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  • John R. Durant

Engineer != Designer

Take up the banner of fighting for greater investment in design at your company. It's an investment that will lead to greater production innovation, quality, adoption, and satisfaction.

User experience and interface design are chronically underfunded, and this must change. How much are they underfunded? Think of any product under development at your company—a website, mobile app, cloud service, hardware device, etc. What would you guess is the ratio of product designers to engineers for that product? Ask the CTO, CPO, and other leaders responsible for the product. If you do receive in an answer, it is likely to be disappointing. The sad truth is that most product teams lack a user experience or interface designer much less a user experience researcher. And the product designers that do exist are usually spread across too many products, working with too many engineers, and taking orders from too many stakeholders.

Chief Mistake Officers rebound from failure stronger than ever

We get what we pay for in design

Leaders in organizations often hold up the great product designs they encounter as examples for their teams to follow (e.g. the Figure app which is one of my favorites). But they also fail to commit the funding that will help their organizations achieve great design. One executive, a friend of mine, was recently sharing with me how disappointed he was in the design of his flagship software product. He talked about the confusing user experience, the large number of required clicks to do simple tasks, the clashing color palette, the inconsistency of UI elements, and the lack of in-app user feedback. He contrasted this to an app he had recently used that he said was beautifully and intuitively designed. When I asked about how many designers he had in his product teams, he responded, “Well, we really don’t have the budget for that.”

The lack of adequate budgeting is commonplace in almost every product team, and very often it is left to software engineers to "design" the user experience and even create the UI elements. We all live with the results of this underfunding every day, like the abysmal and ill-conceived remote in the picture above.

Better design leads to better product outcomes

The benefits of great design are not just the outward aesthetics. In my experience, a large percentage of product defects are, at their core, not the result of flaws in code. Many of them are the result of befuddling user interfaces, confusing user paths, and inconsistent or even contradictory use of interface elements (like using buttons for actions on one screen and for status updates on another). Due to the lack of an overarching product concept and intentional design, engineers end up writing increasingly complicated code paths to manage conditions and use cases that defy earlier assumptions about what the product did and how it would or should be used. The increase in complexity makes the application more fragile, and it makes it much more difficult to automate its testing. The growing number of convolutions regularly results in the addition of more dependencies and external libraries that are brought in to help the situation and hopefully preserve anticipated release dates. New dependencies add complexity to the deployment model, creating new "taxes" that must be paid in testing, staging, and production. And ultimately, this all adds up to a less than brilliant experience for users thus slowing adoption and diminishing satisfaction. As negative reviews flow in, members of product teams start running for cover, hoping to avoid getting blamed for the lackluster release. Retrospectives can get heated as people express frustration with the scope, the timeline, the number of developers, and the management of sprints. Curiously, however, inadequate investment in product design is frequently neglected in retrospectives as a key cause of poorly received and buggy releases.

The way forward

Most software executives see investments in design as a nice-to-have. They are almost entirely focused on the number of features. To be fair, when the competition is cranking out press releases chock full of product announcements, it's easy to feel like you are falling behind. But it is consistently true that users are not as enamored with the number of features as they are about the quality of what they already have. Over the course of my 25+ years of shipping software, the vast majority of customers I've spoken to cared comparatively very little about the volume of features. They cared a lot about improving the ones they already have. Many of those improvements will achieve the goals that the software manufacturers care about: increased adoption, better sales, and greater satisfaction.

© Growthsight, LLC 2021

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