How to beat the Designer StereotypeMay 1, 2009 By Nishant Kothary
Rant Alert: I am a fellow-designer who is tired of having to constantly fight the “designer stereotype” (I’ll explain this term up ahead). This is a fair warning that I’m about to vent and it’s just my opinion (this is the opinions section, after all).
I have a pretty broad definition for “designer”. I define it as an individual who thinks and cares about the experience others have when they use a product, and subsequently, focuses on systematically improving that user experience. I will be talking about software and web designers in particular.
I define the “designer stereotype” as the often-true perception that designers are difficult to work with & walk around with a big fat chip on their shoulders.
We’re bitter. Want to know why? (I love leading questions).
I shall now bash the rest of you, i.e. you folks who don’t really care to improve the user experience for a product. After all, any self-deprecating post must begin with a healthy emotional outburst.
We’re bitter because you have abused and marginalized us for a few decades now. Your absolute lack of empathy in accepting user experience and aesthetics as an integral part of the software development process has effectively murdered our designer souls over and over. We’ve felt and continue to feel abused by your silly and compulsive need to meet artificial deadlines which you achieve by saying, “Yeah, we don’t have time to spend on design.” You know what sucks about this? Every time you do that, and believe us, you do it a LOT, we have to go along with it fully knowing that we’re going to piss off customers. You’ve heard of customers, right? They are also known as “human beings for whom you’re building the very piece of software”.
Yes,you make us repeatedly stare into the face of the irony of forgoing experience design – undeniably the most important aspect of a software product – despite the fact that experience design is synonymous with,”Hey, why don’t we build something that people would like to use!” Seriously, think about it! To put it into perspective – have you ever found yourself saying, “Man, this phone is so tough to use and I hate it?” Well, it’s because some ignoramus like you decided to ship it anyway despite the fact that everyone who played with it during usability tests said it was a piece of crap. You reap what you sow, I guess. Yippekayay.
There, I said it and it feels good. Let the flames begin. Or, read on.
So, this begs the question – if the world is doing such injustice to the wonderfulness (yes, that really is a word) that is a designer, then aren’t they the real victims? Good question, and I have a really simple answer. In an ideal world, sure, they are the victims. But last time I checked, this is the real world. The way I see it, the real world is full of awful situations. You either fall in line and work with that reality to incrementally improve it, or throw a hissy fit, stomp your feet and affect nothing other than your already decaying morale.
The thing is, yes, there are loads of people who don’t get this whole experience design thing, and why should they? It’s this weird, amorphous, touchy-feely, non-deterministic, often subjective thing that we don’t really do a good job of describing (we == everyone but Bill Buxton; yes, I’m still in love with the man). But, it is what it is and the first step is to accept the reality that most people don’t get it and give up the pent up animosity and destructive arrogance.
So, if you’re a designer, let it go. Seriously.
Let. It. GO!
Here – let’s hug it out. *HUG*
OK, now for the silver lining. There are a plethora of folks who *do* get it, so let’s stop punishing them and let’s start educating the others, shall we? This rant is not entirely gratuitous or futile, for I would like to share a set of practical tips to get you waking up in the morning singing, “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time.” (you can always count on the effing genius of the Beatles lyrics).
Here we go:
Don’t assume the worst about people
When you walk into a room assuming that everyone in there doesn’t get it, you’re doomed. You’d be surprised at how often I’ve seen designers (and non-designers) do that. It’s the classic self-fulfilling prophecy. They just assume that the person across from them at the table doesn’t care about doing the right thing for the customer and could never possibly grasp the self-declared advanced world of design thinking. If you find yourself feeling this way, you are suffering from deep bitterness and I suggest you take up drinking to drown it. I’m kidding, of course. Really, what you need to do is consciously change your default behavior to assuming the best about people. Do whatever you need to do to make this change; different things work for different people. The point is – if you seek failure and disappointment, you will find it.
Assume everyone is ignorant
Notice, I didn’t say “stupid”, but “ignorant”. A common phenomenon shared by our bitter breed is to assume that everyone around you undestands the subtleties of your thought process despite the fact that you’ve never vocalized most of it. We think differently and things that are ridiculously obvious to us are not at all obvious to others. The practice of good design pivots on the critical act of communication. As a designer, you have to communicate constantly without making assumptions about what’s obvious and what’s not. But don’t do it blindly. Watch, listen, perceive and communicate appropriately. If you’re a good designer, the first three are innate sensory qualities you are likely gifted with.
Think in parts, not absolutes
We’re a binary lot. It’s all or nothing, good or bad, black or white. And, we tend to hold that way of thinking up as a badge of honor. “We don’t conform. We don’t compromise. Only the best for us.” Ask yourself, has that worked for you? Be honest. The other way to affect change (and all credit for teaching me this goes to my wife) is to begin somewhere and etch away at it. Become a part of the solution. Learn to see the value in incremental improvement. That doesn’t mean you forget the big picture and the end goal; it’s always great to aspire to something big. Just don’t trivialize and/or pass up on the opportunity of making small amends. Every little thing helps.
Don’t listen to Ayn Rand
The Fountainhead was a book I read in my early teens and for someone growing up in India who was getting pretty disillusioned by the rampant contradictions of that culture, the book was a savior. It was hope! But it also set the stage for the designer stereotype I was going to fall prey to as an adult. That powerful piece of propaganda is best captured by the operating principle of the hero of the book (an architect, by profession), “I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build.” Sounds sexy, but it’s wrong. You’re designing for clients. Period.
Know when to play and when to quit
I truly believe that one bad apple spoils the barrel. I’ve experienced this personally through different employers and even here at Microsoft. If you’re on a new project, you have to give it your all and the above four points come in very handy in doing that. But despite that, if you find yourself feeling disgruntled and upset quite a bit, you need to step back and evaluate why you’re feeling that way; it’s often because of the people involved, and it’s not just that they don’t get it, but it’s because they are very focused on some hidden agenda (promotion plans, power struggle, etc.) You can choose to confront them, or manipulate the situation to move it in your favor. Or, you can say to yourself, “This is not worth my heartbreak.” Just know that trying to change their personality is usually beyond the scope of the project. Either play the game or quit. Just don’t let yourself get bitter.
In closing, I offer you some reading that inspired this blog post. It is powerful and so true. Read it now and then come back and tell us what you think. If you want to stay in touch with us, follow us on twitter.
The author is a rehabilitated designer who happily coexists amongst non-designers and loves it. He beat a strong case of designer stereotype caused in no small part by a set of bad apples at previous jobs. Every now and then he feels the urge to succumb to residual bitterness, but fights it vehemently because he truly believes it is not the right way to change things.