May 13 2015

Stop depressing the value of design by compartmentalizing it.

If you’re looking to hire a designer for your software product, a word of advice: do not relegate them to a secondary role.

I’ve worked with clients in design only engagements and in engineering only engagements where design was very separated from engineering and product management. I’ve seen firsthand how easy it is to depress the value of interface design work. The same exact designer can be made extremely valuable or nearly worthless depending on how you incorporate them into a team.

Software designers who work in silos, or are relegated to a certain “phase” of the project (just the start) simply can’t deliver the value they are capable of. This is because their job shouldn’t be to create “art”. It’s to help design all aspects of a product’s experience, not just its look and feel but it’s flow and function too.

When designers are isolated either by access or timing you are asking them to two jobs.

  1. Design a user interface
  2. Make lots of assumptions

Step two is where you start to devalue the design. You’re taking whatever the value of the design could be and multiplying it by how accurately the designers could see the future. Unless they are psychic they won’t be 100% correct, you can be certain you’re getting some fraction of the value you could have.

One way to illustrate this is:

Original Design X % Correctness of many assumption = Low Design Value

When designers are tightly integrated into product management and engineering teams they get to see how their designs will be used in practice. They get presented with real data and opinions on how a design can improve. Those designers must:

  1. Design a user interface
  2. Make some assumptions and test them
  3. Improve the design based on feedback

There is far less guess work here. The assumptions can be limited because the designer isn’t going anywhere. They don’t have to guess way in advance to “feed” the other team members with months of “engineering ready” design comps. Instead they create a few designs, review them with the entire team and work with the engineers implement them.

This results in a much higher value design:

Original Design X % Correctness of Small Assumption + Improvement from Feedback = High Design Value

Now think of this in monetary terms:

Wrong: $50,000 design X 60% correct assumptions = $25,000 design

Right: $50,000 design X 80% correct assumptions + Improvement = $50,000 design

If you are in the position to incorporate a designer into your team, heed this advice. By compartmentalizing the responsibilities of design and engineering, you run the risk of lowering the value the designer can bring to your project.

Nick Kishfy