The Lifecycle of Design: Part 4

This is part 4 of a conversation with Luke Wroblewski on design lifecycles.

In case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2 on Luke’s site. Part 3 can be found here on Bokardo.

Joshua Porter (me)
Luke, you’re right to ask: “Why not have something that functions well and has great usability?”. We should, of course. I’m talking priorities here, and if we had to put one ahead of the other, that’s where I would put them. There is a parallel in furniture making…the Shakers, who build amazing furniture, have their philosophy built around this same idea:

1) If it is not useful or necessary, free yourself from imagining that you need to make it. 2) If it is useful and necessary, free yourself from imagining that you need to enhance it by adding what is not an integral part of its usefulness or necessity. 3) If it is both useful and necessary and you can recognize and eliminate what is not essential, then go ahead and make it as beautifully as you can…

This is part 4 of a conversation with Luke Wroblewski on design lifecycles.

In case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2 on Luke’s site. Part 3 can be found here on Bokardo.

Joshua Porter (me)
Luke, you’re right to ask: “Why not have something that functions well and has great usability?”. We should, of course. I’m talking priorities here, and if we had to put one ahead of the other, that’s where I would put them. There is a parallel in furniture making…the Shakers, who build amazing furniture, center their philosophy around this same idea:

  1. If it is not useful or necessary, free yourself from imagining that you need to make it.
  2. If it is useful and necessary, free yourself from imagining that you need to enhance it by adding what is not an integral part of its usefulness or necessity.
  3. If it is both useful and necessary and you can recognize and eliminate what is not essential, then go ahead and make it as beautifully as you can.

(more on Ward Cunningham’s site – creator of Wiki)

But back to the definition problem, I think we’re getting to the crux of our differences. I’m definitely taking a broader view of design than you are. Let me explain why.

I don’t buy that the practice of design is only the addition of context and hierarchy to content (though that is definitely part of design). I think that content is more important to design than that, just like wood is to furniture. The choice of content, choice of language, choice of wording, are all design decisions. I say this because they all affect how well the design works for people. They are part of the designed artifact.

Imagine for a moment that the Challenger information was in Russian. Wouldn’t changing it to English be a design decision? I think so. This is changing the context of use. So the very content exists in context, so to speak. Taking away content is a very valid way to improve a design. What Tufte did is that he improved the design dramatically by taking away content and clarifying what was left. It was poorly designed before, failing to communicate what was necessary. It became much easier to digest, and is better design.

Writing, in general, is the design of a story. So most text, call it “content” or not, is designed. In many cases it is barely thought of (and thus designed poorly) but that doesn’t mean that choosing words isn’t a design decision! It’s a very critical design decision, and one that we should all be better at. For my own part, every word I choose to publish on my blog is part of the design…part of the experience of my readers. I don’t see my blog templates as the “design” and my writing as my “content”. They are both inextricable parts of the design.

This is why Strunk and White’s principles resonate so well with designers, because the activities are almost identical. They both create artifacts for use. They both manipulate content in the search for clarity. The ultimate goal for both is clear communication. The thing with writing is that instead of saying we “use” it we say we “read” it. But the activities are amazingly similar, for both the designer and the person who uses it. Remember, all good writers will tell you that editing is the most important act of writing. And what is editing? It’s the selection and arrangement of content to serve a purpose.

Sometimes the resulting design artifact is text, sometimes it’s an interface, sometimes it’s a product. All of the choices that go into the experience of using the artifact are design decisions, and thus design becomes a pretty broad topic.

Luke Wroblewski
I certainly appreciate the parallels between good writing and good design. In fact, I’ve written several articles about how experience writing helps designers design! But personally I distinguish these two activities. I didn’t design my thoughts here. I wrote them down. I didn’t redesign the copy for a Web site I’m working on, I copy editted it. Though writing and design may share some common underlying principles (story-telling, pacing, etc.) and both may simultaneously contribute to a user’s experience with a product or service, they also differ in important ways. Character development or vivid descriptions, for example, may characterize good writing. While simplicity or user empowerment may contribute to a great interface design.

When you refer to your blog templates and writing as “the design”, I interpret that to mean the product experience: a summation of style, function, content, interaction, and more that make up a customer experience. You mentioned “all of the choices that go into the experience of using the artifact are design decisions”. What about business decisions? What about engineering decisions? Clearly both technology and marketing choices have significant bearing on a product experience. Designers and the design process are an important part of that equation -it’s true- but they aren’t the only part.

That’s why I worry about casting the net of design too wide. Great product experiences (which I believe you are referring to as “designs”) are a summation of multiple perspectives. To quote Tom Chi: “as much as I love design, the solution doesn’t always lie in the design space.” Sometimes a strategic business partnership is what enables a superior customer experience. Sometimes it is a breakthrough technology that isn’t part of any “design” per say but much more of an enabler for new product design opportunities.

These types of problems may not be easily solvable using a design process. Their success may also not be measurable through design heuristics. Because they can’t be solved with a design process nor evaulated against design principles, they probably are not design decisions. Yet they do have an impact on user experience. Personally, I feel we need these diverse opportunities regardless of where we are in a product lifecycle. Recognizing them as writing, engineering, marketing, etc. cements their role as important contributors with unqiue skillsets that come together to make a better whole – whether you call it a “design” or a “user experience”.

Published: September 22nd, 2006

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