As designers, we produce a wide range of items to communicate with one another and our partners across the organization, These may range from high-level design principles and personas to high fidelity mockups of every screen in an experience.
Example of Design Principles created for Domain
While all of these can serve as valuable purposes for design, too often we teach and treat them as critical outputs in design processes. Many of these artifacts are now created out of habit or due to leadership expectations either within design or the wider organization instead of ensuring the work has an impact. As the practice of design has evolved and a wider portion of organizations have deeper appreciation (or at least understanding) for the work of design, it becomes necessary to reevaluate portions of our work to ensure we’re focusing on outcomes rather than outputs.
For design to have a seat at the table within organizations, we need to not just deliver experiences that surprise and delight the organization’s customers but hone our ability to influence and persuade action within the organization. While design-led organizations do exist, most of us don’t have the luxury to directly lead key decisions for our products or organizations. Instead, we must use the tools of our trade to craft compelling stories to guide actions.
In order to successfully refocus our approach, we’ll need to look at how we treat these artifacts throughout the process of education, interviewing, internal processes, and communication throughout our organizations. Each of these contributes to a weakening of designing as a practice that solves complex problems and, instead, promotes a practice that churns out artifacts.
Education Promotes Process Over Outcomes
While many have aimed criticism at boot camps, there is the case to be made that they can help contribute to increased economic opportunity and/or help people who have education in an adjacent field and related work experience pivot in their career. However, they are also one of the most guilty of perpetuating a tendency toward the production of artifacts in order to produce portfolio pieces. This focus on teaching the design process as a production of pieces to be assembled into a portfolio reinforces design as a navel-gazing practice focused on the production of things rather than real changes.
However, bootcamps are not alone in their guilt as the most respected design schools are also known for painting a picture of linear processes as part of their external communication. While many faculty and practitioners will talk amongst ourselves about the process being flexible with multiple starting points of entry depending on the context (e.g. sometimes we start with a prototype instead of discovery research) this is poorly disseminated into the wider discussion. Even applied design programs tend to continue to have the gap between reality and work in a learning environment (or internship) where how their artifacts get used are often missed by the students. After all, it is easier to communicate the design process and teach it to students when we break it into a linear, phased approach and a discussion on how artifacts may go unused may do more to discourage than motivate learning.
Stanford dSchool’s version of the design process (presented linearly)
While both approaches are understandable and trying to start with an explanation of all of the complexity is unlikely to be in the best interest of our field, we should strive to talk about the design process as not a singular process but instead a guiding concept that adjusts based on the context in which we are operating and the outcomes we are trying to achieve.
The Interview Process Perpetuates These Myths
Too often when evaluating candidates, whether via a portfolio or their on-site presentation, we over index on the process and outputs of their work while rarely diving deep into the outcomes and impacts.
This often starts at the resume level where a designer might focus on the number of screens they designed for a company (if they include any metrics) or experiences they designed that were released. Rarely do we see a focus on impacts of design from increases in customer/user satisfaction, engagement, or new people adopting the experience. Even on the softer side of impacts, we rarely focus on how the work we’ve done that led the business to pivot to a more human-centric decision. Researchers, whose sole role is helping influence decisions through increasing empathy, are often just as guilty of this omission as designers. Much more often, we see resumes that focus on what a designer did or what methods, techniques they used.
Then when it comes time to present portfolios and presentations, even when placing an emphasis on the Situation, Task, Action, Result (STAR) method these presentations largely focus more on the outputs. Hiring managers and committees are at fault here as historically many have critiqued candidates for an improper process. Our guidelines for stories in design also don’t fit well with the often nonlinear processes we must take to help organizations make more empathetic decisions for our customers.
Describing the process in a portfolio presentation
All of this helps reinforce the focus boot camps have on artifacts for a portfolio rather than educating new designers to focus on taking the steps to drive actions on improving the lives of people through the experiences we design.
In our alternate reality, instead of focusing on having candidates show their portfolios with a focus on process, we should instead have them tell us about how their work influenced decisions within the product teams. Focusing less on the highly detailed screens they designed, which at most modern companies is largely a product of visual designs informed by design systems, but instead on how they helped change the flows to reduce friction (or introduce positive friction that helped build trust). We should expect designers to be able to share information about how their designs impacted the end-users via satisfaction, engagement, and other metrics; the company via gains in sales, or society via removal of dark patterns or increased equity of the experience.
Improving How We Communicate Within Our Organizations
We have trained many of our partners within organizations to ask for and receive artifacts without clearly aligning on how these add value or will be used. Not every project needs personas, journeys, or high fidelity mockups created. Instead of focusing on what we provide (our outputs) we need to retrain ourselves and our partners to think about what problem is being solved.
Personas, when done well, are useful in helping keep a team aligned around a shared representation of a group of people and to understand how different people may have different needs or may need to have the solution operate in different ways. If we aren’t crafting personas in a way that highlights these differences to actually inform product decisions then we are simply crafting artifacts. This is wasted effort and should be avoided and if the team feels personas are still important after we stop providing them then we need to retrain the team in how to use personas, not simply how to create a persona or see that a persona was created (check).
A journey, by itself, is equally useless and instead, we must focus on what a journey can be used for. Here, it’s about refocusing our solutions to ensure that end-to-end experiences, which may not be linear as people return to our service sometimes after months, can be as fluid as possible. How are we solving for the individual who has a critical need for our service but hasn’t engaged with us for months or even years vs. how are we providing for the individuals who are constantly engaged? This is why a single journey is often a flawed model and why we need to think about how it will be used–not simply its creation. These journeys can also be overlayed with metrics tied to the experience to identify future optimization opportunities.
In general, the theme here is that we must pivot our approach away from the creation of the thing to having conversations with our team of teams in order to help them understand how to use what we create and align what we’re creating to that usage. In short, we must apply our process of designing solutions to ourselves–determining first if our artifacts are useful and second how to make them more usable.
Putting It All Together
All of this ultimately culminates in a shift of our work away from the production of things, to persuading our teams and the wider organization to place a greater emphasis on the people we design for (our end users) in order to help them understand and make better decisions that solve problems or produce new value in people’s lives. To effectively make this shift, we must improve our ability to craft our tools around the intent of informing decision making and persuading our partners to act to the benefit of our end users.
This change is one we need to make across our practice as a whole–from education up through communication within our organization. However, when we make this change, we should see increased value and influence of our practice for many years to come rather than potentially risk a return to a simple service of cranking out design artifacts.