Thrown into the mess…

I always say there is no perfect design. Likewise, there is no perfect design situation. You are always thrown into a mess of communications and deliveries. This is not meant to be a judgment — it’s simply inherent to being a designer. There is a “thrown-ness” to it, if you will.


Of course, we are taught the “right way” or “proper set up” of a design engagement in university classes — like how every engagement should have a specific set of people representing core disciplines (product, engineering, customer support, sales, etc.) with clarity on the problems, timelines, milestones, review criteria, and so forth. And there’s often some handy document like a “Design Brief” to set the aims, corral alignment, provide the structure and focus to said engagement, compartmentalizing all the key information pieces (requirements, goals, etc.) into a collectively shared manner. And voila, right? Umm, not quite…


While it’s super valuable to learn that method of the “design brief’ and such, the reality is always messier. You are thrown into a situation not of your own making, with people and process and outputs already happening in some ways, things are truly “in-flight” with pre-set targets and such, that you must inherit and absorb, or somehow work with. There is a melange of personalities, politics and power structures, communications and deliverables, cross-functional / inter-departmental dependencies…oh, and by the way, there’s the actual product or services, and of course – the customers! All of these elements are simply happening in their own way, against their own rhythms, or due to forces already set in motion before your arrival upon the scene. So, good luck right?


Well, the challenge for any designer is the “sensemaking” of such complexity and ambiguity, while entering the stream of workflows in progress, AND ALSO carve out that precious vital space for the “design intervention”  to transpire — beyond simply specs and assets, which is often the first ask by unknowing non-design peers, sadly.


A good way to navigate that sensemaking journey is to ask the following:


  • What are the basic assumptions of this project or problem (or overall situation): Truly unpacking what is in everyone’s heads via personal 1-1 and collective discussions grounded in some common artifact (focus-goal map, difficulty vs priority matrix, even customer videos…and of course, that design brief) Maybe there’s some executive drivers presumed as irrevocable core beliefs ingrained into the team’s charter, if not the individuals’ psyches.


  • What are the critical dependencies for achieving design impacts: Other people, other products, other services, things often hidden in the corporate woodwork or simply taken to be intuitively known by the product team members (especially those who have been working on it for years). How do those dependencies impact timelines and handoffs? Where are the known frictions and potential roadblocks? Who can help resolve them? And of course, the accountabilities and incentives — very crucial in product development programs. This stuff often lives in a kind of ambiguous ether that permeates a team and overall program. But folks don’t realize it! So you gotta dig into it.


  • What are everyone’s expectations of your role as a designer, and of design itself? Really get clarity on this, as often this is the rub for many designers thrown into a situation where things are so dysfunctional, because there’s a lack of clarity of roles and owners and leaders. Who is accountable for what and by what measures (or incentives). And then, truly push back on “specs/assets ASAP” for a sprint starting tomorrow — that’s clearly yet another sign of the mess to be re-organized into a more effective model, hopefully by virtue of your “design intervention”.


It can undoubtedly be discouraging and downright frustrating to arrive upon a promising situation  (or sold as such) only to realize things are not as neat or tidy as we would wish it to be. Indeed most are frankly total clusters!@$%  :- / Sigh. It is what it is, right?


However, if we look upon the untangling of the inherent “thrown-ness” of all design situations as a pragmatic puzzle of decoding complexity and grounding ambiguity, whereby you the designer are leading conversations to enable such clarity — it can be valuable learning, and even a fun challenge, for everyone, where all feel as if they are participating in the clarifying process. So, leverage your abilities as a designer to uncover and intervene effectively. It’s a huge opportunity for you to set yourself up as a design leader as well, role modeling “good behavior”. Because, there is no perfect design situation.


Reflect and Resolve

The act of being a professional designer is a process of iteration in itself — demanding ongoing feedback from peers & clients, of course, but also continuous critical self-examination, guided by an attitude of optimistic, if somewhat grudging, improvement. Design is an art of improving things — changing existing situations into preferred ones, as Herb Simon famously declared in his definitive treatise on design ’Sciences of the Artificial’. So it is as well for the designer to reflect and resolve to make adjustments — which requires a healthy does of detachment and humility 😉

/ Looking back

So as I look back upon the past year and ahead to what’s possible this year, I’m mindful of some key aspects that might be of help for you as well. For me, last year (2017) was a year of:

* Re-entering familiar contexts — that of an established yet growing corporate design team with product teams burdened by legacy protocols

* Re-building credibility — as with any new engagement you start from zero, developing pivotal relationships and scoring “quick wins” to build up that “street cred” for more ambitious pursuits later

* Learning new languages (and where to introduce my own vernacular) — As with any new design / product dev context, there is a kind of jargon of words and actions (behaviors) to learn; in this case, heavily Agile-driven and also ideology around story, influence, craft, benefit and value. From “durable teams” to “TPV metrics” and beyond.

* Satisficing and adapting my design goals — every product development context has their own dysfunctions and dramas, so the trick is knowing (or at least sensing with confidence) where and how to satisfice (compromise) effectively.

* Role modeling design leadership — for teams unaccustomed to “designer as partner” (versus “designer as production assistant”), via discourse and delivery, this was a considerable challenge (yet huge opportunity!)

* Cultivating a genuine design ethos — especially for the squad that I lead and how to parlay that ethos (which itself is constantly evolving) into dialogues with my product and engineering peers, to shape a nuanced holistic view of Design

Overall it was undoubtedly a challenging yet exhilarating year of continued growth as a design practitioner and thought leader — there was never a dull moment, that’s for sure! In certain areas there was considerable success, while in others…ehh, maybe not so much 😉

Demonstrating prudent patience, expressing passion in a targeted deliberate manner, being smarter about the intrinsic politics of a highly fraught situation, better balancing of tactics and strategy (and communications to my partners, accordingly), and knowing when to delegate or simply let things go — all were key areas of self-improvement, no question. Gotta keep at it!

/ Looking ahead

Looking ahead to this year (2018), I resolve to improve upon those items, and also aim to pursue the following:

* Help (aka “coach”) product and engineering leaders to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable — it’s a tricky balance of acknowledging one’s expertise and opening up to new (potentially risky or threatening) models of work, but with the aim of improving the team and product and customer outcomes

* Do more cross-functional facilitative engagements (aka “conversations”) going among traditionally siloed teams, via the power of artifacts and disposable designs

* Elevate design practice into more of a strategic art (aka “connecting the dots”), beyond delivering Sketch files and Zeplin specs, that speak to business aims and offering lenses upon those over-arching goals (and processes)

* Network with folks outside of the usual UX arena, to broaden my perspectives and learnings about ways to guide and improve culture, process, innovation, etc.

And of course…write more, sketch more, listen more, and keep iterating on “being a designer”. After all, it’s a persistent journey of reflecting and resolving.

Design is an art of decision-making

I knew of Herb Simon somewhat before I went to study design at Carnegie Mellon (CMU) but only as “factoid” bits of info: Nobel Laureate in economics, contributions to AI, legendary scholar par excellence. Once at CMU I finally dug into his writings, particularly “Sciences of the Artificial”, a definitive treatise which articulates a theory of design based upon “changing existing situations to preferred ones” and characterizing design as “artificial” — human-made creations of some value, as opposed to results of non-human forces, like forests, animals, mountains, etc. (climate change and similar manipulations notwithstanding, of course, but I’m speaking in terms of original making)

Another book he wrote, that’s less well-known, is “Administrative Behavior”, which my thesis advisor had recommended to me at that time, since I was curious about the emergence of “e-business” and digitizing organizations and cultures. Spoiler alert: it’s super dry, dense, and mostly about “decision-making” models. I didn’t really get it at the time… I mean, who studies how or why humans make decisions in giant organizations, how is that important in the grand scheme? Hmm…

Fast forward 15+ years working in software design and… OMG yes, I totally get it now! Indeed, I think I’ve sensed for awhile design is not simply “problem solving” — often proudly cited as the value quotient which makes design so damn important to business & engineering, and to counter notions that it’s some “funky art” of stylizing. Design is a complex practice with systematic rigor that aims to solve problems with empathy and creativity, no doubt. And it is also a decision-making discipline, grounded in an artful balance of negotiated concerns, guided by empathic & creative approaches to enable progress, or possibly even “innovation”.

To design, to lead designing, to manage a design process, to deliver a design spec — these activities all involve making decisions, actually selecting an option among many options under varying circumstances (social, technical, cultural, organizational, etc.). To design effectively is to be mindful of the constants and constraints, the conventions and concerns, the consequences and considerations when it comes to defining the user experience, creating the right icon, laying out the best table format, folding in animations elegantly, editing warning messages for tone and length, or spec’ing out behaviors and states. You make such decisions (ideally) informed by research and user feedback, guided by relevant principles and shared objectives, and along with your team of stakeholders or peers as a collaborative (at least coordinated) effort of collective responsibility.

Good decisions require a mindset of self-awareness while reflecting on the potential effects on other parts of the system or people involved. Deeply considering the risks, trade-offs, opportunity costs, and ripple effect of impacts, both tangible & intangible. Prioritizing which criteria are useful to help lead everyone towards the right decision to helps the team and the customer. The classic Eames venn diagram comes to mind, illustrating the dynamic of multiple layers of concerns in the mind of the designer. Indeed, it’s a lot! Yet this approach of making choices, elevates design from simply “making it pretty” —connoting a silly, mindless activity — to a thoughtful human enterprise of judgment and consideration. One that demands deep understanding and ability to communicate rationale, as part of a conversation (or an argument — yes, both sense of the word!), while also learning or adapting towards making the best choices to move the overall product or business forward.

There’s quite about bit about human decision-making at the heart of design that we should recognize, honor, celebrate, and evolve in our practices. Indeed, delving into this matter might even help crack the issues of fitting Design with Agile and Lean — all are fundamentally human decision-making models within product development. Hmm…maybe I should pick up that Herb Simon book again and re-read it with a refreshed outlook.

Levels of design craft

One of the most critical, even inherent, aspects of design is the notion of craft — shaping a material with masterful familiarity towards a benchmark of quality, based upon a dedication to refining the details so the result is worthy of personal pride and general appreciation. Craft is what makes design truly a maker’s profession, delivering exemplary artifacts and products — something tangible and meticulously defined with careful attention.

Accordingly, when it comes to software design (comprised of interaction, interface, information, and so forth) the craft aspect is vital to the execution of a well-formed digital experience —including the colors, fonts, alignments, timing and sequence of behaviors, tenor of audio cues and tone of messages. And a well-crafted product conveys quality that can be seen, felt, shared, and paid for with confidence in the brand and its perceived benefits. Craft clearly matters!

This is why it’s important to go deeper and expose various levels of craft a designer (and more accurately, a design leader) brings to the profession. I suggest there are three active levels of craft which interplay in the course of “doing the work” of a professional designer, while engaging with clients & stakeholders to ultimately ship the design to customers.

Tradecraft: This is the level of craft we often typically associate with design, at the tactical, tangible level of executional details, or final production. Every element precisely and carefully shaped with an exacting attention to the abilities of the tools, potentiality of the material, and needs of the context at hand. This also aligns to the features and functions of a product (or service, app, etc.) in a visceral way — what is seen, felt, and experienced.

Stagecraft: However, detailing out the finer pixel & code-based nuances of a digital artifact are only a part of a designer’s craft. Indeed, such artifacts, as beautifully executed as they may be, are useless unless there is a compelling story that evocatively enshrines them in a meaningful way — to the stakeholders and especially the ultimate users — so they grasp how it all fits into a theme, a brand philosophy, a manner of living or working. This all involves those presentational skills, some performance theater, poetry of mantras and pitches, pulling on emotional levers of the audience, while grounded with a good intent to persuade. Stagecraft aligns to the organizational and relationship aspect of designing through the power of inspiration, which connects to an emotional core via storytelling.

Statecraft: And yet, to get that beautifully defined, well-articulated design actually built and shipped to customers requires nuances of compromise, negotiation, and influence. It’s the political, pragmatic stuff that’s inherent to any product development process because…well, people! Look, everyone has agendas and egos and seeks to amplify their position (due to various incentive models & belief structures of an organizational culture) —and every designer who wants to be effective must grasp this “school of hard knocks” point. Indeed, it requires elements of statecraft, shaping relationships with people towards shared aims, with principled debates on risks, tradeoffs, etc. This aligns to the organizational, political, and cultural aspects of design, which doesn’t have to be icky! Done well, statecraft can lead everyone towards a pursuit of purpose and value embodied in a design direction, that should emerge — sometimes painfully!— in those tough negotiations.

Tradecraft, stagecraft, and statecraft may be the primary levels of craft a designer should master as an ongoing journey in their career. They are not necessarily sequential, either — just like any design process, mastering craft can be messy and demand iterative repeat attempts, with some parallel processing, too! (imagine applying statecraft to a business team to provide air cover for a new idea’s development, while guiding a staff of designers with the storytelling and tactical execution) But at least knowing about these levels can help a designer bring a more informed approach to their craft of design.

Styles of design methodology

There are now numerous ways to learn “design thinking” or methods of practicing design for many types of problems: interaction, communications, service, governance, etc. There’s plenty of books and online courseware, professional bootcamps and workshops — from General Assembly to LUMA Institute to Stanford to full fledged university degree programs like at CMU, IIT, SCAD, and so forth. I myself have been through a combination of many of these. And so I’ve noticed a commonality of certain threads inherent to design philosophy and practice – empathy, framing, ideation, prototyping, iteration, validation, so forth. There’s an inexhaustible supply of methods that can be codified and card-ified (methods cards were all the rage, awhile ago!) which is always good to dip your hands into and try out. 

What I’ve begun to realize is there is a certain style — or perhaps a “playbook” — of applying such design methods, backed by the various schools of design thinking  which you have to define yourself, over years of practice and iteration (naturally!). 

Sure you could pick up just one specific school and their methods as THE ONE WAY — and you’re perfectly fine operating as such. For example, just doing the Stanford way or LUMA way or follow one of those “100 methods” books. Each is well and good, will ensure useful results guided by professional expertise and imparted wisdom from their instructors. Just pick one, get schooled up, and run with it! And increasingly there are academies or programs positioning themselves as having THE ONE WAY, mainly as a matter of business propaganda (aka “brand” ;-) It’s a capitalist market and “design” (or specifically “UX” and “design thinking”) have become a hot training commodity now, I totally get it.

But the true master of design methods is one who attains the level of practice whereby she functions as (deep breath) an artist. Yes, with an artistry for knowing how and when to blend points of view with various methods, even inventing some along the way, towards achieving certain outcomes. Not tied to one set way, but masterfully connecting methods (or “dots”) with a purposeful and subtle guidance. This is what it might mean to define a “style” of methodology per strategic design leaders, like styles of painters and musicians. 

Some points to consider as you discover and evolve your style of design methodology: 

– What signs / triggers do you look for to help shape your approach for a situation?

– Which questions and lenses do you bring to the fore upon entering a context (as design is so much about being “thrown in”)?

– What are your go-to frameworks and rubrics for structuring the mess of a situation into something orderly and manageable?

– How do you deftly transition conversations and tempos accordingly, as discussions evolve with various stakeholders (with their temperaments and baggage) 

– How do you bring your own brand of personality, philosophy, and savoir faire to the table that’s functional, yet satisfying fit for you as a design leader?

These kinds of questions can lead you to discover what and how your style of design methodology might be, regardless of the origins and labels. After all, when you are hired by a client or company to tackle projects, part of their “bet” to invest in you is that you are bringing not just some base set of skills but also an evolved model of self as a professional that is unique to you as a designer.  And along the way, you know how to connect the right dots for their problem, or even perhaps invent some new ways of looking at their problem.