Designers and the value of design 22:50 on Sunday

Designers obsess about user experience design, or just experience design, design thinking, and increasingly emotional design and designing for fun (never mind there are quite a lot of other emotions available in the human palette… but that’s a topic for another post). These labels are attempts to focus design work. An attempt to broaden the scope of things and ideas that are candidates for being designed, but at the same time trying to draw new boxes, not so much around the designed objects, but around the skills and approaches the designers use to design the objects.

On a recent issue of Interactions, Bruce Sterling has this to say about UX:

There is even “experience design,” which is surely the most imperial, most gaseous, most spectral form of design yet invented.

Experience design is closer in spirit to theater, poetry or even philosophy than it is to the older assembly line. What on earth isn’t “experience”? And what is not, in some sense, “interactive”? Experience designers are a tiny group of people with a radically universalized prospectus.

With all the focus on the approach, the philosophy, and broad visions, I feel there’s too little focus on the objective of design, achieving something for, and on behalf of, a client (and one might add, on behalf of humanity at large). Experience design is important, sure. And emotional design, a great way to create more engaging and compelling experiences. But to what end?

It’s way too easy to get lost in designing beauty for the hate of uglyness, designing usability for the sake of conforming to best practices, designing in fun for the sake of avoiding being boring, designing frameworks for the beauty of organization, or designing simplicity with the sole goal of reducing complexity, all the while forgetting that things should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Design efforts almost invariably do make the end result better, but without a clear sight of the design objective, how do you know those four hours tweaking the button gradient made the result significantly better? How do you know that work spent delivered the most value? How do you know there wasn’t some other design task that would have made a tenfold times bigger impact on how the users view the result, and on the users’ willingness to provide your client with registration fees, attention, loyalty, high ratings, or some other currency of value?

Sometimes the most valuable design is not the “best” design, in terms of accepted practices, looks, ease of use, conformity to standards, or the used design philosophies’ position on the hype curve. The focus should be on the what instead of the how, the real value created by design, the work the designers deliver at the end of a project, and not so much on the work of the designers during a project.

One Response to “Designers and the value of design”


  1. Panu Says:

    I think one of the reasons people use the term “user experience” so much is that it is appropriately vague. It provides an excuse for a lot of arm waving and convincing (potential) customers by extensive but fluffy verbiage. If UX were a better defined concept, like usability is, it would turn into something mundane, it would be under rigorous – possibly quantitative – measurement, and therefore lose all it’s magic.

    I feel that the UX community is intentionally keeping it that way.

    Maybe it’s also an attempt of putting art back to design. That there are more noble and obscure targets to UX design than just fulfilling the criteria that are set for the new artifact.