Six Myths About Design, and Four Ways to Overcome Them
COMPANIES ARE prioritizing design more than ever to improve people’s experiences with their products, services, marketing, customer support, and other interactions. Effective design helps companies differentiate themselves from their competitors by creating standout experiences that can meet customers’ and employees’ increasing expectations.
But many companies that are recognizing the power of great design and are striving to get better at it will not, because they fall for widespread myths about what design is, who should be involved in it, and how to do it well. These are the myths that Forrester Research has seen afflicting companies the most:
- Myth 1: “Design is about look and feel.”
- Myth 2: “Design is a touchy-feely domain for artsy creatives.”
- Myth 3: “With design thinking training, anyone can design.”
- Myth 4: “Design should always be done by professional designers.”
- Myth 5: “Design is based on instinct—not on research.”
- Myth 6: “Iterating is about delivering sooner instead of better.”
These myths can be hazardous to the business if left unchecked. The good news is that your organization can overcome these myths if it commits to these four essential principles to guide its design efforts:
1. Combine art and science to design well.
Design is about how things work. Everything human-made is designed—from utensils to software to business models. And everybody designs—whether they wear turtlenecks or suits or prefer Moleskines or pocket protectors. Of course, some people design better than others, and while design brings rewards to those who do it well, it brings risk to those who don’t. As Ralf Speth, former CEO of Jaguar Land Rover, put it, “If you think good design is expensive, you should look at the cost of bad design.”
And to design things that work well, you need both art and science. While design is rooted in some skills that are typically associated with the arts—like people-centric imagination, aesthetic judgment, and semiotic insight—it’s also rooted in some of the same principles as science: seek out concrete evidence; generate many ideas before choosing (and avoid falling in love with one too early); conduct rigorous experiments; and never treat a result as final, instead refining and improving continually and iteratively.
2. Get the people mix right with three ingredients.
First, good design requires democratization, and the foundation for achieving that is to teach every employee to think like a designer. One way to do this is to teach employees “design thinking,” which, when done correctly, simplifies and codifies certain practices of design professionals, just as good self-help books distill psychologists’ expertise into practical advice and cookbooks condense master chefs’ methods into simple recipes.
Second, tap the talents of design professionals. The people who codified design thinking deliberately left out three essentials to make it more accessible: design critique, design patterns, and design systems. Design critiques help spot defects early based on expert heuristics. Design patterns are proven user experience techniques like progressive disclosure. And a design system is a set of components and principles a company develops to ensure experiences are high-quality and brand-aligned. So involve design professionals, since they’re familiar with these three time-saving essentials.
Third, the design team should reflect the people the designs are for. Design quality depends not just on designers’ craft but also on what they understand about their target audience. That understanding is shaped by factors like each designer’s age, gender, language, culture, ethnicity, and abilities.
3. Prioritize evidence over instinct to innovate successfully.
Instinct-driven design can succeed when instincts are good—but that’s rare. And although even instincts that yield mediocre designs can succeed for a time, that’s risky. In contrast, user research requires investment, but it pays off.
User research is a deep discipline with broad applicability. Even among companies that recognize the importance of basing their design efforts on research instead of instincts, Forrester has observed widespread misunderstanding of what design research is. Many businesspeople tout their “passion for the customer,” as if that endows them with customer understanding. The reality is that design research is a professional discipline that runs much deeper and broader than most non-researchers realize in terms of two factors: repertoire and relevance. It uses a rich toolbox of methods beyond the obvious. And design research helps with a wide range of business challenges.
4. Deliver value and quality to reveal and meet user needs.
Iterating is an essential principle for great design, just as it is in agile methodologies. Its purpose is to help companies understand users’ needs better. Why? Because observing users reveals their needs better than asking them, and frequent delivery helps firms learn what to course-correct as users’ needs change.
To yield insight, each iteration must provide value to the customer. Iterating is not primarily about speedy delivery: Meeting a deadline for an iteration is useless (and even wastes customers’ time) if the iteration’s improvements don’t add up to an increase in value that customers perceive and appreciate.
After a firm has understood a set of customer needs, identified which one to address, and started iterating, those many iterations span four phases of advancing maturity: inception, incubation, evolution, and eventually (when it’s time to sunset the product or service) extinction. Within those phases, each iteration requires cycling through four activities: prioritizing (investing resources strategically), making (delivering a tangible experience), testing (collecting evidence about users’ needs and expectations, derived from observing how they react to the experience), and adapting (correcting your understanding of users and your process).
TAP INTO THE POWER OF THE DESIGN REVOLUTION
Companies’ prioritization of design is evident—firms are promoting designers to the C-suite, training employees in design thinking, contracting with design services providers, and competing to hire design talent. Better design provides a competitive advantage and ensures the experiences companies offer meet customers’ expectations. But to reap these benefits, leaders must understand and commit to the four principles to guide their design efforts.
To learn more, check out Forrester’s Design Revolution series, which delves into these myths and other factors in more depth and offers more recommendations about how to overcome them, or register to attend Forrester’s CX North America this June.
David Truog is vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, studying innovation, ideas, tools, and best practices at the intersection of technology and design. Truog focuses especially on designing for emerging technologies, including conversational AI (voice and text assistants) and extended reality (augmented reality, mixed reality, and virtual reality).