05 March 2013

Organizational will

Via Dan Saffer I learn that Leisa Reichelt at Disambiguity has a crackerjack post, Design Is The Easy Part, about organizations' failure to seize the benefits of the design work they already have done.

It’s been my experience that the main reason most designs go unsolved is not the lack of talented designers or their interest in solving the problem. Instead, the problem is with the organisation themselves — their inability to allow themselves to implement the right design, or even any good design.

Many times I’ve suggested a design approach only for the in house designer on the team to literally pull the design from their desk drawer or computer and to tell me how they tried to get the organisation to go this way two, three, maybe four or five years ago. They tried and tried, had no success, and filed the design away so they can get on with the work the organisation deemed acceptable or appropriate. It’s kind of depressing, and almost embarrassing when my main role is to advocate for work that was actually done years before I appeared.


Most places I encounter these problems have all kinds of strategies talking about how important design and the end user is to them. They all handwave the right way, but the execution doesn’t match the strategy. This is the reality we live in — almost every organisation you come across is loudly proclaiming their interest in the customer experience and surveying you within an inch of your life to prove it. They’re talking about the importance of design and hiring expensive designers (who are then hobbled by the organisation). None of this matters if the execution, the tactics, don’t fit the strategy. And most often, it doesn’t.

This matches my experiences exactly.

Here's another, similar experience I had again and again when I was in consulting. My team would present a design solution to the client and have everyone at the table respond with heartening enthusiasm. “If we can deliver that product,” says the marketing guy, “we can expand our market and sell at a juicy price!” “Some of this will be a challenge,” says the engineering lead, “but the team would love to work on it and I know we can do it!” Then the discussion turns to plans, and it becomes we already committed to X and we will have to get approval on Y and before half an hour has passed one can already see that they are talking themselves out of doing something that they all agree is the right thing to do.

This is why the odd little first generation iPod Shuffle intrigues me. It's a good little design idea, but hardly an earth-shaking one. Someone said, “Hey, we could make a little, lightweight iPod with very limited capacity for very cheap. With only room for about a hundred songs, playlists don't really make sense, so you don't need the screen or the clickwheel, just a minimal set of hard buttons.” It's the kind of nifty little idea that people in the industry idly propose all of the time over lunch ... and then forget about. Or they do follow up on them and let feature creep kill them. It's not hard to imagine a meeting which adds a couple of features to the Shuffle, which then suggests the need for a screen, which then drives up the cost and complexity, implying the need for more features in order to beef up the “value proposition” ... and then there's no turning back. How did Apple muster the organizational will to resist that?

I often talk about how the most important thing in getting organizations to deliver good user experience is not designers' ability but the ability of the organization as a whole to metabolize design work and execute on it. Better to have mediocre designers but a strong ability to leverage their work than to have the best designers in the world but an inability to follow through on their thinking. I have been talking about the importance of organizational questions for quite some time, emphasizing stuff outside of design qua design like having a properly defined and empowered product managment role. There's a lot to it, more than most folks in the field are talking about.

As Reichelt says, this is the right question to talk about ... and a much harder question than how one gets to good design.

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