The danger of pushing design decisions downstream

26 Nov 2016

Image: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Design is about so much more than the physical make-up of a product – it is about the experience you will provide for your customer. Gareth Dunlop explains why this is so important.

For decades, product designers have understood the importance of ensuring that what leaves the design department is as close as humanly possible to what gets built, and thus ensuring that every element of specification has been meticulously considered during design. Without this focus, decisions get made arbitrarily (or not at all, causing ‘design’ by accident) and so, the world’s most desirable brands go to extraordinary lengths to manage every aspect of product design.

Luxury car brands build full-size clay models of the car being designed before going near production. It is only after the crafting of a quarter-of-a-million-dollar clay prototype that the go/no-go decision is made. The craftsmanship and attention to detail in the model is extraordinary and considers both the shape and form of the car; its potential colours are closely measured in various lighting conditions. Not only is the external paint colour included as part of prototyping, the colours and textures of the car interior are also considered at this early stage.

It means that when product owners give the green light for the car to move to the next phase of design and production, there are the fewest possible unknowns as the blueprint has been so thoroughly considered.

This commitment to prototyping enables these car manufacturers to embrace design in its fullest sense – incorporating the functional, aesthetic and experience elements of design.

Function design encapsulates how the car works and includes items such as engine size, brake specification, transmission, suspension and tyres. Aesthetic or visual design specifies how the product looks and stipulates colours, wheel style and chassis type, among other things. Obviously, there is a close relationship between these two elements; with a high-performing powerful engine suiting a sleeker, sportier-looking car, with more practical and modestly performing cars having a more sober design.

But the car designer’s work doesn’t finish there.

They are equally as obsessed about how the car feels (experience design) as they are about how the car works and how the car looks. They design and determine the noise of the engine, the feel of the seats, the sound of the doors opening and closing, the firmness of the pedals, and every aspect of what it is like to drive or be a passenger in the car. This obsession is born of the fact that they know if they don’t specify this, the design decision will be left to chance, or made arbitrarily by someone with a job role ill-fitted to make the call.

They know that if they don’t design the experience, they will still define it.

Their customers will have an experience, whether they have invested in it or not.

And it is this fixation on detail that enables luxury brands in the car, fashion and construction industries to design and build such beautiful products.

In the fashion industry, the design process involves pencil-sketching, full-colour drawings, fabric choices and then the actual making of a toile. It is only at this stage that a garment has been deemed to be ‘designed’.

In construction, buildings are frequently initially sketched with pencil, then developed in 2D on a software package, often then rendered in 3D with colours added, and then mimicked in various lighting and urban/rural settings. For larger buildings, it is common that a full 3D model is built or printed, so that what is designed and what is ultimately built is as close as possible.

The challenge for the digital industry is clear. It is not enough to jot down a set of functions and a visual design for a home screen, and a few other screens, and call that a design. It isn’t.

The product must be considered from the perspective of its function, its aesthetic and its experience. Each of these work hand-in-glove and are interdependent. Experience design is not pretty aesthetic design with lots of cutesy interactions integrated.

The design process should involve sketching, validation, user feedback and wire-framing of various fidelities and prototyping, as a means of specifying its interactions in detail. Without this focus on experience designing as a critical third element of the design thought process, the product owner runs the chance of pushing design decisions downstream.

These designs may be made, knowingly or unknowingly, by someone far too far away from the customer to make a good call.

And your users deserve much more than that.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which 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, Ordnance Survey Ireland, PSNI, Permanent TSB and Tesco Mobile.  

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