June 12, 2005

Designing with a Solution is the Problem

I finally put my finger on it. There has been growing frustration within me with where I work and as well with some of the leaders in the web design community of late. The problem and the solution has been known to me, but scattered in pieces and I did not pull all the pieces together until today. Why today? Well, it took a little doing, but I finally got my hands on this month's issue of Fast Company - June 2005, which I had been subscribed to until the May issue. It took a little bit of time to track down the issue as it was to the point in the month when the next months issues are getting put out. But, having that issue in hand (having read some on-line) I stumbled across my tipping point in the Be Cooler by Design column. I did not make it past the fouth paragraph when it hit.

It Begins with a Canyon

The paragraph has a header, "Show Them the Canyon" and discusses a designer at Ford, Giuseppe Delena, who would say, "Don't tell me you need a bridge, show me the canyon!" This was aimed at marketing people who would ask for specific design solutions, but not explain the problem.

That is my tipping point. Having to start with somebody's solution to design problems (most often solutions to the wrong problem). Not having the problems put forward, but an answer. An answer without anybody showing their work to how their arrived at the solution. For nearly four years I have been working, for the most part, with the end results of the work of others who started with a solution and worked that as a starting point, while never considering the problem (or in nearly all cases the multitude of problems they needed to solve). They did not understand the problems nor do they understand or know the standards and requirements that their end result must meet. Lastly they do not understand the medium in which they are working. In short it is a string of considerable messes that our team deals with continually. The sad complication is this is taxpayer money being spent (often quite nice sums) for end products that require incredible fixing to meet minimum standards and be usable on the web.

It is not my direct customer, who is in the same boat I am in as we support him (and he is one of the very few that really get what they are doing), but the "customer service" management and the management signing off on these projects that have become the problem. With the web, the business customer is not always right, the user is, as without the user their is no business customer. In our situation, by-and-large, the web being built is using what works for print and for multi-media, neither of which are solutions for text on the web. The business customer requires solutions for the wrong medium, which (as those who have sat through usability test find out) the tan text on brown background and all of the animated bits make using the information as is it is intended, nearly impossible.

Designers Must Explain Design Better

In part the design world is to blame as we have done a very poor job of educating the rest of the world as to what we do. We solve problems. We have spent an inordinate amount of time on learning everything we can about our medium, how people think, how people interact with our medium, how people interact with their devices (desktop, laptop, PDA, mobile, etc.) as they are all different, how to organize and structure for people interacting with what we design, how to build for people to give them freedom to choose the solution that is best for them, how to build for ease of use by people, and how to build for people to easily reuse what we provide (the list goes on). Yes, it is not a short list and I do not know a good designer who will truly claim they are done learning all of these aspects. We know what works best with everything we do know for the problems before us and we test everything we do and we iterate through our designs while always striving to make things better. Every designer I know loves to show how they got to their solution and document it for others to do, as their joy in designing is not repeating, but problem solving and innovating to better solutions. As designers we are always trying to learn what others do, so the good designers share in as much detail so others may learn what to follow and what to modify for even better solutions down the road.

In my current situation the lack of time to document and show our work is a major problem. The lack of documentation (or deliverables) is part of where the problem lies with the problems up the food chain (not that there are skilled designers or people that would understand up the food chain). If we had the time to show our work we could hand it to those at the beginning of the process so we could get better products with fewer problems when we receive them (although it is a very rare occasion that any of what we have produced for these purposes is ever followed). Many of the places up the food chain have sold a bridge with out ever seeing the canyon it is just a cookie cutter. It is rare when we get to solve the problems, either at the beginning or the end, we just get to fix it so it will just pass the minimum requirements, which are horribly low.

Understand and Explain the Problem First

This frustration has also flowed over to the web design community of late as there is excitement in the web community again. The excitement is not bad, actually it is great. But some of the new solutions are being framed as new wonder solutions without framing the problem they are solving. In the world of design (as it is with many other things) it is a realm where the answer to most every question is, "it depends". What is the solution? It all depends on many factors in the problem. Teaching how to understand problems and to walk through the decision process to get to the solution (or more correctly, one of many possible right solutions) is what raises the profession.

What has been happening of late in the web design/development community is looking at solutions that may be terrific implementations for a certain problem in a set environment, but proclaiming what is new is "the new way". For those that are not good designers or even designers at all, this approach reaches a problem point very quickly. It was not long after XMLHTTPRequest was coined AJAX that customers, and those I advise from farther away, started asking for their solutions to be AJAX. There are right places for AJAX, as it is just one of many solutions for problems where it may be one of the solutions. It is quite similar to aura around Flash as a solution, but AJAX has its benefits and detractors when compared to Flash.

Where the problem around the AJAX solution got tough was when AJAX was tied to a whole new exitement around the web. It was at this point the AJAX solution was being demanded from customers. I was hearing if from many corners, this great solution touted, was for customers the only way they would accept their final products. AJAX had quickly become the cure-all in customer's eyes, much like Flash had years before.

Our Responsibility

What we have to realize as designers, is people do listen and people want to believe there is one simple solution for all of their web problems, all of the information problems, etc. We know there is not a simple solution as of yet. In fact the digital information world is far more complex than it ever was, as Europe and Asia will attest, with the influx of mobile handheld use. (Europe and Asia have things a little better than the U.S. right now, as they have much less of a population that believes build for desktop (including laptop) solutions is the one way all design is heading.) Europe and Asia understand the world is far more complex and information far more useful when it can be used in context on a mobile device. The expanding of the devices and the realm of possibile solutions with their benefits and detractors across the many variables we monitor componded the problems we are solving. Simplicity is many designer's goal, but getting there is ever harder today and we must embrace the complexity (thank you Mike for turning that light on for me) and work through it. We also need to communicate the complexity to our customers so everybody understands it is not as simple as it seems.

It is this complexity of convergence around devices is also compounded by the flood of information people are experiencing, which is what has me loving the work I get to do around the Personal InfoCloud (and the Model of Attraction and folksonomy that are intertwined with it). This work is satisfying as it is not only defining the problems and working through possible solutions, but more importantly laying out frameworks to design and build solutions that others can use. There are increasingly people (who may become customers) that are coming and asking the right questions from the right perspective around the Personal InfoCloud, which may be another reason I really like working on it (we all love people asking smart questions). People are asking how to cross their canyon while describing the canyon and many times showing me the canyon they would like a solution designed for.

I think we all know what the next step is. It will not be happening tomorrow, but every day that passes makes the frustration that much worse. Knowing there is one point around which much of my frustration revolves may help me deal with it better.



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