Doug Bowman’s departure from Google for Twitter sparked a lot of heated discussion this week. In a brutally honest post, Doug cites Google’s restrictive data-driven engineering culture for stifling design innovation.
Most of the follow-on conversation has been partisan — some defending Doug’s position, others saying that Google has it right, regardless of how designers feel. My take is that both stories are incomplete.
The underlying problem is that design is a holistic discipline while data-analysis, applied dogmatically, is a reductive discipline. When the two coincide, serious friction can ensue. But far from vowing to never interact, these two disciplines need each other tremendously. The designer brings perspective that helps to organize experiential systems at all scales, while quantitative metrics are key for validating decisions. The problems arise when analysis is treated as the primary driver for invention — that’s like setting a measuring tape on a drafting table and expecting it to design spectacular architecture — rest assured, the genius is not in the tape. To best illustrate this point, I’m going to put on two hats…
From the engineer’s standpoint, quantitative metrics are an obvious must-have. Used well, they offer an impartial mechanism for tracking how code/design changes affect performance. That said, you must understand that design is really a kind of multi-variate optimization of extreme complexity. Even taking a simple layout with that contains two columns with borders and background colors, the possible mix of colors, borders, column-widths, layouts, etc is combinatorially enormous. Engineers familiar with large-scale optimization know that it is often computationally impossible to explore the entire space, so different optimization strategies are deployed to explore promising subsets. These strategies include straightforward approaches like max-descent and more radical ideas such as simulated annealing and random restart to avoid getting trapped in local optima.
Think of your designer as a guide in this multi-variate optimization process. A good designer has been all over parts of the territory a dozen times on various projects and has studied the design patterns and techniques that help in different problems/situations. Because of this, he or she has intuition on how to approach a problem, just as an experienced software architect has intuition on software design approaches that provide different benefits/drawbacks. Don’t think of this intuition as some sort of “design mystique” — or as designers forcing their “opinions” through because of their “artist-soul” or anything like that. A talented designer is similar to a senior architect because they both will help you avoid configurations/combinations that are just not viable.
Their designs are holistic, just as many good software architectures are holistic. To illustrate this, imagine if you proposed a new architecture and your team insisted that for testing, you isolate just a section of the schema change to “see objectively” how it improves things. For a small change that might be fine, but it won’t work if your new architecture was designed holistically, wherein the schema change was connected to a new messaging system and storage approach. It’s absurd to test the one piece out of context because it’s part of a holistic design, and no subcomponent will yield the benefit of the full design. Given this, think again about Doug’s comments about border thickness and 41 shades of green/blue.
OK, first off — design is not the same as art. In teaching seminars, I’ve often said that “Art is about freedom while Design is about constraints.” Among the key constraints is the performance of your design, especially with respect to how it impacts your product and your business. While metrics may be scary to some, becoming familiar with different evaluation techniques and knowing which to employ is the hallmark of an experienced designer. Beyond the bread and butter usability lab evaluations which folks in the UCD/HCI communities have grown up with, there are a bevy of quantitative metrics from A/B testing, market/competitive research, data-mining, etc that are enormously useful tools.
The key is to extend your design process beyond the drawing of pixels, vectors, and boxes-and-arrows, to the design of the system within which your work is produced and evaluated. If you are comfortable with a wide variety of evaluation techniques, you’ll know which techniques will help clarify key design decisions, and which techniques will just waste time and energy only to produce noise. Instead of resisting evaluation of your design, you’ll appropriately lift the conversation up to the level where you are discussing and proposing the right methods of evaluation.
This attitude won’t turn a company’s culture around overnight, but by being the type of designer who knows how to stand up for his or her designs in a variety of situations and prove them (with data), you’ll raise the value and respect of the discipline within your organization. You’ll also quickly shake off the impression that designers are just there to present their “opinions” or spread “design-mystique.” Design is there to make amazing, powerful, delightful things, and absolutely — that making can be measured. It’s knowing the right sort of measurement for the situation and learning techniques to represent your work powerfully to different disciplines which will make all the difference.
The interplay of all disciplines (engineering, design, research, marketing, sales, QA, product, legal, customer care, etc) is where the magic happens. Metrics are an absolutely critical interface between disciplines, but when wielded and controlled by only one discipline they can greatly limit the potential of the others. Doug’s goodbye letter paints a picture of exactly this type of dysfunction. A company that empowers only engineers will primarily produce engineering innovation — a company where all disciplines are represented can innovate in several spheres at once.
This is easy enough to say, but hard to do. That’s why Luke Wroblewski and I have been teaching a course for designers on this topic. It’s been taught around the world and in several familiar venues (UIE, IA Summit, Involution Studios), and it speaks to how designers can make intelligent use of data closely coupled with design thinking to raise their strategic influence within an organization. If you’re interested in finding out more, or are a design manager/director who would like a version of the course taught at your organization, contact me here.]]>
Yes, we know you’ve been neglected. I maintain that OK/Cancel is not dead (and in fact, brand new ones are still appearing in ACM-CHI’s Interactions magazines) but both Tom and I have our respective ventures that have been keeping us busy. If only you could see the collection of ideas for new strips I’ve been collecting, though …
For me, the next few months will be spent writing and drawing about comics instead of drawing comics for OK/Cancel. Some of you may have attended my previous presentations and workshops about using comics in the design process. Certainly, you guys have been a great example of how a comic can draw in an audience around a topic.
After a couple of years of back and forth and discussions with Lou Rosenfeld, I’m happy to finally announce that I have started working on a book for Rosenfeld Media.
The book is entitled, See What I Mean: How to Use Comics to Communicate Ideas and as its title suggests, I’ll be talking about why comics are a powerful medium for getting ideas across to stakeholders.
I’m really looking forward to writing this book. As it is a work in progress, I hope interested readers will check the book’s blog regularly and help contribute and shape the future of the book. You might also consider adding yourself to be notified when the book publishes.
Of course, I will also continue to update my usual personal blog at kev/null and Twitter so feel free to keep tabs on myself and the book that way instead.]]>
Hark! We’re back (again). There’s really no excuse for our hiatus but it feels good to have another comic out. We’ve put together a few scripts that are pretty quality and should last us through at least through the rest of the year. One hopes.
Of course, there’s always a deep, dark, underlying ulterior motive when a comic comes back from the depths of the internet void – shameless self promotion!
As it turns out, both Tom and I are separately teaching some workshops in the near future and would love to see some of you there. I know, you’re thinking, “you draw comics, what do you know?” Well, there’s really only one way to find out!
###Influencing Strategy by Design
Tom’s talk is with the inimitable [Luke Wroblewski] and is titled, “[Influencing Strategy by Design]”. I’ve personally worked with both of them at Yahoo! and I can say they are two of the most influential designers in the company.
They’ve shown that you can do so much more than fit into the pigeon hole typically given to the role of design by leading major product changes and development at a strategic level. As an example, some of the recent changes to Yahoo!’s core search and search assist was largely driven by Tom. Best of all, the workshop is being put on by our friends at [Involution Studios].
###Communicating Product Concepts with Comics
My workshop is one you may have attended at [IASummit] or [CanUX]. Many of you may have seen my shorter, 45-90min talk that describes the methodology I teach. The workshop is called, “[Communicating Product Concepts with Comics]” and is a refined version of previous workshops with some high quality notes to accompany them.
The workshop is happening at the [User Interface 12] conference held by Jared Spool (and incidentally also features Luke and other great speakers). You can see my [slides] from my shorter talk or go to my [resource page] on my personal blog to get a better idea of the content. Oh, and registering with the code CHENG will get you a discount!
We’re both really excited about these speaking opportunities and hope to see some of you there. If you’ve attended any of our stuff before, we’d also love to hear what your thoughts and suggestions for improvements. If you haven’t attended and might, maybe you can drop a line about what you hope to learn so we can incorporate it.
As a final aside, we completely missed OK/Cancel’s 4th year anniversary. Of course, given the dismal output of this year, it feels almost like cheating to even celebrate it so I’m ok with us missing it. Be here for our paper anniversary though. Who knows, maybe there’ll be paper comics involved. How 1.0 of us.
First our rap song, then there was the OG Designer and now the rock song for graphic designers.]]>
Almost as good as the World’s First HCI Rap Song]]>