by John Schrag
A while ago, I posted an article (Values in Software Design Practice) describing what values my co-workers and I believe contribute to a healthy software design practice. At that time, I promised to go into more details on the individual items of that list. This posting describes why we value Collaborative Design over Design by Referendum or Design by Fiat.
Just to be clear, I want to first define what I mean by these approaches.
Design by Fiat* means that one person makes all the decisions. This is how many people imagine design works – at the core of this idea are the mythic Great Designers, those big names that dominate Fashion, or Automotive, or Architectural Design. Great ideas just pour out of them – or so people think. Sometimes these designers think so themselves, which can be a real problem.
I’ve worked at companies where design proceeds as if everyone were a Great Designer. A problem is identified, a feature is decided on, a designer writes a design document which gets tossed to development to build. There is no review (or only cursory review), and little or no usability testing. That’s a lot of faith to put into one person’s best guess.
Even worse, in real life the person making the design decisions is sometimes not a designer at all. It can be a product manager who identifies solutions rather than problems to his design staff; or a developer who has her own vision and (as a developer) the means to get what she wants implemented over the protests of the designer. But no matter who is giving the orders, the result tends to be a design that works really well – for that one person. Such designs are often neat and clever, but tend to not be resilient to changes in use or context. They can miss business concerns (which the product manager would know about), quality and cross-product issues (which QA might be aware of), technical constraints (known only to the engineers) or important but infrequent use cases (that expert users would never miss).
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the dreaded Design by Referendum (also called Design by Committee). In this system, a team of people must all agree to every design decision. While this solves the problem of insufficient input, Design by Referendum does not recognize the unique skills for elicitation, organization and synthesis that a good HCI designer can bring to the table.
Any group activity involves politics, and group-design is no exception. Decisions start getting made on the basis of fairness, of who-suggested-what, and did-everyone-get-something-they-want. You can often recognize group designs, because they tend to include a hodge-podge of features that lack unifying principles. And simple design is out of the question.
I have seen these two design approaches pitted against each other in arguments -- my boss doesn’t listen to me (the great designer) so instead we end up with some awful thing that was designed by committee!
But I think the best design is found in the middle ground, in what we call Collaborative Design. But how is that different?
I like to say that design is like breathing. You have to inhale before you can exhale. And you don’t stop at one breath – you have to keep breathing in and out to sustain yourself. Designers ‘inhale’ when they connect with the world; when they observe, listen, research, absorb information, and hear what others have to say. Designers ‘exhale’ when they communicate their thoughts and designs to others.
It’s not an accident that the word “inspiration” literally means “inhaling”.
Collaborative Design respects the role of the designer to gather, organize, and synthesize information; then to create or modify things based on this information. But it also respects the expertise of others; the reactions and knowledge of all the stakeholders are crucial to get a design from good to great. But that doesn’t mean we ask stakeholders other than the designer to design.
A few years ago my colleague Ian Hooper and I taught a one-day workshop on design methodologies at UPA. As part of our own preparation, we looked at how design was conducted in many different fields, and we kept finding the same idea – a loop of first gathering information, then evaluating and synthesizing (and dreaming!), followed by creating and communicating – then repeating this loop until done. Many disciplines have the idea of the “design review”, which goes by many names (“pin-up”, “charrette”, etc.) Some of these have are loosely defined; others have long-established methodologies.
A good design review starts with everyone agreeing to the common goal of helping improve the design. Then the designer presents the problem background and walks all the stakeholders through the design details. After that, the other stakeholders do their part; they ask questions, present what-if scenarios, and make suggestions for improvement. It is now the designer’s job to listen, to dig deeper into the scenarios and suggestions to make sure that all the reasons behind them are understood. Importantly, the designer doesn’t have to react to any of the feedback; he or she just needs to listen and absorb it. Multiple conflicting suggestions for improvement can be entertained at the same time, because no decisions are being made yet. When the exploration is done, the design review is over, and the designer can stop ‘inhaling’.
It’s time for the designer to reflect and synthesize what he or she has learned into an updated design. This doesn’t necessarily mean following particular suggestions (even when they come from the boss), but rather making changes that demonstrate you understood the reasoning behind the suggestion. Collaborative design is about respecting and utilizing everyone’s expertise, without losing the heart of design.
(Of course, you still need to validate your design by prototyping and usability testing… but that’s another article.)
Collaborative design, under whatever process name, is a very old idea, but still a good one. Like breathing. So make sure you always inhale --- you have to take a deep breath before you can sing.
*“Fiat” is from the Latin for “let it be done”, and has nothing to do with the Italian car company known for its beautiful designs.