Designers and Doctors

Several years back, John Zapolski urged all the members of my design team to read Atul Gawnde’s essay “Whose body is it anyway?”, replacing the word doctor with designer and patient with client. His point was that, like doctors, we had a body of expertise on design, but like patients clients had a body of expertise on being themselves. And that design decisions should be, like health decisions, a collaborative process. The article is a terrific one and can be read in Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science. Amazingly, almost all the articles can be read with an eye to the design process, and lead me to reading his second book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance which was even more applicable to my design processes.

I’ve just begun a third book, How Doctors Think and as I read the introduction, I can already see the similarities. If someone had told me practicing medicine and designing product was in any way the same, I think I would have laughed at them. But medicine is more art than we think, and design more science. In both there is a tension between these two forces, and a need to resolve this via practice and experience.

That’s one place I think design could learn from medicine. Young doctors are overseen by more experienced ones during the early phase of their practice. But young designers are turned out of school expecting they have been given all the tools they need to be a great designer and the title alone demands all must gave way to their ownership of design decisions. But a senior product manager or engineer may have been instincts than they do without a day in art school from years of watching users and businesses do their mad dance together. Without the guidance of a senior practitioner, they may insist on dreadful design solutions that appear sensible but for experience’s warning bell. Unlike doctors, no body will die from these poorly made choices (most of the time) but a fragile business might.

Design understanding should be understood to be a experience-based skill rather than taught, and it is often collectively held. Unlike mad photoshop skillz or writing java it doesn’t come from a class (obviously getting really good at these things comes also from experience beyond the class, but competent can be straightforwardly taught.) Very often young designers ask me for career advice. I almost always send them to large groups who have senior designers to learn from. The in-house folks I send to consultancies, the consultants I send to companies like yahoo or ebay, because you learn different things at each. But I never say, join a start-up. Unfortunately, almost all startups who cannot afford to have a young turk as their sole resource are often stuck with them due to financial constraints. If they are lucky, they’ll get fast learning curious designer who will get into every corner of the business and learn and correct on his own. In a worst case scenario they get a willful freshly titled designer who wrongfully applies whatever he was taught, and wastes time-to-market fighting with everyone.