Adhering to design principles under pressure

  
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When I meet with teams I’m sometimes asked to catch folks up on the progress of various feature requests in the system. I work pretty hard to make sure these statuses are transparent, so more often than not I’m confirming what they know: I haven’t made and probably won’t address these in the near future. That sucks to hear.

Often many of these requests are small design tweaks that take no time at all, but stay in the backlog by principle.

Here’s a real conversation between me (MS) and a stakeholder (SH):

SH: We know some of the customers complain [about this design] and [want it changed in this way].

MS: I feel ya. But any design changes like this ought to be prototyped and tested, and that just takes bandwidth we’re using for [this OKR]. I don’t think there’s enough evidence to bump this to the front of the line.

SH: Literally no one would care [if you just make the changes right now].

How often as user experience professionals do you feel you talk into the void? It’s easy to capitulate. You tell the stakeholder, “okay, sure, I’ll try to make this happen,” because on some level the stakeholder is right. When the stakeholder outranks you, it may even be wise not to die on that hill.

But I profess here and for many years in Metric that it’s not just that good UX is good business but that a good user experience design process is good business, and in cases above without really compelling evidence it holds-up that adhering to a design principle is better for the business. And if, after all, principles were so easily subverted, they shouldn’t be principles.

I’m frustrated when I have to have these kinds of conversations, to champion principle. What’s more, it’s easy to second-guess yourself. Often the business of championing systems of work and design process is lonely. You’re in a state of evangelism until there is enough organizational buy-in. Even as I write this I’m not supremely confident that being a stick-in-the-mud is worth it.

However, the reason we put so much effort into developing systems of work and establishing strong best practices and design principles is that they make both organizational decision making easier as well as a quality product more likely. They should be defended.

Let me emphasize the shit out of this pull-quote from Epictetus:

When the standards have been set, things are tested and weighed. And the work of philosophy is just this, to examine and uphold the standards. But the work of a truly good person is in using those standards when they know them.”

— Epictetus

He isn’t talking about design work, and we should keep that in mind. For most of us, design isn’t life or death. It doesn’t matter as much. But I think we can maintain this perspective and apply the dogmatism of doing what you said you were going to do simultaneously.

The work of living is to set standards and then not compromise them. … Not, I want to do good—that’s an excuse. But, I will do good in this particular instance, right now.

— Ryan Holiday

Craft virtuously.


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Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Michael Schofield