Design is the easy part…

On approach, I’m warned by most clients that this will be a very tricky design problem, very hard to get right and of course, utterly imperative to the business that we do so.

And, at first glance, often this appears to be the case.

It’s been my experience that the main reason most designs go unsolved is not the lack of talented designers or their interest in solving the problem. Instead, the problem is with the organisation themselves  – their inability to allow themselves to implement the right design, or even any good design.

Many times I’ve suggested a design approach only for the in house designer on the team to literally pull the design from their desk drawer or computer and to tell me how they tried to get the organisation to go this way two, three, maybe four or five years ago. They tried and tried, had no success, and filed the design away so they can get on with the work the organisation deemed acceptable or appropriate. It’s kind of depressing, and almost embarrassing when my main role is to advocate for work that was actually done years before I appeared. And sometimes it works.

Politics and egos are the main reasons that great design goes awry – either it is never presented (because presenting it is a risk to those egos and would be not wise politically), or it is presented and dismissed, or it is presented and then changed such that egos are not wounded and the politics are in tact, the design integrity is hardly a passing consideration.

Organisation processes and complexity are another common killer. As more and more, the digital products replace the previous products and functions of the organisation, this requires a transition in how things should be done that most organisations are unprepared for an unwilling to support. They’d rather keep doing things the way they always have, and craft a design that doesn’t trouble their processes or require additional resources. You know you’re designing for an organisation on the way out the back door when you come across this – disrupt yourselves or be disrupted, Peter Drucker, amongst others, has been telling us this for half a century (or more). Still, it can be surprisingly hard to do. We don’t like change and the changes required often threaten the existing egos and power structures. See above.

At first glance, the solution is strategy. Get more designers higher up the food chain and involved in the creation of strategies that would guide an organisation to make better decisions. Sounds right, but the reality is different. Most places I encounter these problems have all kinds of strategies talking about how important design and the end user is to them. They all handwave the right way, but the execution doesn’t match the strategy. This is the reality we live in – almost every organisation you come across is loudly proclaiming their interest in the customer experience and surveying you within an inch of your life to prove it. They’re talking about the importance of design and hiring expensive designers (who are then nobbled by the organisation). None of this matters if the execution, the tactics, don’t fit the strategy. And most often, it doesn’t.

I’ve tried approaching this two ways – firstly playing the politics and trying to get involved higher up, spending lots of time in meetings, or secondly: just executing – making things that actually live out the strategy that mostly lives on posters and induction manuals and giving the higher ups a better choice to make, giving them a good choice to make not expecting them to get there on their own and then brief the design team. These days I don’t get too much feedback throughout the design process (forget wireframes) – make it and then iterate. It’s been the second approach that has worked better.

‘Show, don’t tell’ is a design principle that seems to work well in design practice as well.

It saddens me how many great design solutions are hidden away in filing cabinets. It’s not enough to know the right answers, the real design challenge is in getting the organisation to adopt and implement and maintain (a whole other challenge) good design. It feels to me like we  need to focus on this more.

27 thoughts on “Design is the easy part…

  1. Yes, yes and thrice yes. The actual effort required to ‘get something live’ is a real barrier to great design. Process gates are put in place to stop mistakes but they may also be preventing masterpieces. Big companies need spaces where they can experiement a bit more freely or just have more belief in talented staff.

    1. So, so true. Design is simple – understand your customers, come up with some ideas, refine and shape them to make them beautiful.

      What then normally happens is what I call the ‘descent to average’, a steady chipping away from the original design to make is something that can be implemented and acceptable to all, resulting in a much less appealing proposition…

      1. I love “decent to average”. Such an apt phrase. When trust among organizations and their creatives isn’t there, the org usually needs to exert some control to make sure the creative doesn’t have the power, regardless of the damage. I think if biz/orgs aren’t ready to trust, they’re not ready to embark on successful creative endeavors.

  2. I have seen recently (the last 2-3 years) that lots of design & front end or creative people have become more and more vocal about the problems with the industry.

    There is almost never any balance to the articles and they rely heavily on personal anecdotes.

    There are many reasons that designs, great or not, cannot be implemented in an organisation. Most of these reasons are not down to ego or bad structure, but real world issues like man power, money and a need to evolve, (as Alan Partridge says) rather than revolve. (evolution, not revolution).

    The issues you seem to happily ignore, like the impact in terms of training and the cost of changing an organisations structure to cope with new functions, are at least as important as design. I’d even go out on a limb and say that most people can live with bad design, but few of us are prepared to live with the realities of changing a business because a designer has ‘solved’ a problem.

    The short answer is – be better at design. Even the worst companies, riddled with power struggles and egos can see good design. Those that can’t die.

    You, the designer, are responsible for selling your vision. The company or client are perfectly correct in expecting you to work bloody hard to do that.

    Try to understand why a design may have been shelved for 5 years. It may be too expensive for the company to implement, to maintain. It may be a radical departure from the industry norm, and lacks evidence that the audience will go with a new paradigm.

    It’s not the company that is wrong, it’s you.


    1. David, what you’ve described is the exact thinking that drives larges companies to become irrelevant. It is this mindset that causes HP to post a record $8.9 Billion loss, and leaves PayPal scrambling to innovate when startups like Stripe disrupt their business model with better design and experiences.

    2. Most of these reasons are not down to ego or bad structure, but real world issues like man power, money and a need to evolve, (as Alan Partridge says) rather than revolve. (evolution, not revolution).”

      All I have to rely on is my own experience which, as a freelancer, is pretty broad.
      What I can tell you is that I see a lot of organisations misallocating resources, often due to lack of collaboration within the organisation or an acute lack of understanding of the opportunities/implications of the digital environment. (of course this is a generalisation)

      I always say you can tell an organisations priorities by the way the choose to allocate their resources (time/people/money). My experience has all too often been that what a company says (internally and externally) that it is trying to be/achieve and what it is actually ‘resourcing’ are often in contradiction and designers are often caught in the middle.

      I think we can help (a little) to shift this by making digital things (prototypes in particular) that help the organisation get a clearer sense of what they want to move towards and what would be involved in achieving that rather than just assuming it could never be and compromising from the get go.

      1. And the idea that problems (and WASTE) aren’t due to ego strikes me as incredibly naive-in my experience many of the cases where proposed solutions have been shelved are the direct result of a new executive coming into an organization and wanting to put their fingerprints on things (usually in the name of implementing a new vision). I’m not saying this is the norm, but I’ve seen multiple cases where millions of dollars of wasted effort and investment results.

    3. This is an excellent piece, Leisa. Many of your observations and conclusions are applicable well beyond the world of Design. I work mostly in strategy and organization development — listening to leaders and translating strategy in ways that others can understand and execute to. I see much of the same dynamic blocking effective adoption and execution of any change — whether in design, direction, or process. So often, leaders set a strategy and don’t know how (or just don’t care) to involve and engage their staff in understanding said strategy — as if it’s somehow beyond their cognitive abilities. The answer to matching strategy to tactics is engagement on the part of those people who actually have to take action.


  3. Thanks Chris & Tom,

    In part, I agree.

    My feeling is that not acknowledging this problem, and trying to present a design as the solution is not always all there is to it.

    As much as designers ask business to take the jump, accept risk (insert your own cliche), designers must accept limitations of the business world and try to address them.

    As you say companies like HP, Paypal and the like suffer because of outdated services, the job of the creatives is to not only provide a solution, but to design attitudes of business.

    It’s not fair, but I believe few people are prepared to consider the other side of the coin.

    I would like to see more discussion about breaking down the traditional business versus design arguments and start helping to solve the problems that matter.

    Responsive design, mobile, consoles, all of these matter, but please let us not forget that business has to pay for these. Business pays with money and time and things can be slow to change.

    I hope articles like this will promote open discussion, rather than support an us versus them scenario.

    As we all agree that my previous post is a pretty good summary of business thinking, why not try to build a bridge, rather than turn your back.

    How can we, both business and the community, create better understanding.

    That is what design/creative is about, not the latest fad

    This is an honest request for better communication and ideas on how these fundamental problems can be addressed. Without cynicism or prejudice.



    1. hi David, if it comes across as though I’m suggesting that design is the solution to the challenges of business that was absolutely not my intention.

      Businesses are made up of people who do all kinds of different things and many non-designers in organisations are frustrated by the exact same problems as I’m outlining here… I’m just talking from the perspective of design and user experience.

      Also, I had tried to make this a constructive contribution by sharing the two approaches that I’ve tried an which of those I’ve had most success with and why I think that is.

      I am all about trying to facilitate the progress of better design solutions in businesses – design solutions that are commercially feasible, sustainable and and profitable (where appropriate).

      This was absolutely not intended as a ‘design will save the world’ post but rather as a ‘designers need to take more responsibility for bringing their designs into reality’ post. The first part of this is making designs that are achievable, the but the second part is to actively push the organisation out of it’s comfort zone (which is usually what meeting the design brief actually requires).

      I’m sorry that its come across the other way. I suspect, in terms of reducing the ‘us and them’ divide, we are actually violently in agreement.

  4. Hi Leisa,

    Thanks for the reply.

    Violently in agreement :)

    I have seen a few ‘design will save the world’ posts and may (just may…) have run with an opinion, but I think posts like this are required to get us (business people) and them (design/community) people talking.

    I like your point about assigning resource as an indicator of priorities, I can certainly back that up with many years of seeing this in action at large and small companies.

    I do think design can help save the world, it just needs to also help convince us that we need saving.

    Your previous reply about prototypes is my top-tip for business-design issues. Show an Exec (any level manager, we’re pretty much all the same) something that looks like it could work, has something we can understand. Make me your champion and you’ll never do a day’s work again!

    If there was an easy way to do this, to achieve greater understanding and promote great design and flexible company policies, you and I would make a fortune. In the mean time, open discussion is the best weapon we have.

    I’m sorry if my replies have come across as dismissive or worse. My intention is to provide an insight into the business mind set that the community often faces but seldom hears from.

    I recently asked a new(ish) design/business podcast to consider having a business person, a client / customer, on the show to present their views on things such as scope/invoicing/WFH etc..

    It seems it’s hard to find someone who will speak from the dark side, I can only assume its fear of being seen as a luddite or even worse a ‘suit’.

    Thanks for the post


  5. This is probably a noob question, but do real-world case studies based on competitor websites help organizations reconsider their design approach? I’m always surprised at how differently we view our own work and work from the competition. Sometimes I hear someone on our team look at a product we offer and ask, “How could a customer say no to this?” But the same person looking at a competitor’s (strikingly similar) ad asks, “How could a customer say yes to this?” (The second question often seems like the better one.)

    It can be easier to bring your critical eye to someone else’s work and then bring the solution you’d propose for their work back to your own work. At least, I do this with my own work. Does this bring results when working with an organization, though? Or do organizations shrug off similarities when they demand reassessment and change? I’m sure there’s no general rule, here, but I’d be glad to hear about your experiences.

    1. I’d be interested to hear what other people have to say about this. My opinion is that we tend to spend too much time looking at what competitors are doing, assuming they must have tested it / thought it through / designed the thing they actually wanted to (usually none of these are true), and then using those false assumptions as a guide to our own product design. Mostly I think that spending much time looking at competitors is a distraction (unless it’s your job to come up with a competitive differentiation). The main exception to this is if you’re actually doing user research on competitors offerings so you can better learn what actually does work and doesn’t. That can be valuable… but then, anything you can do to get away from speculation and opinion and to move into a world of evidence based decision making is a good thing.

      1. I guess I’m thinking of ways to combat an organization’s familiarity with its own way of doing things. When you understand a process, describing a new user’s process often looks like puppetry. “Well first I’d click here.” Of course you would, but only because that solution is ingrained. So it’s easy to design tests that confirm the current process.

        I work with nonprofits, so “the competition” may be a similar organization in a different city and not a direct competitor. I tend to assume they haven’t tested their site and it will be a good object lesson that’s safe to pick apart because no one needs to defend it. Struggling to complete a simple-seeming task might create an opening to discuss designs outside the context of the current process. But then I’m thinking on the scale of the local library’s website, not HP.

  6. This is only to get worse especially for bigger agencies.

    Big problem is that this is not only due to people and their doing, its also close connected with money [$$]. And when something is in relation with $$$ creativity usually goes down.

    If you want to build something new / fresh .. it will usually take more time / resources .. basically it will push you to next level not know to majority of people in your team / agency / client / market.

    Am for new & different if it makes sense for that particular project / task but others are more often agains it .. they are not comfortable .. they are either ignorant or scare of $$, result, etc.

    Only solution is work with similar cultural people ;)

  7. Nailed it. Again.
    I believe this phenomenon is partly due to the fact that design doesn’t benefit from an esoteric aura as much as other professions do. Everyone and their cousin think they are designers.

    Lawyers or doctors don’t have the problem that they devise a defense or a therapy and then their clients feel free to change it and chip away at it until it is unrecognizable.

    Somehow we need to get more credit for what we do, my theory is that the large percentage of poorly skilled and improvised practitioners in our profession doesn’t help the cause and somehow it should be addressed.

    1. Would it be silly to ask that if a design you think is a good one never gets built, how do you know it’s a good design?

      If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the activity of doing design (and seeing it deployed) is that things you think are going to be great quite often crash and burn. The default condition of design is failure, I’m afraid. Not that I disagree with Lisa on her general points, but that I think we could all be a bit more careful what we wish for…!

  8. The trick is to identify what the organisational goals are. For example pleasing shareholders and operational efficiency are easier to understand then customer service for many people.

    If your organisations goals is to show the shareholders that you’re making good business decisions, releasing software is important; the quality of that software can be overlooked. Action is more important then quality to attract interest in the markets.

    Internal values and reward culture also has a lot to do with it. This relates to a surface level understanding of operational performance. If personnel are rewarded for delivering on time rather then to a defined quality or conversion metric a designers efforts to do more then just implement the basics is an uphill struggle.

    How can designers survive? I’m still thinking about that one. If the business isn’t design itself I’m toying with the idea that the designer who wants to pull the organisation in the direction that they think it should go into needs to be able to direct organisational strategy. A point that I know you’re recommending against Leisa. You can show until you’re blue in the face if the organisation isn’t trying to achieve what you’re trying to achieve.

  9. I agree Leisa: an organisation’s unpreparedness for change can be viewed as a critical part of the design problem.

    Of course, asking the right questions to carefully define the problem is the basis for arriving at the best solution and it’s hard for ‘insiders’ to do, so outside help is valuable – whether that’s recognised or not.

    In the context of these issues, i read about a technique used in mental health called ‘motivational interviewing’: a counselling approach which evolved from experience in treating problem drinkers. It works on facilitating and engaging the client’s intrinsic motivation to change behaviour (from Wikipedia). After I heard about it I found some interview questions; I’ve only practised once in a personal setting:

    1. What changes would you most like to talk about?
    2. What have you noticed about . . .?
    3. How important is it for you to change . . .?
    4. How confident do you feel about changing . . .?
    5. How do you see the benefits of . . .?
    6. How do you see the drawback of . . .?
    7. What will make the most sense to you?
    8. How might things be different if you . . .?
    9. In what way . . .?
    10. Where does this leave you now?

    Has anyone adapted and used the technique? Was it helpful?

    1. I don’t think Lisa is saying that organisations are necessarily resistant to change. What she appears to be saying is that when there are lots of different types of people involved, good designs can get shelved or heavily modified by things that might not have anything to do with design or UX.

      Certainly in my experience, many quite large organisations are very good at changing. It’s just that they don’t change for the better – at least in Lisa’s estimation (I look forward to some “told you so” posts from her in the future…!).

      It’s encouraging good change that’s the problem, not change per se.

  10. Excellent post and great discussion. This is spot on. I strongly believe in the ‘show vs tell’ approach, but you always have to mindful of the politics. “Least common denominator” design is one of my least favorite things…

  11. I’ve found that my role as designer is often heavily circumscribed by ill-placed project barriers – poor project scoping, inability to reach key stakeholders, etc – so when the client organisation’s decision-making process finally stops the goalposts are revealed to always have been quite some distance from where I was told. And so the design really is not quite right, and quite properly it must change to accommodate reality. Often in a hurry, with little care.

    So I suggest that the role of a design consultant cannot be to take an assignment at face value and “do your best”. You have to be a consultant to the client, not just a contract designer. And I’ve found that the process of challenging a poorly-set-up project concept can help build the trust and respect that you need. Or can reveal the flaws early, before too much has been invested.

  12. I’m leaving a job next week for most of the reasons listed above. Large businesses are like super-tankers – trying to do a U-turn is a challenge of course, and it takes time, but I like to see progress, not something I’m seeing atm :(
    What I identify with Lisa is your point about how businesses seem to have to hemorrhage cash on design consultants before they start to listen, with internal staff largely ignored. Going from contract to perm you feel your influence decline over time (but maybe that’s just me getting too comfortable :) ). For me it comes down to managing the relationship between the design team and the business. Influence is vital – ‘UX PR’ as I think of it, if you can communicate your vision, and the value of doing things a certain way, the business become the designers (design isn’t difficult – personally I think what I do is mostly pointing out the obvious), then it’s simply a matter of oversight, providing guidelines.. and I guess that comes back the issue of ego’s, and winning over the ego’s that drive the organisation.
    In my most recent experience bad design comes about because of poor communication within the organisation, silo working mentality & a lack of shared documentation. The organisation needs to establish an aligned (and sane) way of working BAU before you can begin to overlay this with good design practice. This is where you need to service the UX needs of internal clients before you can even start to think about the needs of the external. Good UX starts at home..

  13. Yes and yes! This article is exactly the problem I’ve been struggling with. I feel it’s getting to the point where I just need to be mute. At the end of the day I don’t know how much it’s all worth fighting for. On top of that my marketing boss wants to be queen bee/designer. It’s a struggle but your right it’s not my fault it’s the organizations. They cry design but have no place or expertise to design. All and in I’m using this as a learning tool and taking classes to gain more knowledge in UX design. The sad bit is I’ll have to change some of my portfolio samples ;). Love the blog! best

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