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Opinion Column Hey Designers: Stop Being An Afterthought

There are reasons you’re still saying the same thing after all these years — still talking about how it always seems like design gets tacked on to the end of the process. You should be at the concept meeting, you say, where you can make a real difference.

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.

Semantics Link

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.

Designers need to educate in order to stop being an afterthought1
Designers need to educate in order to stop being an afterthought. (Image: Markus Spiske2)

What to Do Link

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 strategy3) 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 Link

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 Link

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.)

Self-Awareness Link

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 Link

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.

Strategy Hogs Link

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.

Control freaks are strategy hogs4
Control freaks are strategy hogs. (Image: Faramarz Hashemi5)

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 Link

I’ve answered this one before6. 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 Link

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.

Design always has a cost7
Design always has a cost. (Image: Steven Depolo8)

What to Do Link

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.

(cc, ml, al)

Footnotes Link

  1. 1 https://www.flickr.com/photos/markusspiske/16829123376/in/album-72157651008018389/
  2. 2 https://www.flickr.com/photos/markusspiske/16829123376/in/album-72157651008018389/
  3. 3 http://smallbusiness.chron.com/repetition-persuasive-strategy-26001.html
  4. 4 https://www.flickr.com/photos/fhashemi/97033289/
  5. 5 https://www.flickr.com/photos/fhashemi/97033289/
  6. 6 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2015/04/23/how-to-become-a-ux-leader/
  7. 7 https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/3354726208/
  8. 8 https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/3354726208/
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Robert Hoekman Jr is the author of Designing the Obvious, Designing the Moment, Web Anatomy, Big Deal, and The Tao of User Experience. He has worked with Adobe, MySpace, Dodge, Craftsman, American Heart Association, Seth Godin, WordPress.com, and many others, and has spoken at industry events worldwide.

  1. 1

    Great article Robert. Working as an in-house designer in a corporate environment for many years, I think educating others to think of designers as strategic planners and thinkers is the biggest hurdle. From my experience, design is traditionally seen in a very specific way and as only the final part of the process. And sometimes there’s already so many people involved in the planning process, that convincing people to add one more person to the mix, is an uphill battle.

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  2. 2

    I loved the article:
    In the business company where I live the biggest problem is Time: we have to face the projects as fast as we can.. it took me some years to make them, the bosses, understand that Time is essential for a good design. Without it they can’t expect something original.
    But still today the problem remains, and we, graphic and web designers, have to deal with it. :(

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  3. 3

    Thank you for this, Robert! As a designer, I struggled with getting more involved from a project’s early stages at my last job. I often heard “Just make it pretty!”, once a project had already been poorly planned and partly developed. It was frustrating, as was working with “strategy hogs”, as you called them. I actually wound up quitting that job to start my own design company, and I’m so happy I did.
    I’m going to apply your suggestions when working with my own clients. Great idea to focus on strategy – it will help guide away from most people’s preconceptions of what design really means.

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  4. 5

    Lovely! Just lovely!

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  5. 6

    I just thought that this article was beautifully written. Funny, witty, relevant and with real value. The web is so full of crappy blogs, it’s refreshing to stumble upon something this good. Other than that, yep, to design is to plan, of course! Specially true in “web design”.

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  6. 8

    Very good article!!! I think I was in that situation a couple of times… You gave me a lot to think about!!! Thanks!!

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  7. 9

    Great article ! Sometimes you enslave and dedicate yourself working for your company so hard that you almost forget what you are, and what are you capable of.
    You don’t enjoy working in your lovely field anymore and you just face “lack of inspiration” situation more often than ever !
    I’ve sensed and felt all those situations you’ve pointed out in your article.
    It’s like that I just needed to hear all these again ( with solutions! ) from someone else to think about them thoroughly . Like a flip!
    I will probably translate your article to Persian so Farsi speaking people can use it too.

    Thanks

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  8. 10

    There are significantly less comments on Smashing Magazine those days. Everybody read it on mobile devices. SM should ad some “like” button to let people show affection for a great read. And this article was surely great and valuable one. Thanks.

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  9. 11

    This a breath of fresh air, a wake up call, a slap in the face and something to aspire to. This describes my current workplace to a “T”. I was starting to think I was crazy for believing that design thinking could improve things. Will have to weigh whether it’s worth staying and pushing for change or if it’s time to move on, thanks for the great advice! No more pixel pushing :)

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  10. 12

    Tirthankar Basu

    September 10, 2015 7:03 pm

    Hi Robert,

    I read it for the first time, I can say it’s a stunning piece of inspiration. Great.
    Such type of pieces inspire me a lot.

    Thanks for sharing this great piece.

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  11. 13

    Brilliant article Robert, and it’s so very true. A lot to think about there, for any of us that have once felt, or are still feeling left out in the cold.

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  12. 14

    Thank you, this is a fantastic article. I’m a designer and have shared with several of my coworkers and they have all responded that this article has so many great points. This will change the way we work, thank you!

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  13. 15

    Great article! After all, good design becomes more and more work these days and obviously demands more money. And good strategy is about putting your foot down and saying “no” to your customers. If you don’t, you simply risk burning out or failing to perform your work. There’s an interesting article I’d like to share about the matter that talks about the importance of firing your “bad” customers: http://helprace.com/blog/why-good-startups-fail-they-cant-fire-bad-customers

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  14. 16

    Quality, well thought article. Rare that I read posts past the first few paragraphs. Awesome stuff.

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