How can bad designers find true north?

17 Feb 2018

Image: CHAIWATPHOTOS/Shutterstock

UX expert Gareth Dunlop explains that to successfully fill a gap in the market, designers need to be guided by their customers.

(In)famously, Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime, for the princely sum of $109. Despite blessing the world with masterpieces such as The Starry Night, Café Terrace at Night, The Night Café and various self-portraits, he died broke and destitute. He battled mental illness for most of his life, notably cutting off one of his ears before allegedly shooting himself in the chest.

To his great credit, incredibly, he never lost faith in the value of what he created, exclaiming: “I can’t change the fact that my paintings don’t sell. But the time will come when people will recognise that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture.”

It was only after he died that his genius came to be appreciated.

Van Gogh is the most famous name in the list of artists who died penniless, which includes El Greco, Monet and Vermeer. The wider list of tortured creative souls includes actors, singers, composers, comedians and sports stars. It seems when you make your living from amusing or entertaining others, you tread a potentially lonely path.

However, artists aren’t alone in producing works that no one wants in their lifetime.

Like Van Gogh and his penniless peers, legions of designers indulge themselves in flights of fantasy that don’t get close to being fit for purpose in their lifetime. However, unlike Van Gogh, there is no potential value in their work in any future life either.

The promise of purpose-directed design is that, with the right process and priorities, there is a virtually linear connection between design quality and commercial performance.

Or, to put it another way: if you design well, you eat. If you design badly, you starve.

‘The number-one reason that start-ups fail is that there is no market need for their product. To rephrase that in UX parlance, it means that a product has been built to solve a problem that no one has’

The connection between design quality and the ability to eat focuses the designer’s mind on the importance of true north: the problem the design needs to solve. Steered accurately, this bearing offers the promise of great riches. With wavering direction (as a result of compromise, dilution or diversion), however, comes the threat of penury.

Why? Because the straight road focuses all design energy towards the customer and their needs. Subsequently, true north can only be navigated by the user constantly shining a light on design direction – or, to rephrase, by the customer co-contributing to the design process.

I regularly get asked the obvious follow-up question: ‘Doesn’t co-designing an experience with customers emasculate the designer?’

The response depends on how you define design.

If design is understood as the role that a creative individual plays in giving an interface the ‘wow’ factor, then yes, true north will save any venture commercially by rightfully emasculating a designer.

If design is understood as the role that everyone involved in a digital product plays in helping to solve problems for users, validating solutions with customers, collaborating across teams, benchmarking against agreed KPIs (true north), applying the right tools and crafting a solution in a nimble environment, then no, rather than emasculate a designer, true north will empower a product team to great success.

According to CB Insights, the number-one reason that start-ups fail is that there is no market need for their product. To rephrase that in UX parlance, it means that a product has been built to solve a problem that no one has.

Whether the hard way (by losing their shirts a time or two) or the easy way (by having the humility to solve real problems for real users), design professionals will recognise that commercial success is directly linked to true north and that only their users can guide them there.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing and customer journey planning, web accessibility, and integrated online marketing. Clients include Three, NHS Scotland, Firmus Energy, PSNI, Permanent TSB and Tesco Mobile. 

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.