Mediocrity in Design

For weeks now, I’ve been trying to write an article deriding agile developers for thinking that they can produce good designs while they develop, that it takes a UX expert to do good design. This argument has been met with vociferous contentions to the contrary and I had trouble trying to find a way to describe why UX deserves more respect, but even I had trouble convincing myself of that. Then, while reading a colleague’s blog about the definition of UX, it occurred to me that the UX expertise most developers have experienced has not supported my argument.

I know this will be perceived as either egotism or blasphemy, but the pragmatic truth is that most UX practitioners produce rather mediocre designs. Though many practitioners seem to follow accepted UCD processes, they still turn out lackluster designs that, other than make a design a bit more user-friendly, add little real value to the product. So, its no wonder that other folks, such as developers and product owners, think they can design as well as a UX practitioner.

So what is it about most UX results that I think are mediocre? Most designs I’ve seen are little more than lipstick on a pig. A really good design should add quite a bit more value than merely promoting mediocrity as an improvement. As another article I recently read on Fast Company’s website put it, so much of the UX contributions all tend to look the same. I agree with that. Few UX practitioners I’ve met know how to actually make a REAL difference.

But what kind of difference makes a valuable difference? This article wouldn’t have any teeth if I couldn’t give an example (or two). One client was mired in mediocrity with a product that they and all of the other competitors were designing for corporate IT departments. The client originally engaged us to make the UI more IT friendly. Our UCD efforts identified that the product really needed to be designed for HR departments, who were the actual end-users of the product’s outputs. We redesigned it for HR users and now that client owns their market. Another example: The Department of Energy asked us to design a knowledge management system for them, but our research identified that a KM system would NOT solve their problems, no matter how well it could be designed. We provided a very different solution and it has been exceeding all of their expectations.

I’m not try to pound my chest, but trying to point out that the real value of UX is in better defining the product, not just the UI. Every, and I mean every, product we’ve worked on has benefited from a redefinition. We’ve even taken over mediocre projects from other well-known UX teams and achieved dramatic results by redefining the products. So, if your products never seem to achieve any real progress, its likely that you have mediocre UX “experts” on your team. So, I can see why developers are apt to suggest that they, too, can design as well as the UX folks. They both seem equally capable of producing mediocre designs.

I’m sure to get some grief about this, but I am not afraid to get the ruler out. Bring it on.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] rather than innovative products. Our response to this is presented in Larry’s blog, “Mediocrity in Design.” Our response will definitely stir the pot! Again, please let us know what you […]


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