Design as ‘value’

Value is an overused word.

Particularly in Silicon Valley tech culture, amid investor-led conversations, value is so very heavily overused. Value this, value that. Keep generating value. Yes, yes, of course! Yet, it all seems just so trite, and empty, as a practical concept. What does value even mean to those striving to improve people’s lives with better technology? And for the design leader who is dancing across multiple levels of craft in their work from production to storytelling to principled compromise …just how does value fit into that interpretive model? How does one talk about the value of design? Of a design? Of designing? Of being a designer? Sigh. So many angles to analyze!

I don’t have the time to write a doctoral dissertation on all this…but I suppose one practical way to describe design’s value is to articulate its usefulness, usability, and desirability, pertaining to the affected chain of customers and partners (i.e., in an enterprise ecosystem) as well as the intersecting demands of various stakeholders, as exemplified by Eames’ Venn diagram of competing concerns.

Another way is to deeply dive into how the design creates significance or meaning for people, from a deeply humanistic approach. This borrows from Richard Buchanan’s model of values in design — is the design good, fair, just, right? This suggests that we might regard value as an emergent outcome from a defined set of related principles that propose a point of view, based upon some informed intuition of users/contexts, and provides decision-making rationale when things get tough.

OK. So where does this leave the designer trying to deliver something of quality and … value? This might be highly simplistic, but I propose that design’s value is best viewed in three ways: impact, inspiration, and influence.

Design value as impact

This implies a tangible outcome that is observable, recognizable, and somehow measurable (or describable via specific criteria & qualities). Like a real physical impact, there’s something left behind, of consequence and resonance.

Design value as inspiration

This suggests provocation, or stimulation, of both imagination (optimistic possibilities for a better future) and arguments (dialogues of opposition to arrive at some truth or understanding) around contrasting points of view, to tease out what’s critical and essential.

Design value as influence

In doing design, leading design, or just being a designer, relationships with cross-functional peers is vital…and knowing their agendas, motives, and deeply held values (or incentives) to get a design done. Being able to influence them via the powers and artifacts of design is valuable skill indeed.

Design as ‘quality’

Design is about quality.

Design is so loaded of a word, right!? Either it’s too emotional or too pedantic, with over-justified rationale that’s evolved into trendy buzzwords plastered on magazine covers (ahem, “design thinking”?). And still, in 2020, design is seen primarily as simply making things look sexy, exciting, glamorous. Pretty. Sigh.

However, quality is a word we all respond to, at intuitive and productive levels of execution, delivery, and service.

When we think of quality, we think of something that’s well-made, crafted with durability, solidity, strength. There’s an aesthetic dimension as well, conveying elegance or a poised balance of visual and tactile qualities. But not the only thing. This echoes the wisdom of Classical antiquity with the Golden Mean ratio and other examples of sacred geometry. It feels like it can stand the test of time.

In hi-tech sectors, the notion of QA or “quality assurance” is a standard phase of expertise in product development. At one company I led “Design QA” sessions, which involved verifying the accuracy of implementation by front-end engineers against the delivered and approved design specs. This has become a popular method at many places, since then. And I also helped lead a “quality” initiative with engineering and product leaders, which was my subtle code for “design-driven”, without getting caught up in the pre-ordained biases.

Hearing my words about improving our quality helped break the ice with code warriors and business suits alike, without any predisposed biases around the messy word “design” getting in each other’s way. Indeed, it’s a word that helped us connect and collaborate better. Quality is something we can agree upon. We all want to deliver something of quality, that we can be proud of. Who doesn’t?

However, what actually makes something be of high quality…well, that’s a whole other discussion! One pointer is to look at the brand qualities, UX models/patterns, and UI components being cohesively applied to create a product that respect’s the customer’s time and effort and money. Quality is a pathway to value that’s tangible and distinctive.

Design as ‘discipline’

Design is about discipline.

I’ve learned over the years that “process” can be a… touchy word in hi-tech culture. It connotes bureaucracy and politics, time-wasting tedium on checks-and-balances, for their own sake. To suggest that a team follow a design process can imply emphasis on the project management aspects, sauntering through a sequentialized, mechanized, procedure. Yawn.

And yet, we desperately want to ensure that design is seen not as some idiosyncratic art of spontaneity (cue those ‘Mad Men’ scenes of drinking and spacing out), that there is indeed rigor with systematic thoughtfulness, and deliberation towards tangible — and yes, measurable — outcomes. So, I sometimes use the word discipline with design, either as proxy or as reinforcement.

Like: As a team and company, we should establish an internal discipline of design. Let’s apply design discipline to this problem or opportunity. We need to take a disciplined approach to tackle the ambiguity or complexity.

This emphasis on discipline suggests a couple things which help the designer in their rationale:

  • Design as rigorous activity with intensity & reflection, a methodical cadence of doing per rules, constraints, and criteria.
  • Design as an established approach with respect & value accorded to it for the sake of how it supports the team’s intentions.

By applying the notion of “discipline” to design, this confers a level of professionalism to the practice of designing, and sets up the designer as a serious practitioner of merit and respect.

Presence & comms for virtual work

As we’re forced to go fully virtual during the COVID-19 global pandemic, questions arise about how to virtualize those we take for granted as routine & normal when we’re in the office. For instance, what does it mean to be present? How do we organize our attention? What level of fidelity of communications is good? Do we really need to have the camera on all the time for all meetings? And so on…

Let’s start with the matter of knowing others’ (and relaying your own) presence. In a real-life office context, we have a pretty good sense for the presence of others around us, through a nearly subconscious noting of subtle cues — others’ physical motions & postures, facial expressions, sounds of chatter, laughing, talking (including tonal shifts, suddenly going sharp or soft). And general movements as well, including shadows and scents as people pass by. Even objects like headphones, empty coffee cups. Pushed aside chairs, with amorphous figures clustered in a conference room, with lights dimmed, watching a demo. You have a feel for what’s going on, and who’s around.

Detection of such audio-visual clues offer some reasonably accurate inferences, and grounding you in the present moment, affecting your reactions and decisions whether to interrupt someone or defer until later, whether to send an email or quick Slack message. All it takes are some sly glances, peering around the corner, gentle nod of your head, lifting your eyes, to notice this range of cues — which become cues for others to notice you! 

But how do you do that when everyone is isolated at home in their own zones, where it seems the only way to check if someone is available is glancing at their online status icon — which itself is quite variable and inaccurate. Such icons are often an indication of interaction with the online messaging app itself, not that users are inattentive or busy, necessarily. 

MS Teams (by connecting with MS Outlook) shows your status via known calendar events — but often (and I do this too) a “busy indicator” can be just me blocking out time for work as a defense against meeting invites from others, so I’m still interruptible (for the right person or request ;-) It’s a bit tricky, resulting in the inevitable “yt?” quickly typed in, and awaiting a reply, which might not come. And then you’re away logging into your next Zoom meeting, as that person messages back to you, and you’re sharing your screen, prompting some mild embarrassment, etc, etc…

So, modes of presence is something for us to consider as we’re all distributed & virtualized, and how to convey that presence to others. Maybe this is an area for re-thinking now that it’s happening en masse all at once. Seems we need more nuanced, verbose status indicators, that’s more like emoji with facial/gestural cues. I’m thinking of those new Animoji in the latest iPhones which can have headphones, and other signals… Adding richness of hinting to others. Or do we actually type out “Stuck in a boring meeting, please ping me” or “In a very tense discussion, don’t bother me.” Maybe some combination…?

Now let’s consider the range of fidelity of communications. One of the first guiding points from HR was “turn on your camera”, to enable an in-person style of comms & engagement. This is certainly true for workshop events that are heavily facilitated and depend upon high fidelity, real-time discussion and reactions.

But we’re running into a couple of issues:

  • Households with multiple people on video calls all at once, thus impacting the quality of connections, such that it’s actually better to turn off the camera to enable other people’s calls to continue. This implies a need to be “bandwidth responsible” with polite, prudent awareness of others’ needs in the house. 
  • If it’s not a workshop activity, does having high fidelity video communications really matter as much? Maybe for those who are in the “C” or “I” of DACI role structure (driver / approver / contributor / informed) can be in listen-only, muted/camera off until a key question or decision is raised? Maybe simply quick chat messages or gestures like “hand raise” are only needed. 

There’s no one solution fits all, but being aware of the nuances of what we’re missing and how we could possibly support them via modulating our presence and fidelity of communications could start to shape up, in a sense, a new rhetorical model of being socially engaged, that’s situational and appropriate for the context. In the end, regardless of tool (Slack, Zoom) or tactic (status icons, camera on) what matters most is ensuring a persistence of the trust, respect, and professional camaraderie that keeps a team feeling involved and valued. 

Anchors & rhythms in a virtual existence

Now that “working from home” has been mandated as the new norm, while we endure the uneasy uncertainty of the coronavirus, it’s a good time to reflect upon some nuances that impact the quality of productivity, when going fully virtual. This goes beyond useful tips for remote work practices, or arranging a suitable home-office setup.

First, let’s acknowledge the pervasive sense of uncertainty and subtle tensions as a result of the radical shift forced upon all of us — it can be deeply unsettling, causing a sense of being lost and even adrift. This is expected, given the suddenness of the changes that nobody asked for, yet must contend with. As described in a previous post, coming to terms with such ambiguity is vital to ensuring one’s own focus, clarity, and sense of being in control. Else, you’re more adrift, which adversely impacts yourself and your teammates. What’s needed are anchors in the uncertainty. 

By anchors, I mean those things that offer a sense of grounding, even permanence (at least perceptually so), that we can sustain over time to provide structure, order, discipline…and thus, comfort. Some examples:

  • Convert undefined space into dedicated place. Roaming around just anywhere while working in your house can seem fun, but a bit aimless (while frustrating or bumping into family and pets in your house!) Carve a fixed determinate space that becomes THE place for doing your work — and perhaps another for taking calls or more collaborative work. Space is indeterminate, place is defined and focused.
  • Establish and persist routines and rituals. The virus and its ripple effects are changing literally by the hour. Amid this swirl it’s easy to get swept away, and feel overwhelmed. Define daily routines that give order and focus to yourself and your work. The time you wake up, your morning routines (including getting dressed up, shower & shave, etc.), dietary habits, having that first sip of tea while (responsibly) checking social feeds. These are routines that create comfort and predictability– for your sanity! This might be a time to try out some new rituals as well, whether its idly sketching for 10 minutes each day after lunch or do a daily walk at 330pm or just going quiet before a meeting.  
  • Create time for self vs team. Define those temporal boundaries and communicate them. It’s easy to get sucked into virtual meetings and non-stop screen time…and then realize it’s 5:30pm, but you never saw sunlight or had fresh air! So, again to help establish a sense of purpose and power over things, you need to define your time for breaks, lunch, fresh air, zoning out, etc. In this way time itself can be an anchor that keeps you steady. 

Along with anchors is a sense of rhythm among the activities. In the physical world of work at the office, there’s varying levels of movement, screen time, whiteboard sketching, arguing with others, etc. There’s a dynamic mixing of modes, spaces, activities, artifacts, etc. So consider the pauses needed, and flexing your intensity to get the right states of flow or engagement for each day. 

  • Know when to flex your intensity. What level of concentration and energy is needed for each meeting or activity? How could you time box moments of intensity, and create a rhythm of spikes and valleys throughout the day? Not everything has to be 100% redlined at max!
  • This includes flexing when you connect and disconnect with others, paying attention to when it’s over-balanced on one side over the other in terms of time and level of intensity/effort, as well.
  • Find the pauses in your daily flow, and don’t apologize (this is a hard one for many, like me!). Being on screens for sustained hours at a time can be very draining on energy levels. If there’s a pause, take it. Or better yet, create the pause. Own your calendar and your time.

Going fully virtual is a new daunting challenge when forced to by uncontrollable circumstances, as we’re experiencing now. But by being cognizant of useful rituals or anchors that give grounding, while experimenting with daily rhythms of intensity and pauses, it becomes hopefully a bit easier or productive personally… and for your team.