101 Theses on the Design of Digital Things

101 disordered theses on design. Originally tweeted and numbering 95, it has been edited for clarity as well as grown by 6.

Claimer: This is stuff *I* believe after doing, managing and teaching Design for 20+ years. Not “The Truth”, just what I believe is…

0. For simplicity, I name the maker of plans for making digital stuff designer, and no one is allowed to whine. I call digital product, software, even when its a websites. I call those who experience the software designers design, users.

    1. Design is a plan for making things. Good plans lead to good things. Thus we need good design and good designers if we want nice things.
    2. The designer’s materials are information and interaction, her tools critical thinking and clear communication.
    3. The digital product is co-created by the designer with her users, to a lesser or greater degree.
    4. The designer’s medium contains growing amounts of data made by growing numbers of humans. It is always changing and unknowable. Design does not end at launch.
    5. All interface is communication, and the good designer users clear words and images. To use one without the other is to handicap understanding.
    6. The designer’s work is creative, as is the job of her partner engineering.  Her team is creative in finding business models and way to reach customers.
      Every department is the creative department.
    7. Sometimes the engineer is the designer. Sometimes the designer is product management.  Sometimes design is a hat, not a person.
      Sometimes the best design comes from someone whose title is not designer.
    8. The designer’s job is to make a plan that balances the businesses’ need to thrive, the users desire to experience delight, and technology’s ever-growing ability to manifest dreams in code.
    9. The designer’s value is to make a future plan tangible enough to evaluate without the effort and cost of building.
    10. The designer’s calling is to compassionately end-user suffering, and support user fulfillment in her chosen goals.
    11. The designers responsibility is to keep the business healthy and thriving. To sacrifice the business is to end his employment and thus utility to the user.
    12. When the designer pleases herself at the cost of the users joy, she betrays his calling and her job. She has collapsed into art.
    13. Design will always be done. It will not always be done well. The software that ships is better than the design that never leaves the designer’s computer. For when it is in the world, we can learn and make it better.
    14. There are many things designer does that is not design. There are many skills needed to make good design possible, from persuasion to facilitation, but that doesn’t make them design. The job description is not the discipline.
    15. The designer commits to knowing his medium. As architects learn to pour concrete, the designer will learn enough code to know what it can do.
    16. The digital designer cannot just know markup, but must understand databases and how programming languages work, or she will make bad choices in her design that will waste time and lose her respect with her team.
    17. The business model of the company is as critical to understand as the technology. The designer who does not know how the product makes money will assure the product never does.
      Corollary: In start-ups, if money is not the signal of health, the designer should know what is and protect and grow that metric.
    18.  The designer’s title changes depending on many things, from medium to approach, but it is still design. The designer discards old titles when they no longer serve.
    19. The designer does not allow the title she might carry at any given time to keep her from learning what she needs to know.
      He does not allow his title to keep him from doing the work that needs doing to improve the user’s experience of the product.
    20. The designer does not believe in “not my job” if that attitude makes the product worse.
    21. It is a wrongful act to hoard knowledge to gain status, and the designer should share what she learns as she learns it with both colleagues and peers.
    22. A truly inventive designer will always invent more things.  Sharing out improves the lives of all users.
    23. The designer perpetually improves her craft, seeking to bring the digital experience into greater harmony with the users dreams. He is humble in his skills, and never as good as he wishes to be.
    24. “The Player Should Have The Fun, Not The Designer Or The Computer” – Sid Meier
      The designer restrains himself from doing clever things the user will not appreciate.
      Except Easter Eggs.  Those are fun.
    25. The designer does not dictate good, but accepts the users’ notions of good. The designer strives to communicate the benefit of her choices in the user’s language, using the user’s values. If her choices cannot be explained, they should not be coded.
    26. The designer introduces things she believe will improve the user’s life, but doesn’t not force it on the user when they don’t agree on “improve” means.
    27. The designer commits to respecting and learning from the user’s aesthetics, even when they are “yucky.” The designer must reserve judgement in order to learn.
    28. Discomfort is often a sign of something important. Great designers stay with that feeling until its understood.
    29. The designer is never the user, even when they could pass as twins.  The making mind is different from the experiencing mind.
    30. The designer knows too much about the thing she made, and must constantly reconnect with users to remember what it was like to not know.
    31. When the user is upset with the product, the designer refrains from explaining. He listens.
    32. The secrets to much inexplicable user behavior can be found by observing the user where they actually use the software. The world is complex and messes with you while you are trying to get things done.
    33. No tutorial will be completed, no tour taken, no explanatory video watched. We make them for the press, but the designer must always make sure the interface teaches the user about the interface.
    34. Sometimes when the mind doesn’t know, the hands do. Sometimes we must start making to know what to make.
    35. Being crappy is always the first step to being good, so might as well get going.
    36. Adhere to communicating the truth, even when it means unpleasant complexity or unfortunate results. A tricked user won’t be your user for long.
    37. Great design has no unnecessary parts. Sometimes having fun is necessary.
    38. Every pixel has a job to do. Communicating use and evoking emotion are good jobs for it to do.
    39. B=f(P+E)
      Lewin’s equation states behavior is a function of the person and her environment. Understand the person, design the environment.
      But this also means you are never more than 50% in control
    40. If you are putting lines around the content to make order, maybe you should start over.  Begin with meaning and message. If your mind is not clear, you cannot communicate clearly.
    41. The designer keeps the business afloat, even when it means making hard choices about user desires. The dead company benefits no one.
    42.  The designer must remember to lay out a coherent architecture for the thing designed. Order, even invisible, makes all other choices seem natural to the user.
    43. The designer takes the long view and the short view. To plan well, one must try to envision the entire landscape. She will creative positive and negative scenarios of how the users will interact with the system and design for both.
      The designer also accepts she will be wrong a lot.
    44. The designer must contemplate all materials that make up the thing being made, even data not yet created and user not yet considered. Which means the designer cannot fall in love with her solutions. The design must be nimble.
    45. The designer must accept constant change as a constraint of designing the digital.
    46. Data will always grow. In digital products, every thing, even interface, is data.
      Complexity compounds.
    47. The database is the unseen beating heart of software. It must be understood by the designer, or risk the health of the software.
    48. All things will resist simplifying. Menus grow. Desktops overflow with icons. Folders overflow with documents. Photos breed like bunnies.
    49. To make a digital thing is to create a space already to small for everything users will put into it. Folders have been tried before.
    50. The Law of Conservation of Complexity: Every application must have an inherent amount of irreducible complexity. The only question is who will have to deal with it.  “Let’s make it a setting” is a chickenshit answer. You still have to design a smart default.
    51. Users want everything to be ordered, yet wish to spend no time ordering it.
    52. “The creative organization of information creates new information” Richard Saul Wurman.
      This is a sacred responsibility of design.
    53. Creating new ways to order, such as the many genome projects, will create new way to discover and create.
    54. Menus are used more as a story about what a digital space is about than to navigate it.  Menus are storytelling in plain language.
    55. Organization is always context-specific. Your organization will reveal your biases and prejudices.  Order things using your user’s eyes and mind.
    56. All data will ask to be interactive. Users refuse to merely read. They share, edit, curate, delete.
    57. Yet too few users knows how to get to the functionality they know must exist. This is the designer’s fault.
    58.  “Obey standards unless there is a truly superior alternative” Alan Cooper. It should be 9x better at least.
    59. The designer is better served spending time solving unsolved problems than improving adequate solutions.
    60. There is a language in every context that already exists, and the designer must strive to learn it before designing.
    61. Old approaches and tools are not irrelevant just because they are old. New mediums do not demand entire new sets of tools and approaches. Nothing is as new as you think it is.
    62. Some users are more important than others, and you will make special concessions to them: the payer in a game or the editor on Wikipedia or the manager of a group. Appreciate them, don’t abuse them.
    63. User will behave differently in large numbers than small, and differently in different contexts even when those contexts look identical to the designer.  New features must be watched closely, lest they go sideways.
    64. The designer looks at the product every day, yet remembers how often her users do.  She makes infrequently used products simple, and frequently used ones deep.
    65. The kind designer makes her software serve, not dictate.  It does not  rewrite settings without permission, nor take over screens without recourse to an exit.
    66. Software is used with a body, not just with a mind. Learn how the human eyes, hands and ears affect software use.
    67. The clever designer designs things that have no interface, like algorithms, or a tiny presence, like bookmarks, without loss of ego.
    68. The invisible design choices are often more important than those that can be seen (and praised)
    69. The mature designer finds awards entertaining and perhaps informative, but not necessary to motivate her practice.
    70. Simple, fresh and consistent are not virtues. They are tactics to create good digital products. Sometime the opposite approach works better.
    71. The best design is the appropriate design.
    72. Sacrifice the best part of your design, when needed, to make the best coherent design. Don’t fall in love with your clever.
    73. Methodologies are not religions. The mature designer can make amazing products without personas, wireframes or other established approaches if they are not appropriate.
    74. The design invents new approaches as needed, adopts from other disciplines, and mods traditional approaches. Good product is the goal, not good process.
    75. Laws and made to be understood, followed, then downgraded to guidelines.
    76. Deliverables are made to communicate a decision. Do not confuse things you make to think and things you make to communicate.
    77. Every team mate has her own style of communication. Verify what that is before you choose a deliverable approach. The engineer is not responsible for your poor communication skills.
    78. Not everything can be designed well. The designer must learn to choose where to spend her time, or face having important things badly rushed.
    79. Sometimes settings, help and other corners will be designed at 2 am by engineers. The designer must prepare support for those moments.
    80. The designer should keep the hours of her team. To leave at six when the team stays until 2 is not to be part of a team. If you dislike it, change the team or leave; don’t reject the norms and expect special treatment.
    81. The designer should keep company with his team, and lunch with engineers and product as well as other designers, if he wishes to have his ideas manifested in code.
    82. The designer is not the keeper of all brilliant ideas. The engineer is not just the coder of someone else’s ideas. The product manager does not just spec your clever insights.  Ideas are precious, and come from anywhere.
    83. The biggest insights, the greatest leaps in knowledge, often come when you step out of your field.  Attend other industry’s conferences and read their books. Make friends with people who something different than you do.
    84. All metaphors are brittle.
    85.  Just because you cannot do it, doesn’t mean no designer can. Don’t deny unicorns just because you don’t have a horn.
    86. Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t make it stupid or pointless. Marketing, Business development and HR are all powerful and vital to your job, even if that is invisible to you most of the time.
    87. Partner. With better designers to grow, with weaker designers to mentor, with different disciplines to make great things.
    88. Compassion is not only for users; it’s for your teammates as well.
    89. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
    90. Design in a very different experience in a consultancy, as a service organization in-house, and as a member of a multi-disciplinary team.  A young designer should strive to experience each in his career.
    91. “Semantic arguments” are still valuable because language is all we have to teach each other.  Sometimes we have to stay in painful discussions come to terms. Young designers will have to have the same arguments old designers are tired of.
    92. When you are tired of saying it, they are starting to hear it. This is true for users and teammates.
    93. Radical ideas, no matter how good, will almost always be rejected initially. Designers must be patient, and be willing to wait for a good idea’s time to come.
    94. Have the hard conversations. But when a decision is made, do not reopen it unless the business and user will suffer gravely.
    95. Great designers make friends with quantitative research as well as qualitative. Learn to use it, learn to let it guides you, but never let it own you.
    96. Great designers love critique. You aren’t being reviewed, your product is. Don’t mix up the two.
      As well, you are being the given the gift of getting better. Say Thank You.
    97. Kind designers give feedback that can be verified and acted upon.
    98. Experienced designers are cautious when critiquing other people’s products.  Many complicated things can happen when shipping software.
    99. Redesigning someone else’s product without understanding constraints or users is an act of arrogance and stupidity.
    100. The designer gives up her title of designer when it is time to design new things, like teams and businesses.  She does not lose identity, she gains influence.
    101. The designer is always a designer, no matter what he or she does in her life.  Once we fall in love with making good things come into the world, we can never give it up.


If you like this check out Good Design, Bad Design, Great Design  and The Tao of User Experience

1 Comment

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  1. 1

    Over the last two years, my role shifted out from under me. I was leading product design at my company, and I loved it. But I was asked to step up to be an interim product manager for six months. Six months stretched to eighteen, and I’m now responsible for both the product management and design teams at my company.

    It’s been a whirlwind. I’ve gotten to do some cool stuff. I’ve made tons of mistakes. I’ve learned more about business and product management than I arrogantly thought I would.

    But along the way, I’ve felt lost and out of touch with my identity as a designer. My days are more about the system my teams work in than about the products those teams produce. I don’t think I realized that would be the case, and if I’m completely honest, I’ve grieved it for the better part of the last year.

    When I started reading your theses on Twitter, I expected to end them with resolve to find a way to return to my roots as a product designer. Instead, you hit me with a reminder that I’m still a designer, even if it doesn’t feel like it most days.

    Thank you for that beautiful sucker punch. I desperately needed it.

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