Posted on: 25 September 2022
Tedde van Gelderen
Founder & President
Designing for Most People, Most of the Time
This post is somewhat different from my other posts. It’s a conversation I’ve had with design teams quite a few times over the years, this last week once again, and I thought I need to write this all down, and see if it helps other teams as well, so here goes!
This idea that it’s about the perceived need for perfection, for designing a perfect solution for all people, that works in all cases, always. Somehow, I find design team members, especially in co-design sessions, become their own worst enemies by challenging each other at every design turn. Once someone in the group hears about a certain design option, the next step is often to try and find user stories and scenarios that will potentially not work with this particular design idea. The ‘yeah, that may work, but what about if the user wants to do ABC to achieve XYZ, and in THAT case, your design wouldn’t work!’ Followed by a triumphant look on the face of the person that found the potential flaw.
Now you may think, yes, exactly, isn’t that what we are supposed to do? Analyze designs, critique them in a respectful way, and see if we can make them better in the process. And I’d say, yes, in general, I’d agree with that. But what I find missing is the awareness, the conversation, that a certain design idea may be the best option for most users, recognizing that a design may not be the answer to everything, but it is a potential best answer. This awareness is needed to avoid the disastrous next step to take a potentially highly reasonable idea but dismiss it completely as it didn’t meet the needs of this specific user story, a story that could be a complete edge case. (Where is the user research data when you need it?)
1. Finding the ‘right’ Answer in Design
I think the above situation has a couple of dynamics at play that all interact with each other. One such dynamic is designing with the implicit assumption that there is a ‘right’ design out there, the design that truly answers our user’s needs, is highly usable and provides a best-in-class experience. It’s up to us to find it. And if we don’t, we are simply not great designers.
Feeding this notion is that some designers describe themselves in resumes as ‘problem solvers’, reasoning that in every design challenge lies a problem that has a ‘solve’, like a math equation. And if we can’t do the solve, we’re not very good solvers, ie. designers. So we keep on solving through logic, hunting for that right answer, for the right design idea that may or may not be out there. And maybe you find it (or think you did), maybe you’ll never get there. And when you did you may not really know if you actually did get there but just didn’t recognize it. Teams that do this usually run out of time and are forced to pick one idea or abandon it, I’ve seen both in equal amounts.
2. Consensus Design, We All Need to Agree
The second dynamic that I often see in design teams is this persistent need to agree with each other. If one in the team has any concerns or doesn’t think the design idea is good or appropriate, we give in, and all go back to the figurative drawing board. The surprising part to me is that there is often little pushback, the implicit assumption here is that we need to agree with each other 100% if a design idea is there to stay. It’s this group approach to design: we all win or we all lose. It gets worse with a growing number of designers in the group. In my work, I’ve encountered 40 designers in one room trying to design one screen, the ultimate co-design session. I think you can guess how that went.
Combined with the ‘right’ answer dynamic, this one can stifle many opportunities to make real progress with the design, to create a reasonable solution that meets the end-users needs, most of the time. Instead, the deadlines are moved, again and again, to accommodate finding more design consensus leading regularly to abandonment.
3. Design for All People
The third dynamic often follows next. When a design idea is deemed to work with a user story, the content and functions seem to deliver to the user’s needs, then we turn to have the conversation if this is going to work for everyone. I see this dynamic play out more often in public service environments and with industry design teams that design for broad audiences. So B2C, G2C but less so in B2B situations.
If I take the public service situation as one example: in this case, the team is concerned that the design won’t work for all citizens in the country/state/province/city as they are so broad. Once this is tabled, the team implodes and often walks again back to the drawing board. Trying again.
Or, we have a conversation that talks about the fact that while we don’t aim to leave anyone behind through our designs (think accessibility), we do design often with a specified audience in mind. And in designing for them foremost, we are not deliberately excluding anyone else. In fact, it very much follows the ideas of human-centric design, design thinking, and service design in that we intend to design for specified users with specified goals. By doing that, we will very likely also satisfy many others that are not part of our key audiences. But will it be 100% or everyone, likely not. Then the next question becomes, is that necessarily a complete dealbreaker for that design idea?
Creating the Best Designs
How about acknowledging that we are doing our best, but that we are really designing for most people, not all? I would argue that is a reality today with pretty much anything that is designed. In good cases, the design will work for most people, but hardly ever for all people out of the box, unless the design is supported with the right solutions in case of accessibility, language, etc.
Should this 100% of the people, 100% of the time be the goal of each design? Absolutely, a loud YES. It’s a goal of universal design. But in the same way, this goal of designing for the 100% should not downplay designs that get close to working for most people, but not all. This is the situation that many design teams find themselves in. And saying this out loud is in my view helpful in driving the best design ideas forward and not being stuck in only settling for perfection. Which is an elusive goal in most cases anyway.
4. What is Design Success?
All of the above situations lead to the final dynamic that in my view outdoes them all in frequency and impact. This is the challenge of defining success in design: when are we ‘there’, from a design perspective, from a business perspective, from a content perspective and from a technical perspective? Defining success is the single most skipped step in design projects, whether intentionally or not, and it affects the other three dynamics.
In the case of finding the right answers in design, if our measuring of success is that we need the right answer, did we give ourselves (and our stakeholders) the chance to prove that to them? The goto measurement in UX is doing UX testing, with end users/customers, to see if our design answer would satisfy their needs. In that testing, we are often satisfied with a 6 out of 8 successful completes. And that result recognizes we found AN answer, not THE answer. And yes, there may be better answers out there, however, the one your arrived at could be good enough for your audience. It could be not the one we want, but the one that we need.
Design by Stakeholders and Team
And in the case of consensus design, it’s about being more honest with ourselves. Coming up with designs truly as a group, as all equals, are very difficult. Most effective design teams rely on the knowledge and skills of a few to make the major design decisions, and we follow their lead. And that’s ok, we are all good at something, doesn’t have to be equals in UX design just because we work in a group together.
And, we all know that some designs get realigned by stakeholders with a bigger job title. They somehow think they are smarter than anyone else, are a better designer than anyone else and will push through some odd design decision just because it’s possible for them. Making sure that defining success is a design that is endorsed by major stakeholders, as well as the design team itself, is simply taking the smart approach.
The Limits of our Designs
When we design to the best of our abilities, for the most diverse user base, it really is upon us to acknowledge the limits of our designs. To ourselves and to our project stakeholders. What we create will not work for literally everyone, but it will work for an understood and defined group of users that have an understood and defined set of goals.
That is design success, knowing we have designed something that works for most people, most of the time.
Let me know your thoughts below and success with your next project!
Tedde van Gelderen
Founder & President
Continually looking for ways to improve the experiences of others, Tedde has dedicated his professional life to experience design, research and strategy. He derives energy, motivation, and purpose from improving the experiences of others and believes that every organization — and every industry — can benefit from Experience Thinking.