No matter how selective a designer may be while taking up work, projects often fall victim to design interference by clients — knowingly or unknowingly. The web is full of posters, comics and anecdotes that share how the quality of work gets compromised when designers try to appease their clients. Under rare circumstances, if the issues under contention are non trivial, it could result in a failure of the project. Regardless, such projects end in a note of discontentment from both sides.
We live in a world where design, designers and design services are largely misunderstood and yet a must-have. As long as this remains true, the occurrence of client intervention in design is inevitable.
What follows is part rant and part discourse on why clients attempt to govern design.
Design has been an integral part of various disciplines for a long time now. Yet even today, it is hard to define design. There are plenty of reasonable definitions and a recent paper proposing a formal definition, but there’s none that is definitive and accepted universally. Needless to say, this makes it hard to in turn define the job of a designer, and hard to recognise the value created by a designer.
To make matters worse, the word ‘design’ is commonly used to refer to appearance, which is imprecise even by its dictionary definition.
Everything is designed
It may be hard to nail the definition of design, but it would not be wrong to say that design is a prerequisite for the existence of any (man-made) product. Everything — be it the space around you, the chair you’re sitting on or even the dress that you’re wearing — has been designed at some point in time. Someone has taken a decision about how it’ll look, feel, taste, work etc. However, not every aspect is necessarily designed i.e. not every aspect gets the same amount of deliberation or conscious thought. Those aspects get left to chance, e.g. the taste of a chair.
Everyone is a designer
With reasonable intelligence and experience anyone can start taking design decisions. These decisions may be good, bad or terrible, but nevertheless, in some capacity, everyone can be called a designer. However, everyone is not adequately equipped (skill, time, tools etc.) to execute these decisions. In such a case these decisions are imposed on a skilled workman hired to simply to execute the decisions and bring the product to life e.g. designing a writing desk for yourself and hiring a carpenter to build it.
Everyone is not a good designer
Just because anyone can design doesn’t mean that everyone should — especially if the designer is himself not the only (or the primary) consumer of the design. Design decisions directly affect the consumers, and therefore these decisions should not be at the mercy of trends, personal whims or tastes of an individual. A good designer understands this and works with great amount of care, responsibility and humility. His trained tastes and rationale makes him competent to uphold the right principles, make the right compromises and take wise decisions.
Everyone wants “a designer”
It is 2013 and the world has never been more “design conscious”. Everyone — be it brands, communities, influential voices, and even consumers — is proactively talking about design. More and more people are getting exposed to good experiences, and behind every such experience there is “design”, and in turn, “a designer”. This notion has gone viral (perhaps for the better), but with a superficial understanding of a designer’s job. Consequently, looking for “a designer” has become a norm, because without one a product is unlikely to succeed.
Design happens one stage at a time
Most design problems are complex, sizeable, and are solved by breaking them down into stages. Each stage demands specific expertise and introduces discrete roles. Design at every stage is constrained by the design decisions made in the previous stages.
As an example, a restaurateur designs the business i.e. decides the goals, strategies, cuisine, target customers, rates, margins, etc. A chef designs the menu within the constraints of the business (cuisine, rates, target customers, etc.). The cutlery designer, in turn, is constrained by both the business and the menu.
It is hard to identify when an unnecessary constraint is forced upon subsequent stages of design and to understand its impact on the end goal of serving the consumer.
Irony in design services
Design solves problems. But design as a service isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Let me share two oddities:
- A design problem always has more than one right solution.
- The sponsor of a design project typically is not a consumer of the design.
These two characteristics lead to disorder in an already difficult process. There are plenty of ideas, suggestions, opinions, principles, whims and demands battling against one another, looking to emerge victorious. And amidst the chaos, the sensitivity of the consumers takes a blow.
If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine
Design starts by identifying constraints and setting goals. What follows is an exercise to churn out a solution that has the best odds of achieving the goals within the constraints. Throughout the process the designer deliberates with multiple stakeholders (including the client) and collects important insights that aid decision making. The final decision taken by the designer can often conflict with a client’s preferences.
“Are you not going to consider my personal tastes?”
“But it is my product and I should be proud of showing it to people!”
Unless the project goal calls for representing the client’s personal inclination (say, a personal website), a good designer rarely lets it trump factors like research, statistics and experience. In the absence of any conclusive reasoning, the final thing a designer counts upon are instincts. People usually mistake instincts for personal preferences, which is why designers often have to resort to bullshit. No, really.
The clients have paid for the work, own the work and (justifiably) enjoy a veto over how the work gets used. If they disagree with the designer’s decisions, there is an obvious urge to enforce their own. The easier it is to make a modification, the higher the chances of the client making them. In the context of web design, rarely does a designer’s work remain pristine for long.
Hiring a designer and not trusting his decisions is like taking an advisor on board and ignoring his advice. The designer, being a professional, moves on to the next problem on his plate, but carries a bitter feeling about the client and the final output.
Discussing design services a while back, we were hardly surprised when a fellow designer (and friend) — one of the best around — replied the following to our question:
“How many clients who you’ve worked with in the past, would you be happy to work for again?”
“Can’t think of any.”
Over the past two and a half years we’ve worked with a handful of clients — some we love and some we don’t. It took me a while to figure that the clients who we’ve loved working with are generally the ones who recognise and embrace the value that a designer brings to the team. This is not to say that all our favourite clients walked in with that knowledge, but they quickly discovered it and our relationship only got better over the course of the project.
If you happen to hire a designer, present your problems instead of a solution. Do share your opinions, and especially your experience. A good designer will certainly take them into account and will be happy to explain his decisions. It’s only fair that you reason out the points of contention rather than forcing a viewpoint or your preferences. After all, you chose to hire a designer.
Let your designers design.
Designers think about the fine details of stuff, so that users don’t have to worry about them.
— Adapted from The Genius of Design: Ghosts in the Machine
Creators — be it designers or business owners — build tools that make it simpler for people to do a job. Every tool has two sides: one that does the job, and another that exposes an interface to users. It is our responsibility to maintain a gap between the two so that users are not hassled by the complexities involved in the task.
At Meta Refresh 2013, I gave a talk to highlight the problem of unnecessarily exposing implementation details to users. Little details that are easily overlooked while worrying about the larger scheme of things, e.g. URLs, button labels, error messages, etc. Sometimes we build a solution that simply passes on the problem to users.
We’re not just fairly competent at designing systems but also extremely competent at using them. Clearly we differ from our users. This often limits our ability to recognise goof ups. We need to constantly question the effectiveness of our decisions to ensure that our designs are meaningful for users.
We are going to be speaking at the event and we put together two short videos to introduce our talks.
Above: Souvik introduces his talk Overexposed — a call for proactively reducing the exposure of implementation details in our work. Syntax laden URLs, as an example.
Below: Prateek introduces his talk Design by Philosophy — an approach to making design decisions based on the most basic forms of ideas — philosophies.
The conference takes place on the 22nd and 23rd February at the MLR Convention Centre in Bangalore and tickets are still available.
Hope to see you there!
Aarron Walter over at MailChimp has a good assessment of the Twitter, Facebook et al., login buttons that have become common all over the web. He makes a convincing argument that these social login buttons do more harm than good. But if we take a step back, there is a more interesting story to explore in there.
From April 12 to May 12, 2012, we had 340,591 failed login attempts. That’s the total number of times someone tried to get into MailChimp to get their work done and couldn’t remember their username and/or password, or simply mistyped. Think of how much wasted time and frustration that translates to.
The reason MailChimp turned towards third party OAuth solutions in the first place was to reduce the high number of login failures. While they’ve had some success in reducing this failure rate (attributed to better copy and improved error handling), the number of failures remain high enough to be a cause for concern. And MailChimp is hardly alone in this regard.
The traditional username + password based authentication paradigm has served us well over the years. It is almost second nature to any seasoned web user today. In fact, it is so widespread that you need not be an expert to realise the terrible experience or flimsy security it provides.
Of the people who struggled logging in, 68,145 had to resort to resetting their password, and 38,137 had to get a reminder about their username.
The need to come up with memorable credentials, to make passwords cryptic, keep them confidential at all times, not see what you’re typing, to remember the correct combination of the different services, usernames and passwords (and at times password recovery answers) you’ve created, easily stolen identities, increasing susceptibility to brute force attacks, and above all the general inconvenience of getting to your data.
None of this is a revelation. Designers and engineers have long been aware of this less-than-stellar situation and various efforts to address the same have been made over the years. Incremental usability improvements like not asking people to re-type passwords during sign-up, letting people see what they type, using email addresses for usernames etc. have definitely helped. As have efforts to fundamentally replace the username + password auth system, such as OpenId, OAuth and the likes.
Unfortunately, none of the replacements have been as successful as the system they were trying to replace. Yet the need for a replacement is more dire than ever. More people are using the web and putting their information online than ever before and our existing authentication process is intrusive, inconvenient, and not entirely secure. There are encouraging developments like Mozilla’s Persona (née BrowserID) and the push for ‘no passwords’, but it is early days still and the ground is very much open for a sweeping change.