Design as communication between technical and non-technical people

November 14, 2011

business / design

One of the interesting things about web design is the number of fields into which it reaches. Others have reflected on this over the years, but it’s fascinating to think about the practical connections between web design and programming, web design and graphic design, web design and business, and web design and psychology (and also more conceptual connections like that between web design and architecture).

The really interesting thing to me about this is the unique opportunity it gives us, as web designers or UX designers or whatever, to be the connection between people and fields that typically don’t understand each other at all. Let me elaborate.

One of the stereotypes about technology people – whether they are hardware people, tech support people, engineers or programmers, or whatever – is that they can’t communicate well with non-technical people. This stereotype isn’t always true, of course, but it often is true. Sometimes this is because they genuinely don’t know how to express the concepts they’re discussing in non-technical ways, and sometimes it’s a more ideological attempt to keep people from challenging their established positions (and it often works, because those they’re communicating with don’t have the language resources with which to challenge).

Designers usually don’t fall into this specific stereotype (we have our own issues, of course). Sometimes this is because designers are not that technical, but as we’ve learned from Zeldman and others, good web designers write code, and they understand programming as well. They understand what web servers and databases and programming languages are capable of doing, and some degree of how to do that stuff, because that’s how their designs get accomplished.

Good web designers also understand user experience design. Whether they are UX designers themselves or not (I don’t want to get into the battle over titles) is irrelevant – all good web designers know how user experience affects their work, and how their work affects user experience. They know what it means for something to be intuitive, and what their role is in that.

It’s the combination of these things – an understanding of technical stuff and an understanding of user experience – that gives us as designers the opportunity I’m speaking of, and it’s the opportunity to be the connection between technical people and non-technical people. To the extent that we do this, the stuff we all make together gets better, and that’s a beautiful thing that happens too infrequently. But it’s also true that to the extent we do this, we become better designers.

Building better stuff

Designers who are able to be a bridge between technical and non-technical people will always be an enhancement to web projects, beyond the obvious stuff that we do as part of designing things. We are able to translate what is actually being said by each group in meaningful ways.

When this happens, technical people understand why it is that the non-technical people want or do not want something, and non-technical people understand why it is that the technical people want or do not want something. Understanding that, on both sides, makes it easier to say “No” when it’s necessary, instead of getting bogged down in jargon, on both sides, that obscures whether or not something is actually good for a project.

When it doesn’t happen, technical people feel attacked, or like no one understands what it really takes to accomplish something. This leads to unrealistic stuff that gets done badly. Equally important, non-technical people feel stupid. If you’ve ever been part of these conversations, you’ve heard someone ask you to “explain it to me like I’m stupid.” But that’s not really what they want. What they really want is for you to explain it in their own language, or in a language that makes sense to them, and designers are uniquely qualified to do this.

Granted, it can be difficult for a designer to get into this space. Often it’s hard for technical people to really trust a designer, but it is possible, especially when designers really do understand what the technical issues are and what they mean. Designers can be the people who make those translations make sense, and they can do it in a way that doesn’t make anyone feel stupid or attacked. It’s worth it; it makes better stuff.

Becoming better designers

It’s also true that designers who are able to function in this role will, in an overall sense, become better designers.

The reason for this is that the skills we use in these roles are the skills we use when we actually design things. One role creates, and inspires, the other role.

Most businesses have their own language. They have their own acronyms, their own internal structures of things, and their own ways of understanding whatever it is that they do. Developing this language is natural, and it can help make it possible for people to function within large organizations. But the problem is that these languages don’t make any sense. They themselves are not natural, and people don’t understand them without being stuck in the organizations.

So, most of the time when we’re designing something, we’re not designing it for the people within our organizations who already understand that language. This makes most design projects fairly complex, even if they otherwise wouldn’t be, because we have to avoid making people feel stupid. They’re not stupid, in all likelihood; they just need to hear stuff in their own language, or one that they understand.

But again, it gives us as designers the unique opportunity to communicate between people who understand the language of that business and people who just want to buy something, or use something, or get something done.

To do this, we need to understand what languages it is that the organization uses, and why it uses them. It’s hard work to do this. But we also have to understand what languages it is that users understand, and this gives us the chance to get to know them.

Doing these things is worth it. It makes better stuff, and it makes better designers.