Rules of Design Engagement

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It's tempting for designers to be purists and say, "Only end users!" This comes from a good place: The user-centric approach dictates that we design for those who will use the applications, and actively seek their feedback. But when a new design proposal is delivered, many within the client organization have strong opinions that they want addressed, especially if it is a departure from the status quo.

Anyone with a vested interest in the new application is a potential source of design critique. Executives, managers, business analysts, marketers, and developers do not hesitate to let the designer know exactly what they think about the proposed design. Experienced designers have techniques for managing this clamor of competing voices. Formally presenting a proposed design to a wide audience helps eliminate misunderstandings about how the application will work and allows the designer to set appropriate expectations about what the application can be expected to handle. The most effective presentations don't just explain how the design works, but also expose the rationale behind it. By exposing design thinking, the designer demonstrates the rigorous process of making these decisions, which shows that the designer is invested in the success of the new application and in quelling critiques based solely on a stakeholder's initial reactions to unfamiliar elements in the design.

Even after such a design presentation, there are times when objections persist, usually by a stakeholder who continues to argue that his perception of a prompt, menu, or bit of logic in the design is that it is just not right. This person understands the design rationale but is not buying it. When a client flat-out disagrees with a design decision, the designer may feel increasing pressure to defend the design, while clients may become further entrenched in their own opinions and view the designer as unresponsive or argumentative. In this case, the designer and the client perceive each other as opponents, and neither side is listening to the valuable information the other is offering. How do we avoid this kind of impasse?

The solution lies in having well-defined rules of engagement that are set at project kickoff, reiterated throughout the project, and explicitly agreed to by both the designer and the client stakeholders. I'm constantly building relationships with new project teams, so, by necessity, I've evolved a set of seven rules that have served me and my clients well.

1. Everyone has the right to question, critique, and comment on design decisions.

2. Designers have the responsibility to listen to and consider all such critiques, respond to questions, and explain the rationale for each decision.

3. The designer must be open to learning new information from these critiques and respect the experience of stakeholders who have a deeper history with the organization and its customers.

4. Designers should strive to provide evidence-based design rationale. "It's a best practice" is a lame and largely ineffective rationale that typically boils down to "This is the way we always do it." It's preferable and completely acceptable for the designer to admit that there is no specific reason for a decision, other than his experience as a designer.

5. Stakeholders who wish to offer design critiques are responsible for putting forth the time and energy to understand the design before criticizing it. They must be open to the rationale behind design decisions and respect the designer's judgment and expertise.

6. Stakeholders similarly need to remember that the design was created not to serve them and their preferences, but to serve the needs of their customers. Even if stakeholders intend to use the new application, they do not represent the typical end user because of their inside knowledge of the organization. Commit to making design changes that work for the user, not according to the preferences of anyone on the team.

7. Everyone has the responsibility to communicate calmly and with as much civility as they can muster.

Following these rules makes project communications more cordial and helps prevent the feeling that stakeholders and the designer are working at cross purposes. Handled appropriately, disagreements over design decisions can result in more robust designs that avoid repeating past mistakes and ultimately lead to more successful deployments.

Susan Hura, Ph.D., is a principal and founder of SpeechUsability, a VUI design consulting firm. She can be reached at susan@speechusability.com.

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