Design is teamwork

I am not a graphic designer nor am I an artist. I care about esthetics, I don’t care about “laying my artsy egg”. UX design is not about making something look pretty. It’s about making something work well, be clear, help users.
As UX designers we learn to take a distance of our own preferences. We don’t design for ourselves. We don’t take decisions based on us. We’ve learned to gather insights in people, in behaviour, in reflexes, in habits, in cultural differences, in social differences, in cognitive processes. We’ve learned to listen to people, to ask questions, to get insights from our own work but mostly from that of others.
As UX designers we’re constantly reminded of the fact that knowledge stems from continuous learning and continuous (re)questionning the knowledge you already gathered.
This question-thinking is our design proces. Like a game we get a challenge, we offer a solution, we check the flaws in that solution, we remove the flaws and formulate an new version of that solution, we check the flaws in that solution… A proces that is in theory never ending, as there is no one perfect solution ever. Only a very good solution in the given context and the timeframe.

Design islands…

This question-thinking proces can be a lonely one if the structure you work in isolates you on a design-island. When the design proces is embedded in such a way that you’re on your own, you have to go through your proces alone, you then have to deliver the solution you got to last when a deadline nears and then comes the cavalerie doing their round of questioning. And their questioning is allmost always just a repitition of all the questions you’ve been going over in depth in your design proces. This leaves you few options: you handle the questions, you explain that you’ve been over that, explain how you came to the same question, what flaws you discovered and what you changed, you enveil your proces.

It’s then it can get good: you inspired your environment by your proces, you get better questions you did not come across, valid flaws are caught that you didn’t encounter in your isolation. That’s when you can open up the design proces, get off your island and embark on a new design journey together. That’s when others join in on the proces of question-thinking and elevate the solution to a better one.

But it’s also then it can go so wrong. When no one listens or wants to hear that you iterated over the same questions they asked, that you saw flaws in them and took decisions based on knowledge, experience and the gut feeling you trained for years and years. Some will feel this is a denial of their critical thinking. Some will feel you’re just being difficult. Some will consider you as defensive about your proces. Some will feel your design proces is a waste of time. Why didn’t you just draw it like the product owner said it should be? Why did you have to ask all those questions? Why don’t you just make it look pretty? This is a situation I know a lot of designers fall or slip into. I know I did.

Sometimes, it’s just the environment you land in. It’s the way they work, and we already know, users like new things, but not when they have to change. So you’ll be required to resort to change management. You’ll have to embark on a long journey with a lot of patience in doing soft communication, finding allies, identifying you strongest “opponents” and working to let your environment do the best work you can.

Sometimes, it grows when you grow. When you start out somewhere and you don’t barge in. When you’re humble and you take the time to get acquainted with the environment, the vision, the goals, the users, the internal knowledge and internal blind spots. You’ll be perceived as thorough and dedicated most probably. But once your knowledge grows and you start to ask the annoying questions just then, agai, you’ll reach the same impasse. Your environment will wonder what happened all of a sudden, why you’re being difficult, why don’t you just…. And you’ll spent a lot of your time justifying your proces, justifying your questions, justifying why it’s right to work that way.

The best way to avoid this is when you have a collaborative environment. Where design is not on an island but the whole questioning-proces is done as a team, from the start. When everybody is used to the fundamental proces of defining the problem, defining a possible answer, catching flaws together, and formulating a new and better solution. When everybody in the team is in the same questioning loop and has the same attitude towards “failing fast”, as they say. When everybody sees the annoying questions are a necessity to get a better solution and realises there is no perfect solution, just the best one you can get to in context & time. When design is a team’s work.

…and how to avoid them

You need to identify early on when you’re (pushed onto) a design island. And the best thing you can do, is get out of there asap. Leave and fare to your team island if there is any. Or fare by analysis island, stakeholder island, marketing island, sales island, support island. Visit them all and gather your ingredients and invite all to consider to get off their islands too. You can do this by drafting a first solution fast and taking it “out there” soon, ask your questions “out loud” in comments of design meetings. Get your team into the thinking proces with you by involving them and their expertise.

But can you avoid these design island situations? Sometimes.
Sometimes you just get lucky and you end up in a team that has a design proces maturity.
Sometimes you’re a real change manager and you love the part of the job where you design not only the product, but also the team. Sometimes you’re not alone and have design partners with whom you “go to battle together” in growing the proces. And sometimes it just won’t budge despite all your energy and effort. So the big takeways is probably, know yourself, know if you’re a change manager or not, know if you want to fight everyday to enable your job, but also know when you’ve hit the bottom and your energy and knwoledge is of better use elsewhere.