Human Nature & Design: A Fine Balance
Jan 31, 2017

When it comes to design excellence, managing ourselves is often the greatest challenge.

Design pervades all aspect of our lives, and as result, great design matters more than ever. In business and life today, design has the ability to dictate the success or failure of an idea, service, or product. It can have a lasting impact -- or none at all. The creative process itself, as all designers are intensely aware, is complex. The essence of which is summed up beautifully in the beginning of the preview for Abstract: The Art of Design. It begins: "What is important is: the story, the message, the feeling, the connection. That is design." But, this is far from simple to achieve.

The design in time paradox

"The trouble is, you think you have time" - Jack Kornfield, author.

Designers tend to have the innate ability to solve difficult problems in creative ways. Creative thinking requires a mix of tools, techniques and problem-solving skills. It also requires the ability to work within the construct of time. And therein lies the rub: Creative thinking is an unstructured, abstract and oftentimes time-consuming process that needs to somehow neatly fit within the fixed constraints of a project schedule. Managing this isn't something that comes easily to most creatives, but can be cultivated (with some irony) over time. It is developed through education, past experiences, and gut instinct. Time is money and as a designer, being effective means being disciplined and able to competently and confidently make decisions and execute in a timely manner.

Further complicating the challenge of making progress is the unlimited access to mountains of data, new software, tools, methodologies and processes. Our field has come so far, so quickly, that it seems as though every day there is something new and relevant for us to learn or use. However, all these "new" ideas can become more of a hindrance than helpful. It’s easy to become distracted or begin second-guessing whether we're making the right choices for a project, potentially stalling progress.

When I find myself wavering and losing focus I often refer back to my Job-to-be-done (JTBD). JTBD is a great framework for thinking about what you are designing and how. It can be a great focal point that helps align the team and yourself. Referring back to the JTBD centers you on what truly matters and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Whether it's the visual design of a marketing page, the onboarding flow of a product, or the user experience of a complex dashboard, we need to make the right decisions that positively impact the client’s users and the business.

It's also important for designers to possess the confidence to execute. Without it they will find themselves bogged down in a vicious cycle that simply doesn't lead to results. Designers must have the conviction to use their best judgement in order to keep moving forward and producing. Or alternatively, they must understand when it makes more sense to stop and gather feedback from others to help inform a decision or direction.

Gathering concise and actionable feedback is important but hard. You need to apply constraints and set the stage so things don’t spiral out of control. Talk about the problem you’re trying to solve or the job-to-be-done. Be deliberate and walk the audience through your thought process of how you got to your current solution. Focus on the areas that are causing you to second guess your decisions. Ask questions about why they would change something or stick with it. Collect all the feedback you can and try to identify any common trends. Finally, create actionable steps based on the feedback and get back to work!

Chasing the holy grail - Don't get stuck iterating

"We tend to be distracted by the voices in our own heads telling us what the design should look like." – Michael Bierut, Partner at Pentagram Design

Most experienced designers develop the ability to generate creative solutions quickly. So much so in fact, that we can become our own worst enemy. We get stuck in a cycle of creation; coming up with so many options that we never actually start building. The thought of "maybe just one more mockup" is always tempting us in the back of our minds. We find ourselves creating so many solutions that it becomes impossible to know which is right and which isn't.

Gathering feedback, while sometimes challenging, is imperative to breaking this cycle and is the first step in moving forward. Whether it's your client, peer, or coworker, everyone has an opinion. For us designers, it is human nature to get too close to a project, lose clarity or objectivity, and dig-in so deep that we paralyze our own ability to know which direction is best. At some point you will need to step back from the work, ask for (and embrace) help, assess the feedback against the business and design goals, and move forward.

The only way to show results and progress is to move fast, stay agile, and be willing to fail. This is where metrics come in handy. For example: using Google Analytics to view behavior flows can give you insight into typical user flows, conversion, and drop-off. Metrics allow us to establish a baseline, against which to measure whether we’ve made a positive or negative impact. If the decisions you’ve made turn out to be negative, you can always iterate and improve on the design.

Trusting your instincts and knowing when to start over

The ability to measure everything that happens within a product is extremely powerful. Metrics help us make educated decisions on where things fall short, what needs improvement, and how to get it done. However, I often witness people using metrics as a crutch. Designers can be held back from trusting their gut, making decisions, and executing. While it's important to make educated decisions, it's also important to go with your gut.

For instance, the case of iterating versus designing something new. It's quite common to want to keep iterating on an existing design to slowly push positive metrics even higher. However, after a while you hit a local maximum, which is the limit of the current design. The design can't become anymore effective and therefore requires you to try something fresh and new.

Knowing when to start over from scratch is a tough decision to make. It requires you to use your expertise, and sometimes your gut instinct, to recognize that iterating on the current design just won't do the job. When this does happen, learn from the previous design, really think about what worked and what didn't, but don't let that hinder your decisions.

Conclusion

It's human nature to dig so deep into a project that you end up struggling to progress. Over the years I've seen designers create so many mockups and solutions only to bog themselves down. When solving a problem, analytics aren't going to make every decision for you. They can be a guiding light, but it is important to have the confidence to trust your gut. Just know that you can always learn from your failure, iterate, and keep improving.

Andrew Cohen
Head of Design
@andrewcohen