Doing good design in a non-design company

April 23, 2012

business / design

There are design companies out there. The Apples, Twitters, Mints, Instagrams (before Facebook bought them?), Nintendos, and so on. They take design seriously, in all its many forms. It shows in the designers who work for them, the work they do, and the processes by which they do it. May there be more and more of these.

But then there are the other companies. These companies are decidedly not design companies. Maybe they are developer companies. Maybe they are sales companies. Or maybe they think they are design companies when they’re style companies, as Zeldman might say. Regardless: they are the ones, if they have the fortune of having good designers working for them, that have designers working extra hard to sell their ideas to folks to whom they don’t come naturally.

I’ve worked at more than one of these companies, ranging in size from less than ten to a few thousand. I’ve seen projects where design (visual design, interaction design, user experience design, etc.) went really well, projects where it went really badly, and projects that fell somewhere in the middle. I feel like I’ve learned one thing that holds true across all these companies, and all the departments within these companies. As I write it, it seems a bit obvious, but no one ever told me and I meet designers often that don’t know it any more than I did.

In a non-design company, good design happens to the extent that those who have authority over what gets shipped are involved from the beginning of the project.

I’ve been thinking through all my experiences and the ones I’ve witnessed, as an employee, a freelancer, and an observer of other folks, and I believe this is always true. It’s not always true in design companies, and this is because it doesn’t need to be. Design is already at the core of who they are, and it’s always going to be present when those overriding decisions are made.

But here’s what I mean, for the rest of the world. Consider a designer, or team of designers, building a large website. Maybe they do some formal usability testing, or some coffeeshop usability testing, or whatever. They know some stuff about their users. They go into a meeting with that data, and they present to everyone there what they know. To whatever extent the designers do a good job, the other folks learn about their users as well, and everyone is wiser. They propose what needs to be done differently. The project moves forward in a different way.

Maybe the designers work with some developers, some marketing people, some content people, and some sales people and a great thing is being produced. It will follow best practices, get the business goals across in a way that will match them with the goal of users, and everyone has the potential of being happy.

But consider an executive who sees this thing before it gets shipped. He or she hasn’t been in any of these meetings. He or she doesn’t know any of the information that has been shared, and doesn’t care enough about design to have a designer in the boardroom. He or she decides to change something significant, to the point that now it goes against half the usability test data and makes a feature look silly to folks outside the organization. No one stands up to him or her, because design doesn’t have room in the organization to do so.

Maybe it’s not an executive that makes the changes; maybe it’s a manager or a product owner or just someone who feels left out because he or she wasn’t in all the cool design meetings. This situation happens every day.

The reason it happens every day is that when someone has enough power to affect the results of what is being designed, he or she will want input into how it is designed. Whether this is appropriate, or beneficial to the company or the other folks on the team is all irrelevant.

That person needs to be involved at the beginning, or the quality will go down to the extent that he or she gets to make design decisions. That person needs to be sitting in front of the whiteboard with everyone else at the beginning, hearing the usability test data, learning about the best practices, and maybe most importantly, drawing silly stick figures and non-square boxes and squiggly lines on that whiteboard to get his or her points across. He or she needs to feel heard, and like his or her input is valuable.

Because it is valuable. I may sound like I just want those thoughts to get out there so the designers can move on, but that’s really not the case. These ideas are often very good, but they are not design ideas. They often get expressed as design ideas at the end of a project, and that’s the problem. They need to get expressed at the beginning, in the most visual form possible, so that the knowledge and principles that lie behind them can get out into the open, be translated into good design, and into the needs of the organization and the needs of the users.

And again, it’s to the extent that this happens that good design is able to happen. Otherwise, that good design the team is so happy about is just waiting to be overridden.