Designers as enablers

Products should enable us to do tasks the way we want/think of them.

Designer's job profiles are really hard to describe. Sometimes we are presenting, sometimes doing creative work, sometimes solving problems, others finding the right ones. More often than all of those, we are attending meetings and trying to find what everyone likes or understanding what do people (stakeholders) want and what is needed—more commonly known as critique. Describing in Hugh Dubberly (one of my professors) way, design is more politics than we all imagine.

Clients, the majority stakeholders, would not know what they want/need. All designers who thing of them as terrible clients: "Welcome to the world, folks!". Part of the reason they hire a designer (or a design firm) is to figure out what problem are they trying to solve. "What?", you might ask. But if there's one thing, that all of the design community agrees on is that design is more than just rounded rectangles, flat design, colors and gradients.

Since we already agree on that last statement, let's see what else could design be? One of my good friends, who runs a web design/development consultancy firm, said the other day: "Design is about making users do what you want them to do". My brain went paranoid for a few minutes (wait, what?). But then I realised that it is fine, none of us completely understand Design anyway. He is probably right, that's what the clients want, don't they? Clients would want to remove every action from the screen that they don't want users to do. A lot of this is apparent in the current "design languages" (needs another series of blogs to explain) followed by multiple companies. I had to search: "How to delete my Facebook account" once, just because it was hidden so deep in the layers of navigational hierarchy. Partly because it was in security and privacy rather than account settings. (only deactivate)

Is that a good design? Probably yes, but mostly not. Some people would argue that it is designers that way to save users from themselves. Really though? Github's delete repository button stares at you. In fact, it is the only red thing on that page. Does that make Github's design a bad one? I know that pro users vs. naive users debate, but if human errors are considered, even GitHub users are humans. (yes, developers are humans) Nevertheless, I teach javascript to design students and we use GitHub. Github is not limited to pro users anymore.

Quite recently a term originated in design community: user-centered design. Even most of the clients these days might be asking for exactly that. I am by no means an authority to define that term, but I can safely say it was about considering needs/wants of users at the highest priority while designing.

I need to summon the Conversation Theory [^by Gordon Pask], and applying it to interaction between users and products. Users come to a product with a goal in mind. I picked up the pen I am holding with a goal of writing (yes pens still exist, I am using a fountain pen). If that goal is not achieved: if pen could not make a mark on paper (if it was out of ink) then my interaction with pen and notebook could not achieve the goal. Hence design was a failure. In this case, I realise my fault almost immediately, I ink up the pen and write. However, if I had difficulty figuring out how to ink up the pen, the fault would be of the manufacturer's.

This little story demonstrates the job of designers. There are somethings that designers can control like making it easy to understand how to ink-up a pen. Other things that we cannot, like keeping the pen inked up. However, I want to stress on the fact that designers need to decide what control to give up so users can be more flexible with products, in this case I (user) am left with option to ink-up the pen with any colour ink I wish. But overall my pen still enables me to write hence achieve the goal I picked it up with.

It's designers job to make products that enable people to achieve their goals. Since everyone has different goals (for software mostly), it is necessary to have ambiguity – having multiple ways to do similar things, if having multiple things to do. Products should enable us to do tasks the way we want/think of them.

Tweet at me with any comments/thoughts you might have.