Fundamental design truths (part 2)

A few days ago I published a few initial design truths as I see them, per my professional insights across a variety of contexts and projects. As promised, here is part 2 featuring a few additional thoughts…Enjoy!

All design is political : I don’t mean in the “conspiratorial backstabbing” sense, but that all design necessarily involves navigating & meditating socially constructed purposes/values/opinions from invested stakeholders of differing, often conflicting backgrounds (ie, engineering vs business vs human factors vs marketing). To put it bluntly, everyone at the table has an agenda, and it’s not just you. As a design leader, you must ascertain those agendas and navigate/mediate with persuasive skill a balanced approach with conviction. Hey, it’s not easy!

As Dick Buchanan once told our grad seminar class, “If you want to get away from politics, design is the last place to hide. It’s deeply political.” Limited budgets, tight resources, impossible constraints, shifting priorities, short schedules, and of course those persnickety customers ;-) Whew! Compounded with compromise and trade-offs, the political aspect of design can make it brutally difficult for many. The ability to argue, champion, evangelize, and reason is vital to thrive well. Not for the faint of heart!

An aside: Buchanan once described politics to me as “the subtle maneuvering of ideas to advance selfish or collective aims”, with an emphasis on rhetorical agility in influencing others to follow your lead, per Classical criteria for oratory brilliance (Socrates, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Augustus, etc.) It is a rhetorical concept: generic, archetypal, overarching, and adaptive to changing situations.

Every design project has implicit assumptions / dependencies / expectations : You gotta clarify implicitly held  team beliefs about users/markets/contexts/activities/goals. You must diligiently identify any technical or political/social dependencies that will enable your solution to be set up for support and success by other folks, esp execs. Finally, managing expectations laterally with teammates and upwards with directors/sponsors is vital towards securing design success. Yep, it’s all those “soft skills” in addition to your technical powers, to help drive a satisfying conclusion to a project. Often this requires the designer to play secondary but critical roles of advocate, educator, facilitator, coordinator, even “therapist” to some degree, with teams. Being that Yoda-like coach helping teams uncover their own latent motives and values is hugely valuable!

There is no one right way to design : Yes, it’s important to apply UCD ideals and HCI methods. But The fact is there are many approaches to designing. Dan Saffer articulated several approaches in his book Designing for Interaction, from user-centered design, activity-centered design, systems design, and even “genius design”. Folks talk about “data-driven design” as well, reliant upon extensive statistical studies for design decisions. The inherent pluralism of design practice, with values and methods of diverse backgrounds, makes this a broad field of numerous discussions and questions, ushering even more and better approaches. Again, that’s a good thing! No designer truly wants just ONE standard way to design–even the vehement defenders of UCD or Data-driven design. It would be frankly boring, and deny us the very cultural, aesthetic, methodical richness such diversity affords us, to enable unique and rich possibilities. And as I explained before, every seasoned designer applies multiple postures in designingsomething, given different problems & contexts.

Finally, all design comes down to one thing: influence. I recall one of my very first meetings with a design manager, shortly after starting at Oracle. He said to me, “Uday, you should focus on only one thing, and that’s influence.” I nodded obediently not truly grasping the totality of what he was saying. But a decade (and several projects / employers / clients) later I finally get it. Design is about change, at varying scale or intensity. To change a prior status quo, you must exert influence and persuasive ability upon those resistent (and of course, there’s a TON of folks who want to leave things well enough alone!) so they buy into the vision you are providing them. Yes, you showcase your nice comps, builds, prototypes, demos, etc. but the behavioral and emotional attitude (ie, hearts & minds) must be won over in other ways. Same goes for consumers roaming the aisles or surfing the web: every piece of design is a signal of influence, trying to convey how such a design can empower and behave positively.

Let’s face it, Steve Jobs makes Apple products seem that much better because he himself is a powerful force of influence, swaying our opinions through his uncanny knack for tapping into our desires, his charismatic persona, demand for excellence, and sharp insights that cut to an issue directly. It’s not manipulation per se, but instead what Barack Obama had once called “the charisma of confidence” in conveying your ambitious yet unfamiliar vision for how to improve the human condition. In short, design is a complex game of influence, perception, and confidence.

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