Rethinking the Designer's Role

We are beginning to see the importance of design in almost every industry today, a shift from a production oriented machine to a more human-centered, empathetic approach to the development of products and services. This is a totally natural occurrence. As more and more competition continues to saturate the market, the idea of setting yourself apart from the crowd is very important. This is rather exciting news for people in the business of creating products or offering services such as us due to the fact that a majority of that “empathetic approach to the development of products and services” that I mentioned above has fallen into our laps.

With that in mind, I want to talk about a specific role within every product development team, the trusty designer. The role of a designer has drastically changed over the years and along with that, a plethora of specializations have been the outcome. There are literally dozens of specializations within this industry that we have essentially siloed ourselves into what I call a “specialized manhole”. To frankly put it, designer’s need to climb their way out of this one-way approach to their work and aim towards obtaining a T-Shaped skill set, or in other words, expand their repertoire of design knowledge.

The force is strong with this one
Yoda, “Return of the Jedi”

Any designer worth their salt should be more knowledgeable than just the highly perceived color palette choosing, pixel pushing animal that they were once known as. Don’t get me wrong, aesthetics are an important aspect in building a product, however, as a designer matures, along with that comes empathy and an understanding of why your users do what they do. They first need to realize that they’re creating something for someone else and restrict any emotional attachments they may have with their deliverables. Second, they aren’t the user and thirdly, they play an important role as the user’s advocate during the product development cycle. Designer’s need to carry a broad range of skill sets to take on this role.

Here’s a list of some important skill sets that a designer should strive to learn or at least understand in no particular order of importance:

1. Research - A designer needs to be a good researcher. They need to be up to date on design trends, usability patterns, design principles, pattern libraries, conventions, etc. This in turn, helps you make better design decisions and understand any limitations early on. The more knowledge you equip yourself with, the better.

2. Understanding Usability - Usability is the ease of use and learnability of a human-made object. Designers need to understand that usability is an important layer in the overall users experience and plays a crucial role in how they perceive your product. See, “The User’s Hierarchy of Needs”. Usability has several parts that need to be understood. Amongst many of them, there’s the psychological aspect. Understanding how users use and react to a product involves tuning into what a user is cognizant of and making decisions based on your findings through usability testing, interviews and so on.

3. Information Architecture - IA is one of those roles that has stemmed out into a specialized one. Essentially, IA is the practice of organizing and labeling data structures to grasp how a product works as a whole. Boring, huh? It is something a designer should learn and understand though. There’s a logical aspect to this type of thinking but if one can grasp it it will be beneficial when it comes to understanding the product. Being able to force yourself to think logically when you innately think more on the abstract side of things (common with most visual designers) is difficult in this sense yes, but not impossible.

4. Interaction Design - Out of of all the roles out there, I put myself more into this role as I think it’s sort of in the middle of the whole spectrum of designer roles. Interaction design or IxD for short, focuses more on the users behavior with products and designs with that in mind. Interaction design is heavily focused on satisfying the needs and desires of the majority of people who will use their products. Discovering frustrations that user’s encounter, translating that feedback and quickly iterating the design based on that is something an Interaction designer should master and will usually grasp over time. The interesting part is that as much focus that we put into designing for a user’s interaction to a product, the outcome for each project is always different. You will quickly learn that when designing for humans, we are all totally different beings and the user base can be rather vast. How do you design one thing well for many users? That’s what keeps Interaction designers up at night.

5. Visual Design - Aesthetics. The lickable interface that is intended to wow the client or user into loving your product. Visual design is really just the coating for all things discussed in the prior skill sets. Though sitting in the back seat behind functionality on the user experience train, aesthetics is still very important. When a product is functional, usable and reliable, only then can we focus on aesthetics and strike the user’s emotional chord of positivity and create happy, loyal users. A designer should use their “Research” skill set to stay on top of current trends in the design community. They should understand color theory, type, the Gestalt principles and all that good stuff that they taught you in art school. A designer should be aware that aesthetically attractive things are proven to work better. Again, master the art of creating something functional, reliable and usable first; then top that with beautiful design. That’s the recipe for an awesome product!

Appearances are only part of the story, usability and understandability are more important, for if a product can’t be used easily and safely, how valuable is its attractiveness?
Don Norman, “The Design of Everyday Things”

6. Content - Designers should be good with content. They should be able to know how it affects their designs and the correlation between the two. Speaking on content, designer’s should be good writers, which branches out into being a good communicator when getting your ideas across. By all means, were not copywriters, however I did want to add this as an important skill set to understand as we are solely building around the main focus, which is content. What’s that old saying? “Content is king?”

Along with the main skill sets above, I also want to add sketching and reading books into the mix as sort of an aside as they aren’t really skill sets per se. Regardless of your drawing skills, I find that sketching is the fastest way to get an idea across and quickly iterate on with the least amount of overhead. Reading books on design in particular, expands your design knowledge when applied, however, inspiration can come from anything so there’s no need to limit yourself to just books on design. I read Thomas the Train’s “Crack in the Track” to my son the other night and found inspiration in that of all things.

There is no friend as loyal as a book
Ernest Hemingway

Overall, this is where I see the design industry going if not already there. A focus on delivery, not deliverables and having more of an understanding of whom you’re designing for, which in turn directs your design decisions. As there are dozens of other aspects that a designer should grasp, I wanted to name the few that stick out in my mind. In the end, regardless of which role you fall into, we all work with one goal in mind - to build better products that user’s will love.

Illustration by Ronnie Johnson
Post by John Menard