Empathy for non-designers

This past week we held internal product design training sessions for our product managers and engineers. It was quite eye-opening to see firsthand the difficulties of bringing someone from outside the design “way of thinking” into, in their view, a radical notion of reality based upon idealism, humanism, visualization, and (gasp) making mistakes!

This prompted me to have this somewhat obvious yet sublime epiphany: as designers, we need to empathize with product managers and engineers. Ok, maybe it’s a bit blasphemous for those exhausted from fighting daily protracted (often losing) battles with product peers ;-) After all, they often fight back on design requests, and we frequently devolve into dithering about tedious issues like using Photoshop, not GIMP for slicing images, etc.

But at the end of the day, if we want design to be propagated, sustained and applied effectively through a complex organization of peers, as designers we have GOT to understand their perspectives on what makes design mysterious or difficult to perform.

Here’s what I’ve noticed so far:

* Engineers and PMs are raised in a tradition of “pick the right answer” and “execute faithfully (literally)” based upon “scientifically validated facts”. This is radically different from the design-oriented posture of “try and iterate and fail and try again” based upon “patterns, principles, examples, and one’s own inspiration”. There’s a greater degree of risk, ambiguity, and even chaos that designers comfortably enjoy.

* Generating ideas based upon real people and real stories is very tough, without actual examples and material artifiacts to stimulate understanding (photos, videos, recorded snippets, transcripts, etc.) Too often PM’s and Engineers will revert to their comfort zones of code and requirements and market demographics, divorced from real people’s issues.

* Actively listening to sample users’ stories during live interviews is very hard for non-designers. Again, has to do with training and posture of stepping out of their comfort zones (code or profits). Designers have to help direct attention to what matters and what doesn’t.

* An engineer’s default approach is to focus on the code efficiency due to their quarterly bonus goals. A product managers’ default posture is to focus on profilt/loss metrics for similar reasons. It is EXTREMELY difficult for them to take a “try and fail” approach otherwise!

* Drawing is very hard. Yet PMs and engineers naturally do it :-) My hypothesis is we ALL have a natural instinct for drawing/sketching/mark-making as an innate human thing (think of Picasso’s famous quip about all children are artists) , but disciplined sketching of solutions that map to requirements is very hard to do. Scrawls on a whiteboard help but not sufficient. It takes practice and effort for everyone alike.

* PM’s and Engineers are under constant difficult pressure to deliver against absurdly misinformed schedules. As designers we need to keep pushing forward but be mindful of the greater forces that impact their often criticized decision-making. We should assume everyone wants to deliver an amazing product experience; it’s just a question of how to get there.





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