Hey Designers: Stop Being An Afterthought
I’ve been hearing it for 15 years. I once had a job where I got to say it myself a few times. I got tired of that pretty quickly. I don’t say it anymore. You shouldn’t either.
Primarily because it’s not true.
There is no such thing as a project that goes off well without some level of planning. You’re just not the one doing it. You can keep wondering why, keep complaining, or you can change it. The front of the bus is a crowded place, but that doesn’t mean the people there are smarter than you. You’re a designer, which means you’re capable of imagining a better version of the world than the one you’re living in. And yet there you are, stuck at the back.
Here are some of the reasons it happens. And how to stop being an afterthought.
Possible cause number one: Design.
You use this word practically every day. You might not know how much trouble it’s causing.
In the web industry, it means a lot of things. There’s visual design. There’s web design — whatever that means these days. There’s the end result — “the design.” Then there’s the version of design where you plan things out before building them.
That last one’s key. Because “design” actually means “to plan.” And because another word for “plan” is “strategy.” And because no one but a designer thinks of strategy as being equal to design. They are not the same thing. Your boss does not think of them that way. You’re “the designer,” not a strategist.
And that’s your problem. Semantics.
There are several definitions of design, and the people around you all think you do the other one.
Design is strategic by nature. You can’t prescribe an experience, you can only influence it. A designer’s job is to determine in whatever ways possible what kind of experience a user should have, how a design might achieve that and what outcomes would be best for everyone involved. You research, you consider, you devise a plan and then you act on it. Design is a planning exercise. It’s all strategy. There is no design without intention.
Until you connect “design” to “strategy,” you will never move from one to the other. Until the people running the project see that design is strategy, your name will continue to be the last one called.
What To Do
Two things. First, educate.
In every meeting, find an excuse to talk about planning rather than design. Mention how much you love planning. Because to design is to plan, and that’s the best part of your job. The part that has the most effect.
Secondly, start using the word “strategy” in your conversations.
Human beings are susceptible to a lot of persuasive tricks. One of them is repetition. Say something over and over again (according to a strategy) and people will often start to believe it, whether it has any merit or not. It’s how presidents get elected. It’s how wars are started. It’s how an entire company can be convinced, rightly so, that design matters.
Manipulative? Heck yeah, it’s manipulative. Manipulation is a good thing. It’s a necessary tool. Call it “persuasion” or “influence” if it makes you more comfortable. Just wrap your brain around it. Treat it well and it will serve you well.
Just note that repetition also reinforces your own beliefs. The more you say something, the harder it is to change your own mind about it later. Be careful about what you repeat. You can give gravity to your own bad habits and ideas.
The Deception Of Lousy Work
Possible cause number two.
The people at the helm of your projects are executives, outside stakeholders, project managers. They are people whose job it is to think about quarterly revenue, user-base statistics, numbers — lots and lots of numbers. They’re not designers.
Sometimes, they’re bad at strategy and it shows. Other times, they’re great at strategy, but you can’t tell because all you see is the tiny sliver of the big picture they show you.
Sometimes, they’re terrible at design. They look at what competitors are doing and copy it. They look at user complaints and prescribe Band-Aids no matter the cause of the wound. They invent solutions to non-problems so that they can stand out from the crowd. Whatever the case, they’re working according to their own world view and not yours. Then they tell you about it.
To you, no matter what’s been done or how well, it looks like design is being tacked on at the end of the process, because when strategy is done badly or is badly communicated, it looks like it hasn’t been done at all. You wonder, why this solution? Why this feature? Why this way? You want to sort out something better. Instead, you’re left to push pixels.
What To Do
See the previous answer. Turn yourself into a strategist.
Ask why — all the time. When they bring you a bad idea, a non-idea, an old idea, ask questions. Why this? What problem? Is this the best way to achieve the result you’re after?
Ask enough and you’ll often find that no one knows the answers. There’s your chance. Help them see the vapor behind the mandates. Suggest a new way. Plug insight into a process where only opinion existed before.
Don’t be pushy. If you’ve never done strategy work, you might be terrible at it for a while. Learn, then assist, then do. Go slowly. You and everyone else and your products will get better.
And, of course, remember that sometimes people are doing good strategic work. It just isn’t what you would have done. (Respecting other opinions lets people like you more the next time around.)
You won’t like this one: You’re just not there yet, and you’re the only one who doesn’t know it.
The reason you’re not involved in strategy is that somebody is already doing it and you weren’t invited. You haven’t proven yourself to be a strategic thinker, and you’ve failed to realize it. You complain and demand and expect, but you don’t offer value. You’re fresh out of school and ready to change the world, but you don’t know how much you don’t know. Or you’re a veteran designer but still haven’t figured out that complaints are useless and annoying, that insight matters, that insight gets you places, or even what “insight” means.
What To Do
Take a good hard look at your skills, your actions, your words. Look at what people say about you. Has anyone ever suggested you’re more useful than you think you are? Or are you the only one who thinks that?
If planning is not part of your job, then you are not a designer. You may be called a designer. By definition, you’re not. You’re contributing in some way. You must be. But not the way people need. Not the way you want.
To become a designer, start planning. Start researching. Define goals and success metrics. Map your ideas to them. Ask for feedback on them. Then put them to work. Track them. Iterate.
If your “design” work has no definable objectives, it’s not design. It’s decoration. You’re doing the wrong work. Change that and you’ll change the way people see you. To be seen as a strategist, be a strategist.
There’s another possibility: You’re actually great, but no one knows you want to do this stuff.
So, tell them. Sometimes it’s just that simple.
Possible cause number 75.
Type A personalities. You know the ones. Control freaks. In charge, in everyone’s way, un-provably right about everything, suffering from self-induced anxiety because they can’t let anything go, living under the belief that they’re better than you.
They won’t let you do the work. You never even get close to it until they’re too buried in something else, and that never happens because strategy is their favorite part.
Despite your qualifications and interest, other people want to do it themselves and refuse to invite you into the process so that you can improve your skills and grow as a designer.
What To Do
I’ve answered this one before. Read the section titled “Let Them Improve.”
Good UX leaders give you chances to grow. If you’re not getting them, get out. Your career is more important than your job. Your work is more important than their product.
Stop letting bad managers be bad. Force them to change by losing their staff.
That’s all I’m going to say about that.
The Cost Of Design, Good And Bad
Last one I could think of. And it’s common.
Startups, companies with revenue shortfalls, small businesses, guys with a basement and a dream — they all have a good reason for not letting design in on the action earlier. So they think.
They’re broke. They can’t afford design.
The reason you’re not involved in strategy is because afterthought design is all they can afford. They do their best, make their best guesses, do as much as they can with as little as they have. Then they call you to hedge their bets. To get a second set of eyes. To hopefully clean up a little before the thing goes live. You get a week. Two days. Three hours. Just do a quick evaluation and let us know what you think.
What To Do
Sometimes this is all you can do. They really don’t have a budget. They really don’t have time. They really are going live next Tuesday.
Do what you can.
If there is time, if it is early, if there is a budget, here’s your argument.
Bad design costs a lot more than good design. There’s research, I’ll send you some of it. Let me be involved earlier in the process so that I can at least make some good guesses up front so that you don’t get tripped up by giant UX problems after launch. It costs more to rebuild than to build.
There’s evidence in the company where you work. They’ve done it. They’ve failed at something and rebuilt it. They’ve learned hard lessons they should’ve known before. They’ve been hijacked by big problems you could’ve helped to prevent.
There’s evidence in other companies. Look at the ones that have failed. Look at why. Look at the companies that stole customers through better design — enough customers to pay for the problems you aren’t solving now, enough for new development rather than repeat development.
Design is an investment. They can either make it now or later. It costs less now.
There’s your argument.
Be patient. Persist. Evaluate your skills and actions and words. Do the work.
Stop being an afterthought. Start being the right kind of designer.
Further Reading on SmashingMag:
- Designers And Developers: No Longer A House Divided
- Teaching Web Design To New Students In Higher Education
- Algorithm-Driven Design: How Artificial Intelligence Is Changing Design
- Useful Learning Resources For Web Designers