Lots of articles about design try to put a positive spin on things and that’s ok. “Just follow these 5 easy steps…” and everything will turn out great. You’ll be lauded as a hero, maybe get the key to the city with a nice ticker tape parade… But I want to be realistic. In design, just like in life, you simply won’t win every battle.
When I look back over the course of my career, there is one thing that is clear: good design happens through negotiation. No matter what creative ideas you can come up with, the end result will have to be negotiated, down to the tiniest detail. Sometimes, there are good reasons for this. Other times, it seems like just a bunch of unnecessary back and forth. Regardless of which way it goes, you have to soldier on with your work and you can’t just compromise things down to a terrible product.
A basic strategy for dealing with this is more involvement. Bring people into your idea early and often. This is one of the ways that you can hopefully head off any difficult negotiations before they need to take place! Not every designer thinks or works this way though. Some would rather toil away in secret, practicing their dark art, and only showing things when everything is “done”. The reason this can cause more trouble for you down the road (though not impossible to overcome…) is it tends to establish the “concept gap”.
When you go too long in between discussing designs with people outside your design team, you end up creating a vast gap of knowledge. The challenge then becomes about how well you can bridge the gap. Some people are quite comfortable with that style of working, but most of the time, a big knowledge gap causes more problems than your designs can evidently resolve. In my case, working for a big international automaker, the physical barriers (the Atlantic Ocean) can contribute to an even bigger rift than intended.
But then again, even increasing the frequency of your communications doesn’t necessarily mean that you can successfully bridge the concept gap. Sometimes you can’t.
Reactions Versus Intent
Feedback is a critical part of any process. You can’t really proceed without getting some kind of feedback. I mean there’s no doubt that you can, but any process that isn’t rooted in learning things is basically a recipe for failure.
On the other hand however, not all feedback you receive is useful for making substantive improvements to a product, which is part of the problem: good design is rooted in rational intent, yet feedback is based on gut reactions.
When starting a project, hopefully you start with an overall rationale. Hopefully that rationale is based on information that you discovered through research. I mean, sometimes it’s helpful to just jump right in and figure out what works, then derive a rationale out of that work. But it’s not that you just throw a bunch of work together and it’s just done (unless you’re doing work for yourself).
Conversely, when working with an interface, or really any other piece of design, nobody is really sitting there trying to work through what the authors were thinking. They see something, react, and sometimes voice their opinion (if it’s Twitter, people constantly voice their opinion :P).
People have suggested that when seeking feedback, to prime the pump (so to speak) and ask for the kind of information that can help improve the work. Very useful suggestion, but before going into the review with your questions, you should make sure that your design rationale is actually being conveyed first!
Even then, some people just want things in a particular way no matter how well-reasoned the presentation.
I would be lying if I said that every project that I’ve ever worked on was a phenomenal success. When I look back over my career so far, the truth is not everything was that great. As we’ve said before on the podcast, design is HARD. It’s one of few roles in product companies where it’s part of your role to take constant criticism. At times it can feel demoralizing, especially when people just don’t get it!
What you do as a designer really does matter, even when it may not feel like it. Sometimes you have to play a long game. Building a great user experience is one thing, but molding an organization to be more user-centered is the outcome we all truly need. This won’t happen overnight. It takes time and patience. Perseverance is a vastly underrated trait. Along the way I can guarantee that you won’t win every battle, but stick with it! Dealing with those kinds of setbacks are just part of the job and everyone in this field has gone through it!
Here’s my blog post for July! This is part of my “Year of Blogging” series for 2017. If you have any thoughts, tell me about it on Twitter!