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Digital Designer’s Manual – How to lead stubborn digital designers to drive them to excellence.

Aline Barré

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Are you a project owner, project manager or do you work with designers on a regular basis and are you tired of time-consuming and exhausting discussions about necessary features and brilliant ideas?

intervention

Then I would like to welcome you to my intervention: We have to talk…

The trigger for this text is the increasing frustration and resignation that I notice among many designers in my surroundings, some of whom are still young. This frustration is triggered by many project members – not out of malice, but out of ignorance, the desire for self-realization, old structures and control, impatience, lack of time, the wrong mindset, as well as the lack of knowledge about what design means today.

I therefore address this text primarily to you, the project managers who coordinate the interaction of different disciplines in the development of digital products and processes of tomorrow and who can help designers to dissolve this frustration through more understanding and a more open cooperation. I myself have been working as a designer for 16 years, but in recent years I have been increasingly involved in project management. My main role is the strategic management of the design team at Centigrade. I regularly hear from this team about the day-to-day problems our designers face.

But I’m also directing this text to digital designers who are fighting for a better user experience on a daily basis and are so tired of working out bad ideas and irrelevant features that didn’t originate along a human-centered process, but are brought in by project stakeholders.

I want to create a better understanding of the work of digital designers to make project stakeholders more aware.

The top 5 thinking errors about digital design and how it really is

#1: Digital designers don’t push pixels – they solve problems.

One myth I encounter too often in my day-to-day life is the misconception that as a digital designer, you simply make your products a little prettier, make logos and buttons bigger, then change a few more colors and fonts and find joy in working out so many iterations and compromises until you eventually (if ever) arrive at a mediocre result. In the process, you should always laugh, wave, and agree in a friendly manner. Bad News: Unfortunately, this is just an illusion that is foisted on us in too many Hollywood shows in order to make the profession as simple, hip and attractive as possible. So let’s take a look at reality together.

Skelett at work

The working world as a designer has changed fundamentally in recent years, especially in the software sector. Digital designers stand up for human-centered solutions and design security mechanisms for complex applications. They focus on the design of interaction paradigms that conform to expectations in order to inspire users with competence experiences when using a product. They deal with ISO standards and system landscapes, documenting and working in large project teams consisting of programmers, user researchers, customers, users, marketers and managers, who of course all have to be convinced by the design. Meanwhile, the designer is still busy with the annually changing tool landscapes, technologies, trends and looks, so as not to lose track.

#2: Digital designers do not work for clients, but for their users and are willing to make decisions on their behalf, beyond personal taste.

Digital designers see themselves as advocates for their users, not as “everybody’s darling”, and do not aim to please everyone. They follow a human-centered design process and put their own egos and ideas aside to focus on the needs of the users. They create scalable products and document their work in design systems that limit their own creativity, because they understand the added value and believe in the “single source of truth” principle. Most of the time, however, they are busy keeping the project personas alive, fending off subjective personal tastes and opinions, and staying within the scope of the project.

Skelett at worktable

Designers therefore need more trust, understanding and respect for their spaces in order to be able to do their work. This space is needed to discuss and work out the right decisions in the team on an objective basis. Personal tastes are out of place in the elaboration of human-centric products and cause long discussions, many iterations and bad compromises that harm the product and eat up budgets. It is always fair to ask why a designer decided as follows. They love to argue objectively in depth and are happy about the acceptance of their well thought-out decisions.

#3: Good digital designers don’t say yes to everything. They are uncomfortable, exhausting, and like to discuss before simply accepting unvalidated results.

If the designer always finds everything that the project team reports back good and implements changes without resistance, this means with a very high probability that the designer has died inside, has long since resigned and no longer sees any point in seriously discussing his or her work with you. If you notice this lifeless state in your designer, it means that you unfortunately do not have a good feedback culture. But don’t worry, you can win back his trust. Just try to delegate design decisions back to your designer, ask for his opinion, get advice on an equal footing and accept sensible suggestions sometimes.

Skelett terrified

Trust the expertise of your designers just as you would trust your brain surgeon for brain surgery. The comparison may seem a bit overblown, but it no longer works with the general practitioner. General doctors, like designers, soccer coaches or virologists, are regularly denied competencies by self-proclaimed Google professionals who simply know/can do it better! (That was irony.)

Instead, be happy about the lively opposition, deal with the questions in an appreciative manner and experience how more trust and greater leeway can lead to products that ultimately benefit your users. In this way, you create a healthy basis in which your designer can again ambitiously question decisions and processes and search for the “why”. Don’t worry if your designer tells you why your product is bad, because right after that he/she will look for a solution to make it better.

Designers are sensitive and need an environment that is respectful and less toxic. Try it, you will see your designers blossom.

#4: I see into your heart. Give good feedback – bad feedback (GFSF)

When designers ask for feedback, it’s rarely to find out from the project team how they could make buttons prettier, what colors they would have chosen better instead, or whether Arial might have been a better font choice. We specifically ask for feedback to find out whether the content of the product has been mapped correctly and whether interactions fit the machine as expected. Unfortunately, everyone else in the project finds this point mega boring, which is why designers spend 90% of their time on part 1. Afterwards, compromise-sworn Frankenstein monster screens are created from version 1,3,4 and 6,15 and 25, only to find out afterwards that the result doesn’t really “pop” after all.

Unfortunately, it is not appreciated when designers advise against such experiments, which I often associate with a lack of trust in their expertise. If you knew the time-consuming steps designers take to arrive at a final homogeneous and visually appealing design, you would know how many different combinations have already been played through and found to be inadequate. In order not to step on anyone’s toes, designers too often allow everyone to position their own idea in the design, even if it makes no sense from an expert’s point of view. Unfortunately, projects that proceed in this way often have the same result: project manager satisfied, designer frustrated, user missed.

Skelett at work

For this, I have an easy-to-implement advice in my luggage: Give more responsibility to the design, find less fun in iterations, accept vetoes – simple but effective. Rather, focus your expertise on the content and functionality you want your product to reflect. Ask specific questions or talk about objectively understandable problems. Avoid subjective feedback that starts with “something and somehow”, feel free to ask for advice and try not to let your designers fish in the mud of your unspecific feedback, because that can be very time-consuming and expensive.

#5: It rarely helps the product if you or other non-designers in the team take on the role of the passionate art director. Therefore, clarify responsibilities and roles in your team at an early stage. And bring real designers on board at an early stage.

Again and again I observe how designers are deliberately dispensed with in the early product development phase. User research is rationalized away as too expensive and time-consuming and the persona is buried on the server. Instead, “personal requirements” have long since found their way into the product. Of course, not all roles can always be included in the product in all workshops and meetings. However, don’t miss out on the designer at certain points along the way. One of the biggest mistakes I see in many projects is the late involvement of digital designers.

Skelett help

What designers often have left in projects is damage limitation. You could also call it lipstick on a pig. Especially when we talk about sustainability or vision, the designer can’t be at the table soon enough. Instead, we prefer to get annoyed that designers ask unpleasant annoying questions way too late and show little enthusiasm for the product. It would be better to spare ourselves exhausting conversations about users, requirements, user experience, ethics and the lack of sustainability in order to finally get some horsepower on the road instead. From a design perspective, I would call this approach “garbage in – garbage out”. The solution: Involve designers as early as possible in important product decisions, then the enthusiasm and the good solutions will work out.

Summary

Actually, it’s not hard to provide digital designers with an environment where they can do a good job. Give them the oxygen they need, trust in their expertise, recognize the value of design in solving problems, put the outdated image of the pixel-pusher out of your mind, and put your personal tastes on hold. Drop into a whole new mindset that will save you work, save you time, and bring a whole new vibe to the project.

To all designers: your skill is not only to make things look nice (and yes, we can do that too), but above all to solve important problems for users. Clarify what you believe in and what design really means. Stop comfortably nodding off bad compromises or decisions made by outsiders. Keep questioning bad product solutions. Question the basis on which your counterpart is currently evaluating your work and decide for yourself if that basis is sufficient to make changes based on. Do not get tired of rejecting subjective feedback. Hold on to your users. Occupy the spaces you are entitled to. Continue to listen to other ideas and feedback. Have conversations about the work environment and talk about what you need to do a good job.

Designers must learn to believe in their work again and be willing to have many enlightening conversations. Designers have a responsibility because they are the design thinkers who can ensure that better and more sustainable products are created in the future. So my request to you: be demanding, be loud, be the living designers we so urgently need for a better future.

To all non-designers: engage more with the complexity of design. Get rid of the misconception that designers are there to superficially push a few pixels and make your ideas happen. Designers work for the users of the product. For your users. Don’t judge design by personal preference, focus on understanding the user. Find ways to support your designers with your know-how instead of guiding their hand because you can’t give up control. Seek dialogue – designers will be happy to explain the basis for their decisions. Before you ruin the design with subjective feedback, think about how you can formulate it constructively and objectively. Your designers need your support, because it is only by sharing our basic understanding of design that we manage to create living and human-centered products. It is you who can open up and protect the designers’ spaces so they can do what they do best: Solve problems in the most beautiful way.

For that, you’ll get lots of props, love and respect from your design team – I promise. We are all in this together <3.

Pictures: Tara Winstead, fizkes

 

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