Failing at Design


Too Much Lego

I was talking to the local UPA Perth chapter (in formation) about aspects of UX visualisation.  It was an interesting topic that brought up a good number of discussion points.

One point was on the design process. The way we design.  The way that we just don’t allow ourselves time to fail at the design.  Or if we do, it is hidden in the back room so we can appear to be “magical design wizards” that produce the perfect product, interface design, IA or the like.

Great!  Nice idea if you want to really keep this air of the designer being someone “mysterious and magical”.   Someone that can just disappear for a few hours and suddenly they have the final product.

Stop the Myth

We really have to stop this process.

You know how no-one understands design.  They don’t value design. They just don’t get how long it takes to design something.  They just don’t get the process. They just don’t understand the principles of the design.

Well we are to blame!  We are the problem.   We have build the wall between ourselves and our clients.   We have build the prissy pedestal that we are standing on.

For to long we have been taking the design process and putting it behind closed doors where only a few audience members, team members and select client liaisons get to see behind the “Wizard of Oz” curtain from time to time.

We should go beyond just explaining the design process to the client, and flashing around a few final concepts when we need signoff.  We should  involve them. Even if it’s just in a small way. If we did this some of the issues we have would start to disappear.

Education is Important

It’s all about education. Educating the client’s decision makers, and even your team.

It’s about taking down the wall and showing your process.  Discussing and explaining with your client the design process as you step through it.  Not just showing the final stages of each process either, the steps along the way, warts and all.

Yes, that’s right,  show them the rough sketches, the wireframes that have failed, the concept storyboards and mockup concepts that you have rejected.   It’s simple, explain why these designs have failed and been rejected.   Involve the client in the process.

Become human, not a design mage or a mindless web design monkey.

You may say, “but the client doesn’t want to see all the design process” .

Are you really sure. Most people, I find, are even just a little bit  envious of us.  They would love to help out in the design process.  They want to be us.

Key is to just be patient with them, your clients are a design newbie, be understanding but firm, after all they are paying your because you are “the designer”.  It’s a balancing act, don’t pester them with details all the time. Still in your progress meetings, show the design output. Show the progression towards the final concept.

Stop Perfection, Make Mistakes

If you are looking at me strangely by now, then I can tell that you tend not to really design in the traditional way, with multiple iterations of a design leading to the final outcome.

Whether it be sketching with pencil and paper, in a wireframing application or just using Photoshop, you should be cycling through a series of design concepts before you decide on the final product.

Yes you could say that there is all this user research that we have and it’s all you need to build the design.   Well I agree, but I also disagree.

Granted you do have an outline a specification framework, restrictions on the design from the user research. Still there will often be hundreds of ways you can approach the issues and develop the design.

Even with applying the standard design principles on top of the user research findings, you should still have a good deal of approaches you can take.

If can only see one approach, maybe you need to take a fresh look at the problem, from a different view point.

Protosketch it

Like a good product design, there will be failures in a UX design.

However these failures are important. They give us ideas, they allow us to get frustrated, to look beyond the everyday and find that special design the client is really looking for.

Failure in designing allows you to iterate the design.  They allow us to discount designs and to get inspired with new alternatives  from the failures. Gradually over time, you will get less and less new concepts and start to discount more and more.  Resulting in the final concept.

It’s a simple process.  Just sketch out a concept, get others feedback, throw around some ideas.   It’s like you are prototyping the base concept sketch. Iterate it, adding and removing concepts.

Maybe  we should call it protosketching.

Involve the client, involve your peers, friends, team colleagues or maybe do a peer review.

Just work down that process of refinement to the final design.  Now I’m not talking an agile process here, I’m talking about something that happens the first moment you put pencil to paper in the sketching process be it analogue or digital.

Remember design is not a robotic process, it’s a creative process.

I often find my best designs are the ones I don’t think about, the ones I mull over for days looking for inspiration from things all around me.  Doing a little sketching, drawing, letting my mind wander.  In case you ask, I only work with clients that know they will get a good result if they don’t push the process, sure this helps as well.

Fail or Don’t Design

Now in my mind if you are not failing at your design, well you are not designing.   You are just processing an analysis, and producing one possible outcome.  Maybe you should stop and think.   Are you doing the right thing by your client.   Does your client really just want a second rate concept.

If you like producing second rate designs, do us all a favour, stop.  Just stop designing, the world has enough crap designs.

If you are failing.  Well that’s great, design and fail away.  God speed to you.

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  1. Very true. There is always that nervous moment during design presentations where, despite the fact that the designer has created something really great, the client may just not like it!

    With more involvement in the design process our clients, and indeed the designer, can feel at greater ease, and be confident that the direction being taken is the best one. This involves client and designer regularly sharing reasons for why things should be as they are.

    It does leave the door open however to some possible sticky moments along the way but as you have suggested, if your clients are not pushing the creative process then everything should be fine.

    Which leads me to the following question, how do we explain to our clients that they shouldn’t push the design process?

  2. Hi Gary,

    You’ve raised some excellent points in this post. First, it’s always important to be client-centric. You can produce a first-rate product but if it doesn’t meet the client’s needs (which could be a matter of taste, as well) then it’s not really a useful product. The same is true in copywriting.

    What I do see often is far too much ego invested in a design (or document) intended for a customer. Anyone involved in the creative side of business needs to develop a thick skin and honestly assess the needs of the client, not what we think they need. I’ve met many businesses who are a little afraid of their design people. To me, that’s a sign of a diva or prima donna at work. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked to develop web copy and warned about how difficult it is to work with the designer.

    I think you’re on to something here. If you start to reveal the process to the client, failures and all, they will have a better appreciation for how much they’re getting when they see the end product.

  3. @brad Educating people not to push the process – this depends, in the main I tell people that design is not a linear process, it happens in chunks over a period of time. I warn them of this day one, before they have even signed up. So if they want the site in two days, its just not going to happen. I guess it’s about putting the design time into the process and explaining that.

    @sarah – I can understand the ego thing. However the designer does know about design and how to design. Just like a writer can write. However any good design must look at every aspect of the design. Does it support the clients business, does it support the audience, does it reinforce the organisations web site objectives. If it doesn’t – cut it. We are not building artworks, people have to remember that.

    Notice I have not said what the client wants, sometimes what the client wants is against the organisations web site objectives. Designers and UX people are often left to realign these two or at least bridge the gap.

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