August 10, 2004

Design is Easy; Organizational Politics is Hard

[This is a draft (and an early one at that) of an essay I'm working on for the Adaptive Path site. Wanted to get some thoughts out there while still raw.]

At the DIS2004 Conference, I attended a panel on how innovation seems to be on the wane, with the potential culprit being user-centered design methods that stress safety over risk, surety over adventure, meeting existing customer expectations instead of exceeding them.

This argument struck me as a red herring. In my experience, the problem is not with design or design processes. In fact, design practitioners have figured out a lot about what works, and what doesn’t. For those in the design field, design is easy – developing solutions to problems is a pretty straightforward endeavor. The problem isn’t with design or designers – it’s with organizations whose fundamental structures prevent the good ideas from getting out.

A panelist harkened back to a more golden era of design, a mid-20th-century period where massive organizations took design risks, where GM would develop visions of a Futurama, where IBM worked with The Eames’ and Paul Rand. The thing is, these companies could do so because they were extremely centralized, and the wishes of those at the top became the marching orders of all beneath. Design-minded CEOs could make such innovation happen.

In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, corporations fundamentally changed. They became extremely siloed. Product teams were no longer collaborative individuals, but a stovepiped set of departments whose efforts were stitched together by a product manager. And each of those departments has their own metrics of success, their own P&L statements -- in other words, their own asses to cover. product managers are rewarded for on-time and under-budget delivery; marketing with exceeding sales goals; engineering with minimizing defects and other marks of "quality". Nowhere does design and innovation factor in.

As the products became more complex, the lack of cohesion became more apparent – it’s common for an electronic consumer product to have the hardware engineering performed by one group, the onboard software made by another group, the manufacturing somewhere else, the marketing yet elsewhere, all leading to incoherent messes that blink “12:00.”

This departmental mess has been witnessed in the field of web design, in research conducted by User Interface Engineering, where they found that the only correlation they could make between the size of an organization’s UCD/usability practice was mildly inverse to the usability of the site – companies that seemed to invest more in usability actually had marginally worse products.

A big reason for this oxymoron is that the more that’s invested in UCD, the more likely it is to become a separate group or department. With it's own measure of success (minimize user interface defects) that are not aligned with those of the other departments. And this group tends to get relegated to the role of “interface cops,” folks who must review everything before it goes out, and thus serve as a bottleneck in development processes, a point of pain to route around.

The panel I attended was called "Beyond Human-Centered Design", suggesting that maybe we need to explore other design approaches to achieve innovation. Currently innovation doesn't happen because every department in product development has competing metrics for success, and any of them can veto a product decision if it doesn't satisfy their limited world view. I would argue that the imperative is to move Toward Human-Centered Organizations, where companies are structured to support good, usable, innovative design, where metrics are aligned across organizations to achieve a common goal.

What we’ve seen is that the best work, the best products, are created by small, multidisciplinary teams. Where there is no such thing as departmental hand-offs and review. Instead, you’ve got marketers, designers, engineers, user advocates working closely together on a single project. Where success is measured for the group as a whole, so that everyone is striving for the same goal.

Posted by peterme at 07:46 AM | Comments (10)


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