Challenging assumptions

Painted arrow on the road

I’d like to think that our industry has moved on from the image of the lone designer – the artist sat in their studio working on a masterpiece design that they unveil with a flourish to the world, finished and without input from others: ‘Here is my pixel-perfect design. I have solved everything single-handedly.’

We certainly used to think this way and I am as guilty as any other designer for having worked like this. As an industry that embraced the terms ‘rockstar’ and ‘guru’, we were definitely not backward in coming forward. But then things changed. The prominence of user experience rose, scaling out to user research, service design, and customer experience. We started thinking much more seriously about accessibility. In short, we started to think of people using our products and services less as users and more as humans.

Human-centred design is no new thing: the term has been around for decades. For some designers, however, I believe it causes friction. To be human is to be vulnerable, fallible, imperfect. We don’t like to think of our designs being this way. The trouble is that our designs are used by people, and people don’t often use them in the way we intended. They find ways of using our products in ways we never imagined, and find weird and wonderful shortcuts to reach their goal – did they not see our carefully crafted user journey maps? Did they not understand they had to follow the linear path we envisioned for them? Why are they using it wrong?!

Right and wrong are, of course, purely subjective. As designers, we’re used to subjective opinions on our visual work and know how to respond. But do we allow for the same level of subjectivity in the use of our designs, or do we just guess how we think things should be?

Sometimes, assumptions are all we have to begin with and it’s OK to use them as a starting point. The issue is, however, if we don’t follow through with validating those assumptions, we potentially damage the experience and create barriers between us and the people we’re designing for. When we assume we know what they need, we’re making people passive recipients of our work, not active participants.   

Fortunately, we’re now likely to find designers working in multidisciplined teams where the needs of people using our products or services are important. We research, test and iterate designs, and undertake processes of continuous improvement. Through this approach, we’ve learned to test and validate assumptions. This is reflected in what we’ve done in the industry: we’ve changed priorities, had new conversations, and refined and improved our working practices. All while hurtling along at breakneck speeds, in this ever-changing, exciting space.

While we’re challenging and changing the way we create work with other people as the focus, how often do we stop to think about how it impacts us directly: when was the last time you questioned assumptions surrounding your own career? Do you have a plan? Do you know exactly where you want to be five, ten, twenty years from now? If so, and you’re happy with it, congratulations and good for you. You’ve thought things through much more than I. But, I’ll let you into a secret… I don’t want a plan.

Eight years ago, I was a graphic designer. It would have been easy to stick with this and not confront the assumption that this was my only path. Instead, having a newly found interest in web design, I started looking at my work differently. I went to web design conferences (New Adventures being one of them), read about the industry, and learned to code. I started thinking about how people would use my designs, not just what the visuals looked like.

I didn’t have a clear career direction during that time of change. I was uncertain about exactly what I wanted to do and what work would be meaningful to me. It’s taken time to realize what that is. I’ve moved through graphic, web and UX design to consultancy and user research. This journey has been a process of discovery: finding a spark in things that interest me and letting it burn into something new and compelling. In addition, building relationships with people who support, influence, inspire and encourage me to think differently has shaped me into who I am today.

Let’s not forget that we’re in an industry that doesn’t stand still. Who knows what new areas of design will come and where we’ll see opportunities to alter what we do? We can’t predict what these progressions might be. After all, many of us have roles that weren’t common five or ten years ago. And what about the evolution in technology? With the rise of AI, there is potential for parts of our work to become automated. How will this change design? Thankfully for us, whatever the future looks like, as designers designing for people, there will always be a need for human understanding.

We have a responsibility to the humans we design for. We should create purposeful and empathetic designs based on real-world situations and needs. Design should be adaptive and we should be too. We can’t predict the future and that’s why I don’t want a plan. I’m happy pointing in whichever direction stimulates, excites, and is meaningful to me – with the knowledge that this will change over time. In the same way that we shouldn’t always expect people to follow a particular user journey, we are not set on a singular path. Let’s allow ourselves the flexibility to deviate as and when we need to. As JRR Tolkien wrote, ‘Not all who wander are lost.’

The original version of this article was commissioned for New Adventures magazine, January 2019.