Design duds != business duds

If you haven’t yet read Mills Baker’s recent post Designer Duds: Losing our seat at the table, you should.

Mills makes some excellent points, including this one that I regard as his thesis:

“In order to avoid losing its place atop organizations, design must deliver results. Designers must also accept that if they don’t, they’re not actually designing well; in technology, at least, the subjective artistry of design is mirrored by the objective finality of use data. A “great” design which produces bad outcomes —low engagement, little utility, few downloads, indifference on the part of the target market— should be regarded as a failure.”

I agree with much of what Mills says. I think he’s right that design is now much more part of the discussion in business in general. But I think we should distinguish between a successful design and a successful company. And conversely we should distinguish between design duds and business duds. They are not interchangeable. It is entirely possible for the products that Mills describes to be well-used and beloved by millions of people but still be commercial failures. In fact, since they are all examples of social software (Facebook Paper, Dropbox Carousel, Path, Medium) which are given away for free they could have millions of users who are happily using them and still be seen as failures if they don’t end up as #1 software in their category. So…the most important metric for a designer, use, might not equate with the most important metric for the business, revenue.

This means, of course, that we must define what “effective” means. It can be different for every product and company. Yes, it’s often about use but it’s also often about growth or whether or not people will pay for your product or whether you choose to charge for it in the first place. Those decisions are critical to the success of these companies and yet are decisions typically made by people other than designers. Is that right? Is this how it should be? Is the decision to charge for a product a design decision? What if the revenue model is crap but people love the product? etc…

While Mills is right in suggesting that good design should “produce better products, better businesses, better outcomes”, we can’t definitively lay the fault of these failed social software products at the feet of design. It’s more complicated than that.

Published: May 13th, 2014