More Design Managers Need to Stop Designers from Designing

Just watched Des Traynor from Intercom’s talk on Product Design. This is one of the best summaries of the current state of digital product design I’ve seen, primarily because it is helping my synthesize my thoughts why I am frustrated with the current state of user experience design.

Peter Merholz’ post There is No Such Thing as UX Design put the bug in my ear. I thought, “yes, he’s on to something but I’m not quite getting his point yet.” Now I am.

There is a fairly common conceit among UX designers that only we understand what users truly want, and only we can design a solution that will solve customers’ needs because of our understanding, our methodologies, our ability to get to the nugget of customer research and our beautiful prototypes, especially the roughly done paper prototypes. Yes, they’re twee, folks.  A series of beautiful animated screens are necessary to create delight for customers. All Bullshit.

Imagine the environment that created Uber, or Push for Pizza. Des gets into this somewhere around minute 45 of his talk.

  • The customer-facing prototype for Push would have consisted, effectively, of one screen with one button on it. Done. How long did that wireframe take you?

It takes courage and a higher level of thinking to believe that the best thing you can do as a UX designer is to get out of the way of your user 99% of the time.

This requires a very different set of skills than the ability to create wireframes and prototypes, or know the best interaction paradigms for a particular device and scenario. This type of user experience design requires product management skills – like those product managers on your project team. Des covers this early in the presentation around minute 12 or so:

  • what are your competitors doing? Why are you building a weather app at all? Now there are apps that get to the crux of it and tell you to “Take an umbrella.” Can you offer any different value?
  • what systems can you integrate with to take advantage of what they do well? This is why there’s Facebook connect, and PayPal.
  • what job are you doing? Does it matter who it’s for? Des talks about pizza. There’s no pizza-slice-eating persona; there’s only the job of a fast meal that can be carried in one hand and eaten on the move.

A very important part of my job as a design manager was to forbid my team from designing.

  • No you can’t design a Help system. Work with the product manager to figure out how to integrate with the corporate one so customers only have to learn one Help system location.
  • No you won’t update that old login page. You’ll figure out with the team how to use the customer’s corporate login to access the system.
  • No you can’t design a micro-site for that product. Cooperate with the corporate eComm site so that product info can be updated easily and by an existing team. (Well, that one took a higher-up to push through.)
  • No you can’t redesign how the logo is placed on the screen because you think it looks better. The brand needs to be presented consistently. We need to think through bigger brand implications.
  • No it isn’t worth arbitrarily making a visually different structure for lists here. Use the existing one. Customers won’t have to learn a new pattern, and we’ll save a day of coding and testing.

Not one of these instances involved a bad designer; they were either missing business context or were carefully following the design brief provided to them. It’s a matter of  knowing what type of problem you need to solve to create a great experience, and fighting for it. Do you need to solve a user interface problem, a user experience problem, or product management problem?

Again, you need to understand the other people working with you to solve the customer’s problem. You need to be open to their ideas and encourage them to work with you to create solutions that don’t require the user to do anything. These are soft skills that are no Photoshop course will teach you.

In the current climate, most of our ability as UX designers to get paid is determined by our ability to produce deliverables, be they wireframes, prototypes, or screen designs; we are not paid for our thinking. Schools are churning out new grads who can do beautiful deliverables on impeccable grids. If as Peter says, UX designers no longer needed, where do you want to add value in this new world: as a UI designer or as a product manager. We need to begin to own that conversation or we run the risk of being pushed aside.

So, before you even think of sketching a screen, work with your project or product team to:

  1. Understand the job to be done for the customer by way of the software.
  2. Understand the tasks to be completed, or more importantly the obstacles to be overcome.
  3. Figure out where your interface adds value.
  4. Probably half that.
  5. Work with the team to make the rest happen “seamlessly”, as we say.
  6. With a glint in your eye, and a stupid grin on your face, stand up and present that one button interface to your bosses. They’ll be blown away.



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