Your software product is only as good as your design process

I have worked on many large software projects during my career, and unsurprisingly the quality of the product’s design is directly related to the quality of the design process. Yet so few companies actually look at their design process; they think that hiring a designer is all they need. Yet it is so much more than that.

Cooperation
Just as “it takes a whole village to raise a child”, it takes a whole team to build software. This team involves engineering, sales, management and creatives. Without support from the entire organization, design becomes subordinate to all the other needs.

“Not only is it critical that the leadership of a company clearly understands its products and the role of design, but that the development, marketing and sales teams are also equally committed to the same goals. More than ever I am aware that what we have achieved with design is massively reliant on the commitment of lots of different teams to solve the same problems and on their sharing the same goals.”

Jonathon Ive, interview at designmuseum.org

Most companies will say that all the teams are on board for good design (who wouldn’t be), but will always sacrifice it for short-term goals. Great design will cost all teams something up front, with rewards coming later. If everyone is not on-board with this, the efforts are doomed for failure.

Environment
Another thing that surprises me is that software companies expect the designers to work in the same environment as them but yet not fall into the same traps that effect everyone else. They want them to attend all the same meetings, work in the same source-code control, sit in the same cubicles, submit to the demand of every sales and engineering request, but then “think outside” the box” or “wow us”. And guess what, it just does not happen.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. ”
Albert Einstein

I am not proposing that designers need an uber-cool loft space in Brooklyn and wear Puma track suits, but I do think that a certain amount of distance is necessary for designers to be creative. Otherwise they defer design matters to the other teams and simply become production artists who know Photoshop.

Too many cooks

iOS UI Status bar description

This is another topic that I keep bringing up, but I see it as the main obstacle to great product design. Simply put, when it comes to software product design, there are almost always too many cooks in the kitchen. Sales, product managers and management all see fit to trump the design teams opinion at any time. With a process like this, you get a product like “The Homer”, the car that Homer Simpson designed. Again, a quote from Jonathon Ive:

“By keeping the core team small and investing significantly in tools and process we can work with a level of collaboration that seems particularly rare.”
Jonathon Ive, interview at designmuseum.org

I am not suggesting that all power over product design be given to the design team. What I am suggesting is that the rest of the organization specify the “whats”, and let the design team specify the “hows”. The design team must have final say over the “hows” , otherwise they are not the designers. And with all this power must come responsibility and accountability.