In conjunction with a previous post on “Designer Diplomacy”, I wanted to jot down a few words on the importance of working in public. I don’t mean setting up your workstation downtown in Union Square, though that might be kind of a cool way to work! No, instead I think designers should also find ways to make what they do more public in the companies and organizations we all work in.
Perhaps one of the greatest scenarios for a designer is when an entire organization values the hard work and creative thinking that goes into a project. The strange contradiction that happens though is that designers sometimes also tend to hide away, working in secret, dark corners, conducting strange alchemical rituals to transform leaden requirements into golden user experiences.
The reason this is contradictory is because when we work in that way, we don’t expose any of the value that we provide to companies. As a result, it is nigh-impossible for people outside the design field to place the same amount of value on good design as the people actually doing the work.
The good news is the fix is simple. Publicize what you’re doing. Make your design process occupy a physical space in the building you work in.
In one company I worked at, I cleared out some cubicles so that we, as a team, had a physical space to pin up our work, hold public critiques and meetings, or even just sit and think.
Now I know what you’re thinking. “We’re cool, hip, environmentally-minded UX designers. Who wastes paper on screen designs?” But there’s 2 things that this does. First, by occupying physical space, you ensure that everyone else in the company sees designers doing design. I can’t tell you how important it is for other people to see this. If everything you do as a designer is in your head or on your hard drive, hidden from view, you help ensure that nobody will ever understand what you’re doing.
The second benefit is that by getting some physical distance from the work you’re doing, it gives you some perspective on the screens you’re working on. Pinning something up and being able to step back from your work can help you identify patterns and spot weaknesses in how you’re designing your products. It’s the gestalt principle of design. Certainly all the micro-moments will matter. But people consume interfaces in stages, first of all is the whole visual presence of how you’ve designed the screen. Pinning something up and taking 5 steps back from it will draw attention to thematic elements that you should pay attention to in order to improve the general gestalt of your product.
The other aspect of this is creating huddle rooms. This is where you, as a designer, can sit directly with an engineer and maybe a product manager to hash out ideas. Whiteboards are a must, as is the ability to hold open-minded discussions about how to creatively solve problems. Sketching and ideation are an important aspect to creating a piece of design, and there’s no reason not to make that brainstorming process a more public one, rather than something more internal. Even in my current job, I am trying to foster more tighter collaboration between various product groups in this way. It helps us make more mistakes, as well as product improvements, faster and more efficiently.
It can feel a bit like being in a fishbowl. And I completely understand that for individuals who prefer a bit of privacy, this can be an unnerving transition. But products designed in secret rarely have the impact in the organization that you hope for, and worse, you may end up veering off in the wrong direction. People will want to see your work, and you are the best person to showcase it to people!
Coping with Constant Criticism
When I established a public critique space, other managers would stop by and give their input about things we were working on. It was really great because other people started to see what we were doing and offered their feedback. The drawback was that not all the feedback/criticism was warranted. Sometimes you’re just too early in the design phase to open things up for “general feedback” and it can feel like a violation sometimes when you receive unwarranted criticism. But the benefit was that people felt that things were important enough to give input on.
I mean, as a designer, you’re going to be exposed to criticism, lots and lots of criticism. It comes from every direction, whether you’re looking for it or not. There’s probably not a single occupation that has to put up with as much negativity towards your work as someone doing design. That said, it’s how you work with the feedback that defines you as a designer.
The design space I established gave us a more visible presence in the company. Having a visible physical space provided a bridge to a more open style of communication, which translated into more people talking about design. For all the potential negative drawbacks of this idea, the benefits of having conversations about design with more people was really the bigger win!
Framing the Discourse
One solution to the problem of constant criticism was simply how we as a team helped to frame the discourse about design. Instead of only hosting critiques within our own team, we started to open things up more and have other “guests” participate in our process. By communicating how we discussed about design, other people started learning how to critique our work as well. Comments quickly went from the random, seemingly nonsensical feedback, to more helpful kinds of commentary.
So how do you frame the discourse? My friend Jon and I talked about this on our podcast when we talked about how to have better design critiques. But if there’s any one piece of advice that you’ll need, is don’t just send something around and ask “What do you think?” This will never elicit the kind of feedback you want.
Instead you should be clear about the kind of feedback you want. What sort of information do you need to move forward? Who is best suited to give you that information? Answering those 2 key questions will help you get better feedback for your work, and most likely help you focus on the feedback you need to get things done!
Visibility Means Value
It is a rocky process to undertake, transitioning from isolation to publicity. But the net result is that being visible within your company means you create value with what you do. That value begins to spread the minute you can help someone else understand what you’re trying to accomplish.
By teaching other people the value of design, by incorporating them into our process, it helped us be more successful in general, and helped us accomplish more as a team.
So give it a shot. It can feel awkward and challenging at first. But I can promise you that publicizing what you do and how you do it will most certainly help other people understand the value of good design!