what’s being built. I smile as I say it.

Like many of you, I often feel irritated at implicit or explicit statements that software UI design is about simple visual and emotional aesthetics. Interactions like these remind me that there is still a ways to go in educating our colleagues about what design is really capable of. (In a way, though, that is mutually enriching. This humorous video from a couple of years is instructive as much for the hardheaded tactics of the designer as it is for the hard-to-take-seriously requests of clients.)

Designing as pretty-making

Sometimes though, despite the story above, I only get frustrated out of my bias and loyalty to my tribe. In other words, I believe that sometimes design actually is about making something pretty, because pretty is what is needed.

After all, if design is the rendering of intent, maybe sometimes the intent is to make something simply more aesthetically pleasing at a surface level—decoration. We’ll come back to that. Certainly design can do more, though it doesn’t have to.

Designing as solution-making

In response to designers being relegated to—or relegating themselves to—decoration roles for poorly functioning software, many in the user experience, interaction, and information architecture design practices have been asserting that design is a problem-solving discipline. After all, that task sounds more like it cares about function and technical systems. It sounds more robust, substantial, and serious. More worth the big money being thrown at digital designers. More like what Steve Jobs said about design.

We are dissatisfied with being told we are just pretty-makers, and we have reacted with what we feel is a rebuttal of truth: We know design is capable of more, and we want contribute at that level.

I agree with that, and yet many kinds of work go into design toward many goals. Above all it is about finding a sense of increased rightness for a situation which has been found to be lacking. To say design is only about solution-making is in some ways as problematic as saying it is only about pretty-making. We almost always are concerned with multiple aspects of what we are producing. Reductionism, even for the sake of making a point, is a risky gambit when we are still educating and looking for allies.

Seeing the larger picture that not every situation that design can contribute to is an unsolved problem or an unattractive interface is crucial. The people we serve, who will benefit from the better designs, have multiple reasons for desiring the better, and so better has a multitude of meanings. Proper design concerns itself with discovering and addressing many of them.

Designing as answer-making

In that spirit, a few months ago I asserted that UX Design is a question-addressing discipline, rather than simply a problem-solving discipline. I’d been meaning to follow that up but hadn’t gotten to it yet, until a recent tweet reminded me of some of the things I still needed to write about this topic.

The earlier post stated that problem-solving is not unique to design—plumbers and M.D.s do the same. That said, design often finds itself in a position to ask fundamental questions about the human activity involved; enabling us to move beyond making solutions into creating space and paths for achievement and emotional engagement. Focusing on the types and substance of questions we ask can help us make better design decisions—decisions that go deeper than following the latest trends and arranging text and controls on pages. Finding ways to address those questions in the contexts of motivations and goals makes us stronger and more effective designers.

We also need to explore the questions behind the questions. If design is not just a problem-solving discipline, what is our motivation? (And not just because many of us simply love the activity.) Instead, why do we design what we design? What is our motivation in the specific to focus our design energy and skill on something particular? If we are spending time in the multitudes of meaning, and not only solving problems, what are we doing?

Or, what all might we be trying to take care of when we design?

  • There could be a problem to solve. Is there? (e.g., an experience of painful emotion or an inability)
  • Is there a desire? (e.g., an experience of dissatisfaction or lack)
  • Is there a previously unavailable improvement? (e.g., an experience of ignorance or desire for increase)

All of these at their core are what Simon points at—gaps to fill between an existing state and a preferred one. But often the simple existence of a gap is not sufficient to cause us to engage in professional levels of design. Frugally, not all problems are worth solving via a thorough and expensive design process. Ethically, not all desires ought to be satisfied. Materialistically, not all improvements need to be distributed.

So then, we need to ask further questions to know why we should design when we design.

  • What are the nature and source of the gap between existing and preferred?
  • Can we address it?
  • Is there a justification for requiring a newly designed state?
  • Is the gap significant enough to be producing a negative effect as part of the existing state?
  • Are people noticing and impacted by the negative effect and asking for change?

When the answers to these questions are yes, then the motivation for design becomes much more compelling and we can begin to ask the questions I wrote about earlier. But we’re not done asking questions for ourselves yet.

To understand the design task in front of us, and so decide whether we are up to or even wanting the challenge, we must ask:

  • What is the (almost assuredly vague at this point) preferred state?
  • What are key characteristics of the preferred state that we can know now that would close the gap?

If we pursue a design, the answers to these become the basis for our design tenets and goals. They will drive ideas, decisions, new answers, and iterations.

In fact, combining the answers to all the above starts to form a kind of statement of design intent that becomes our North Star:

Because [gap and its negative impact], we intend to change [summary of current state] to [summary of preferred state] for [affected people] so they can [statement of intended benefits]. We will do this by [statement of approach].

A holistic thought expressed in a such a fashion provides an excellent foundation for beginning the real work of design: identifying the potential ways, in all their detail, of effecting the transformation of the present into a perhaps previously unforeseen future. Again, see my earlier post plus countless articles about good iterative design methods for helpful ways to reach that goal.

Design as story-making

Here it might be interesting to note the parallel to story-telling. The arc and progress of story are not only powerful structures to help give shape to a design, they are also nearly instantly relatable intellectually and emotionally.

Designing as better-making

I think often about why and how we design. More about the intellectual and motivational aspects and less about tools and process. It’s important. Design has great potential for good and harm. For incredible benefit and horrific waste of time and resources. The difference in result is not always clearly visible, so thoughtful approaches to what we choose to design are necessary.

In many ways, design is simply about making sure the next version of the story goes better than the one before, with the successful rewrite focusing on the truth that better is in the heart of the beneficiary. Understanding the otherness of better is often not easy, so questions and frameworks such as the statement of design intent are necessary to aid us.

Designing can be solution-making, answer-making, route-making, story-making, and even pretty-making. Better is a universal desire, and sometimes we just want something to be prettier to make it better. If the questions and answers lead you there, do it. Design better.

Good luck.

Edits:

A couple of readers have suggested that an example or two would help clarify the idea of the statement of intent. Cool. Here’s one that describes a product you might recognize and another from one of my projects. Both helped drive success.

Because [mobile phones are in a rut and difficult to use], we intend to change from [accepting them as techno-centric gadgetry] to [offering well-designed lifestyle accessories] for [young, affluent U.S. consumers] so they can [use technology in a way that feels more like a companion or trusted personal appliance]. We will do this by [raising the bar on what it means to design technology for use by the everyday person and producing something insanely great, even if it means sacrificing functionality initially to focus on a great experience].

Because [mobile app developers who want to be our customers feel our lack of a cohesive development platform], we intend to change [the disconnectedness of our environment] to [be a well-rounded and sense-filled place for creation] for [mobile app developers] so they can [have key app infrastructure components easily accessible and quickly configurable]. We will do this by [taking a new design perspective away from our typical product interaction structure and visuals toward that which focuses deeply on context and in-handedness].

As you might feel, these are dense statements and perhaps not easy to grasp at first read. That makes sense given the scope, amount of thought, iteration, and creative conflict that birthed them. And probably is a necessity for the product experiences they represent.

Try it yourself for something you are or have been involved in. It’s eye-opening and will give you a new appreciation for the work you do and the skill and intelligence you use to do it.