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Design is Easy; Organizational Politics is Hard

[This is a draft (and an early one at that) of an essay I’m working on for the Adaptive Path site. Wanted to get some thoughts out there while still raw.]

At the DIS2004 Conference, I attended a panel on how innovation seems to be on the wane, with the potential culprit being user-centered design methods that stress safety over risk, surety over adventure, meeting existing customer expectations instead of exceeding them.

This argument struck me as a red herring. In my experience, the problem is not with design or design processes. In fact, design practitioners have figured out a lot about what works, and what doesn’t. For those in the design field, design is easy – developing solutions to problems is a pretty straightforward endeavor. The problem isn’t with design or designers – it’s with organizations whose fundamental structures prevent the good ideas from getting out.

A panelist harkened back to a more golden era of design, a mid-20th-century period where massive organizations took design risks, where GM would develop visions of a Futurama, where IBM worked with The Eames’ and Paul Rand. The thing is, these companies could do so because they were extremely centralized, and the wishes of those at the top became the marching orders of all beneath. Design-minded CEOs could make such innovation happen.

In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, corporations fundamentally changed. They became extremely siloed. Product teams were no longer collaborative individuals, but a stovepiped set of departments whose efforts were stitched together by a product manager. And each of those departments has their own metrics of success, their own P&L statements — in other words, their own asses to cover. product managers are rewarded for on-time and under-budget delivery; marketing with exceeding sales goals; engineering with minimizing defects and other marks of “quality”. Nowhere does design and innovation factor in.

As the products became more complex, the lack of cohesion became more apparent – it’s common for an electronic consumer product to have the hardware engineering performed by one group, the onboard software made by another group, the manufacturing somewhere else, the marketing yet elsewhere, all leading to incoherent messes that blink “12:00.”

This departmental mess has been witnessed in the field of web design, in research conducted by User Interface Engineering, where they found that the only correlation they could make between the size of an organization’s UCD/usability practice was mildly inverse to the usability of the site – companies that seemed to invest more in usability actually had marginally worse products.

A big reason for this oxymoron is that the more that’s invested in UCD, the more likely it is to become a separate group or department. With it’s own measure of success (minimize user interface defects) that are not aligned with those of the other departments. And this group tends to get relegated to the role of “interface cops,” folks who must review everything before it goes out, and thus serve as a bottleneck in development processes, a point of pain to route around.

The panel I attended was called “Beyond Human-Centered Design”, suggesting that maybe we need to explore other design approaches to achieve innovation. Currently innovation doesn’t happen because every department in product development has competing metrics for success, and any of them can veto a product decision if it doesn’t satisfy their limited world view. I would argue that the imperative is to move Toward Human-Centered Organizations, where companies are structured to support good, usable, innovative design, where metrics are aligned across organizations to achieve a common goal.

What we’ve seen is that the best work, the best products, are created by small, multidisciplinary teams. Where there is no such thing as departmental hand-offs and review. Instead, you’ve got marketers, designers, engineers, user advocates working closely together on a single project. Where success is measured for the group as a whole, so that everyone is striving for the same goal.

  1. Interesting, Peter; I see these things happening in my own industry [aerospace/defense]. The IPT movement is supposed to provide some of these same multidisciplinary approaches, and when executed well and not subjected to external metrics pressures, it can and does produce good design. I’m frankly a bit astounded why it isn’t more of the norm.

    GFM <– was an IPT team lead back on a project in college

  2. I think that a couple of other things have happened that contribute to this, particularly since the web has brought the attention of many more people to the idea of ‘usability’ and user centred design.

    The thing that I see a lot of is many ‘designers’ who just don’t have enough experience. Their learning comes from reading the rhetoric from the gurus – rhetoric that is about the inability of people, the need for consistency, designing for the lowest common denominator and following guidelines. There is *plenty* of this material around. Many of the ‘designers’ that I come across have never, ever watched people work and have no background in a design field!

    So put one of these ‘designers’ into a silo where they are a bit out of their depth working against other people rather than with them, and they dig their heels in and quote the gurus. This is a natural human need to be recognised as having value – it’s what ego is all about πŸ˜‰

    Put these people in a small multidisciplinary team where they have opportunity to learn via some type of user-centred research and to work *with* good people instead of against them, and innovation will just happen.

    So, I agree with you, but think that there is more to it than just the silos. I think that part of the answer is not trying to find better *methods* to achieve innovation, but find better ways to communicate deep learning rather than shallow rules and guidelines. Lots of us are doing it, but the guidelines have such a strong pull.

    And, I know that there are great designers around – I’m not talking about them πŸ˜‰

  3. Hi Peter,

    I’m looking forward to your article. The contrast or perhaps opposition between design and “fundamental structures” is one that I have wrestled with throughout my own career. I also enjoyed Donna’s insights. Normally I would use a trackback link, but since I couldn’t find one for this entry I decided to make you aware of Design: Imposed Structures vs. Communication through a comment.

    Best regards,

  4. Peter — you are most excellent. I wanted to ponder UI and knew exactly where to go…right here. Thanks for sharing!

  5. “In fact, design practitioners have figured out a lot about what works, and what doesn’t. For those in the design field, design is easy…”

    As long as you tackle only the most trivial of design problems, and ignore or reject all methods of assessing how effectively they’ve been solved…

    Design is easy to those who don’t know design. Guess they somehow get into the “design field” when no one’s looking πŸ˜‰

    “in research conducted by User Interface Engineering”

    Citing “research” from a company unable to do high-school level research doesn’t reflect well on the argument, or those citing it.

    “Where success is measured for the group as a whole, so that everyone is striving for the same goal.”

    I strongly agree. The problem then is that there are many goals, they have different priorities, and they cannot all be met to the same degree. Tradeoffs have to be made.

  6. Well, I see your point, but I do not entirely agree with you. I think if it is a really good design which employs some innovation techniques, it’ll be loved by the users. Moreover, most our clients say, “I want something unique, something original”. No, I don’t think we are stuck with limitations.

  7. Hi Peter,
    I concur with your desire to see more human-centred organisations. My conclude from experience in projects to align human-centred design with corporate learning (action learning) efforts over the last decade is that we need to facilitate a process that I call “learning from design” (my book on this via Eburon publishers Delft in December). It is not a simple task nor does it create a rosy picture in the short term. There are many challenges in getting a multidisciplinary design team to work together consistently, to work in a human-centred way in design and to share their learning in a productive way with others in the organisation, simultaneously. Individual attitude in relation to the whole, e.g. apprehension about the ability and status of other people in a team to make the right design decisions, is very resistant to change. At a group level, the sense of / commitment to “we” must be reestablished every day despite regular (top-down) reorganisations that hit the heart of the “we”. Facilitation of teams over a longer period of time is one of the few ‘methods’ I have found is flexible enough to survive the chaos, avoid the bureaucracy/hierarchy and to link the elements of human-centred design and ditto organisation together.

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