Persistent Questions on Product Design & Possible Answers

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As part of the Linkedin Career Guide project, also as an Educator and Mentor, not to mention during the context of discussions among colleagues/peers and even during Job related interviews, there’s a consistent flurry of topics that come up in conversations. I’ve had an opportunity to reflection these topics, from an Academic perspective, but also how I have faced some of these scenarios in previous professional experiences. Hopefully this article covers some of those questions, succinctly if possible, engaging further reflection and discussion. The article is organized per question, followed by its corresponding answer/justification.

How do Designers handle ambiguity?

I’ve written about this topic before. You can read about it here. When it comes to ambiguity, there’s a few aspects to this question which need to be clarified. Firstly, ambiguity is always going to be part of every Design Thinking Process. Different tools and techniques are utilized in order to better grasp the uncertainty that is associated with it, but ultimately there’s a layer of uncertainty, which comes from the fact that human nature itself, clients themselves have a layer of unpredictability which is inevitable.

One of the techniques which is utilized to diminish ambiguity-anxiety stress is of course, Research. Research is utilized in order to understand the Market (competitors, both direct and indirect), Trends, Analytics, Demographics, Politics, what our Customers are saying about our solutions and also about our competitor’s solutions, Customer Interviews (also information retrieved from Customer Support groups), Usability Testing, to name but a few, all of which aim to provide insight into the Industry and Market flows, but also provide a clearer understanding of what the target audience(s) is looking for.

Secondly, Designers don’t handle ambiguity solely on their own. In order to elaborate on that sentence a bit more and at the risk of sound controversial, I’ve always advocated for the fact that The Design Thinking Process, should be chaperoned by Design Professionals. That being said, and independently of how Academically this process is divided into three chapters, this process & method is essentially powered and brought to life by a team effort. Though one of the aspects of the process is the delivery of solutions that resonate with Clients, and simultaneously solve business requirements, just as importantly, this process is all about Empowering Participants to have a sense of Ownership of the solution and its output. The solutions that are devised, are essentially a manifestation of a team, one that has a clear understanding what is being built, who is being built for, with what intent, and at what cost. The Process itself should not be based on solely reflecting a particular point of view — there may be and there are situations where that occurs, but those will typically be a variation of what an actual Design Thinking process is all about.

During all this process there are of course different responsibilities and outcomes expected, all of which are associated with all the different participants. When it comes to Design Professionals, they should ultimately guide the teams through the path, or illustrate what lies ahead, in a way that acknowledges the possible ambiguity that exists, but on the same instance, using mechanisms such as Research, FAST UX processes, and the integration of all of the participants insights on the process, in order to clarify it, and produce sensical outcomes.

How do Designers handle criticism?

This is an interesting question that still floats around quite often. And it ties itself to a variety of topics. In order to address this question, I’ll commence by stating: Designers are not artists. I’ve mentioned in the past, that though Aesthetic is a principle of Design (and of Product Design), it does not equate it or for that matter, the work of Designers, with Art. Art is according to Wikipedia “… a diverse range of human activities involving the creation of visual, auditory or performing artifacts (artworks), which express the creator’s imagination, conceptual ideas, or technical skill, intended to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. Other activities related to the production of works of art include art criticism and the history of art.”

Product Design and Design Solutions, have a series of qualities, which include Usefulness, Usability, they have to be Findable, Desirable, Accessible and Credible. Essentially Product Design is not a manifestation of a single creator’s point of view, of someone who expresses themselves through a particular output. For Designers, and for effective professionals in this field, there’s a whole aspect of following a process, which includes distilling information from a variety of sources.

Much like an alchemist, Designers create combinations which can be tested all with the intent that they ultimately resonate with the Users/Clients, all the while being scalable, respond to business needs, and generally be possible to be implemented. Therefore, the whole stigma that Designers can’t handle criticism of the work they produce, or the artifacts they deliver, will hopefully move in the direction of questioning if the information being brought forth and consumed by the teams is relevant for what is being produced, as opposed to thinking of the feedback provided as something that will inflame a Designer’s ego, sense of self or professionalism. This of course sparks a different reflection, which is tied with Ego in Design, and how that manifests itself. I’ve written about this topic in the past as well (you can read it here), but to be succinct about it, Designers hopefully understand that much of what they do, does tie itself with Empathy, but just as importantly, learning to listen. Listening from Clients, from their Peers in Product, Sales, Marketing, Development, Customer Support, HR, to name but a few, and asking the questions which enable them to be effective and successful.

Everyone has an ego of course, but the typical and cliche ridden view of the Designer as a mercurial professional prone to be offended by feedback, needs to evolve. And much of that comes with professionals themselves, how they present themselves and even their education, be it academic or on the job. Having a healthy ego, ultimately means understanding that as professionals we are always evolving, our work is never done and we’re constantly refining our craft. Criticism and feedback is and should always be part of a process, be it towards artifacts or documentation, or even the process itself. What Designers produce, how they produce it and the handling of the process itself, is not solely a manifestation of a particular point of view, but always the convergence of teams, of many points of view informing the richness of a solution.

How do Designers collaborate with Development Teams?

Another question that pops up frequently, and which interestingly enough, is touched upon in the questions above. Firstly development teams are and should always be a part of the Design Thinking process itself, from the onset. Even for those who at times question the fact that do Developers need to understand context, research and its findings, Designers must always think of this. Only by understanding Client and User journeys, do product solutions solve the problems that are identified.

Development teams need to understand client & user needs, since they are ultimately the destination of the journey, they will be interacting with the outputs, repetitively if that solution pierces through the core of the problem. As partners through the process, they should be empowered to provide feedback on implementation considerations of course, but look beyond that, providing feedback based on experiences and research they’ve done themselves.

Tied with the topic of implementation, there is of course the subject of Design Systems. These have been around in some capacity in the past, be it through laboriously detailed Product Guidelines, or all encompassing Brand Guidelines, but thankfully they have evolved to become the manifestation which illustrates the language of a particular Organization, of how their Product Solutions bear a recognizable, coherent, thorough, credible and usable elements. This language definition empowers teams to collectively understand the philosophy, but also produce outcomes that continue that Brand narrative. This relationship therefore needs to be nurtured and maintained, across the process, and all its multiple venues.

How do Designers get inspiration?

This is a very intriguing question since it actually has ties with the second question above. However, I’ll tackle this question with a different angle, by essentially rephrasing it. How do Designers continuously educate themselves and grow as professionals? This is also something that I’ve mentioned in the past, particularly in the article about Career Advice.

Continuous education is something that is fundamental for any professional, particularly when it comes to Technology related fields, which these days percolates across every single activity one can possibly think of. Automation and digital transformations have been trickling across society for quite some time now, and of course for Designers, that bears the particular responsibility of always marching and anticipating how the Design universe is evolving. That also implies educating themselves on what is occurring on different industries, understanding trends, impacts on how consumers digest information, among many other pieces of information. In parallel, they have to refine their own knowledge across different fields, sometimes on the periphery of the Design Universe, such a Creative Writing, Research, Psychology, Product Management, and the list goes on.

Maintaining a thirst for knowledge is imperative, and not solely on the latest updates on a particular software package, or the virtuosity of a particular plugin. Those may well be very useful, but continuous education goes beyond operational improvements, it also includes skills enhancement, getting a broader view of the universe and trying to assimilate problems from different perspectives.

Reality check — These are the first 4 questions that this article contemplates. During this year I’ll continue to expand on these, since there are plenty of other questions and assumptions that Designers are faced with. Hopefully these questions, when pertinent and relevant, generate much needed reflection, and possible propel Designers to research, learn more and keep thriving to continuously improve their craft. And hopefully, this article provides some good discussion points.

I’ll conclude this article with a quote on the topic of growth, from author Anaïs Nin:

“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”

Persistent Questions on Product Design & Possible Answers was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.