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Design is everybody’s job except when it’s not

Design is everybody’s job except when it’s not

UX rightly embraces the idea that everyone can and should contribute to product design. The very best digital and tech products emerge when business analysts, project managers, researchers, sales and marketing professionals, interface designers and programmers all work together.  What’s more, when they all think about product design the same way, and the culture is aligned around business needs and user goals, then organisations give themselves the very best chance of building exceptional products.

Done well, this means that the sales team who are speaking to customers every day can represent the customer, the marketing team can contribute to the influence of brand on product and researchers can bring insight from users and the market.  On the technical side of the house, programmers can help interface designers understand the trade–offs between different options, with project management and business analysis support to manage budget, timelines and stakeholder expectations.

However just because design is everybody’s job, it doesn’t mean that every aspect of the design process is the responsibility of every person, nor that everybody is qualified to contribute beyond their area of expertise.

This is particularly true of an area of design over which everyone has an opinion, namely the interface.  Project team members whose job titles aren’t “User interface designer” must resist the temptation to become an interface have–a–go hero.  Non–technical project team members would rightly be very shy about telling developers how to program and the same restraint should be exercised with the interface.

We love the romanticism of the have–a–go hero. There is something alluring about the outsider taking on the establishment, or overcoming a chronic shortage of skill or experience to overcome overwhelming odds to save the day.  Nowhere is this more true than in the movies.

Philadelphia journeyman boxer Rocky Balboa took on the might of world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed seeking to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds with sheer guts, bravery and of course unorthodox training methods through the streets, on the monuments and in the meat lockers of the city.

The Jamaican bobsleigh team in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics sought to overcome their inexperience of snow and ice with their surfeit of world class sprinters.

Daniel LaRusso went through a quite frankly astonishingly contrived set of social, personal and sporting circumstances to find himself fighting his tormentor in chief with only months of menial chores as training, one working knee and of course the ‘crane’.

Former second–rate ice–hockey player Happy Gilmore overcame anger issues, his grandmother’s tax debt, his grandmother’s poor treatment in her care home, questionable short–term overnight guests, a poor short–game, an unmerciful beating from game–show host Bob Barker, zero knowledge of course etiquette and golf tour snobbery to win the championship.  All he had on his side was an enormous drive, the guidance of his coach Chubbs Peterson, the love of his grandmother and the potential love of the pro golf tour’s PR director.

It might work well in sports movies but it sucks in UX projects.

I’m not arguing that team members shouldn’t influence the interface – it’s self–evident that they should.  They should clearly articulate the problems it needs to solve, offer the research providing evidence about user preference and contribute handsomely to ideation, prototyping and iteration.  But as a project moves from the ‘problem space’ to the ‘solution space’ the team should provide space to the developers to develop and the interface designers to design.  The solutions emerging from these design and dev teams should undoubtedly be benchmarked against the brief provided, however all contributions to the process should be focused on measuring design decisions against data and insight, not offering opinions on personal preferences.

The flip side of the coin is that UI designers need to be laser–focused on solving user problems, keep a clear rationale for all their design decisions and be excellent communicators and collaborators with their colleagues.

It seems right that the final word goes to the most famous have–a–go hero in recent cinema history, a man who in 1980 miraculously landed Trans American flight 209 from Los Angeles in Chicago after the pilot Captain Clarence Ovuer and First Officer Roger Murdock suffered incapacitation due to food poisoning, Ted Striker.

In the world of the have–a–go hero don’t be a Ted Striker. Unless you’re a designer, be a Steve McCroskey. Pick a good week to give up interface designing. 

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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