June 30, 2014

An Environment for Successful Design

Man leans on his tent while waiting to climb a mountain. Photo by John Keane

Each year I work as a designer I devote less and less time to traditional ‘design’ work, like creating wireframes, aesthetic layouts or prototyping interactions. These days I spend most of my day establishing an environment for successful design to occur. For me, this shift has greatly accelerated in the past few years, partially due to specific needs at Kiva, but also, a general shift within Silicon Valley has occurred which has significantly broadened the role of ‘design’ within an organization.

It’s reassuring to hear other designers write about similar experiences. Mark Boulton does a great job detailing his experience on his blog.

As I’ve grown as a designer, like many, I’ve found myself doing less ‘design’. Or, rather, less of what I thought was design. Five years ago, I thought design was creating beautiful layouts, or building clean HTML and CSS, or pouring over typefaces for just that right combination. Now, this is design. But, so are meetings.

Experienced designers spend time making the environment right whilst they are doing the work. Because, frankly, you can push pixels around forever, but if the conditions aren’t right for the work to be created and received by the client in the right way, the work will never be as good as it could be.

His post got me thinking about the activities that have now become a broader part of my definition of design and why they’re essential to fostering a healthy design practice within any organization.

  • Research

    One of the most important contributions I’ve made at Kiva has been incorporating user research into the design process. Research takes many forms, from qualitative methods like interviews, usability studies, and participatory design; to more quantitative methods like surveys, analytics, and A/B tests. All of these methods are simply tools used to acquire the knowledge necessary to design a successful solution. For me watching people use what I design is an invaluable tool to identify what works well and where improvements are needed.

  • Education

    As designers, we create wireframes, run usability tests, and build mood boards to help inform decisions. But the “design process” and many of its methods are a mystery to the people we work for, and with. It’s incumbent upon us to provide an education about why we employ certain methods and how they’ve informed our decisions. When the people you work with have a basic foundation of what design is and how it’s practiced everything from specific interface decisions to strategic priorities became easier to explain and gather increased “buy-in” from around the organization.

  • Communication

    Successful design is only possible if the organization and team buys into the results. The best way I’ve found to ensure stakeholders (and end users) embrace a final design is to bring them along on the journey. Giving everyone an opportunity to participate in the design process or at the very least to digest the lessons from each step of the design process, builds a strong foundation of support for a project.

  • Physical Environment

    It’s easy to overlook the environment we work in. Be it a cube or a coffee shop – what’s the difference as long as we’ve got a laptop and an internet connection? But the physical space around us provides a level of inspiration and sets a tone for the work we do. At Kiva I’ve spent time designing the spaces we work in – particularly our conference rooms – to provide easy access to brainstorming materials, prototyping tools and other ways to foster creativity. In addition, we’ve found that making “in-progress” work visibility around the office elicits valuable feedback, comments and collaboration from colleagues around the organization.

Each of these activities probably deserves an entire a blog post flushing out it’s importance. But my larger point is that as the role, profile and expectations on designers has expanded, it’s imperative that we spend less time pushing pixels and more time focused on creating an environment that fosters successful design.

Bolton wrapped up his recent post by comparing mountaineering to design. It’s as accurate an analogy on this topic as you’ll find, so I may as well end with it:

Mountaineering is so often not about climbing. You may do some if the conditions are right. Design is so often not about designing beautiful, useful products. But, you may do some if the conditions are right.