Erik Benson (excuse the long quote):

“We’ve all participated in processes that have grown stale. Directions will always go bad. So of course someone has to maintain the processes. Hopefully it’s a smart person. But we’re back where we started… the group’s intelligence is still being maintained by an individual, and if that individual leaves the company, he/she will have to be replaced. So companies build processes in order to ensure that the processes are properly maintained. That doesn’t solve the problem though. Someone has to maintain those processes that are maintaining process. Soon, you have a cascade of processes maintaining processes that is so complex that they cannot be maintained by an individual any longer. They become locked and unmaintainable. Then they become stale. Then they make people go down the wrong roads and there’s no simple way to change that.

That’s why I think that building process (alone) is not the correct way to improve the intelligence of a group. If I were in charge of improving the intelligence of a group, maybe I would create process-killing individuals who worked alongside process-making individuals.”

I’ve definitely seen process become dogma in a number of workplaces, particularly around user-centred design.

Theory: because it’s actually common-sense.

Two points on common-sense from my experience:

  1. It’s very hard to tell people there’s no common sense in what they are doing if you come into an organisation or team. Even harder perhaps if you are trying to sell it into a company from the outside.
  2. It’s very hard to keep the common sense in a team that has it, when it will be assailed from all sides by nonsense. Which, of course, might seem like common sense (and might well be) from the other party’s point-of-view.

So common sense often gets wrapped in the magic sugar-coating of methodology, for good reasons (getting everyone to talk the same language, or act in concert) and bad (upping the day-rate)

Often you have to introduce ideas that should be just common-sense with a bit of process pizzazz, because of (1). An organisation or team might be calling out for a bit of structure, methodological thinking or process to help them out of a bad situation, or to readdress a bad product; but don’t have the tools to get them out of the hole.

Problem comes when they are out of the hole. What happens then, when you’re dependent on the tools? The pendulum swings too far the other way into a world constrained by methodology, as described so well by Erik Benson above.

I’ve seen entire teams hooked on user-tests, unable to take a decision until they get the word back from the beyond the two-way mirror. Designers’ and producers’ confidence in their own experience gets dented. Diminishing returns on usability testing, compared to project hold-ups. Personas from past projects stalk them like the usability undead. The work becomes no fun, the common sense is gone. Projects pall, or worse, stall.

User-centred design methodologies, ultimately, are all about reducing risk for a business. The risk of customers not being able to find your products, not being able to buy them, not being able to phone you up or email you – of your product or service not being fit for purpose and being rejected by the marketplace.

Sometimes the risk for the business can be at the scale above the service or product level. That they are losing market share, that customers are demanding something new and different, or that your competitors have commoditised your previously luractive market sector. This demands innovation, invention, and calculated risk. It means doing something different, something more than the market research on its own is asking for, more than your personas will tell you.

If common sense tells you that it’s going to be cheaper and more effective to launch with your five best design guesses and iterate like crazy until you hit the right solution, instead of perfecting one through endless user-testing; then find the means to do that.

If common sense tells you that you could split off small teams to make risky new services for new markets without holding up the rest of your work, instead of consolidating your design effort on your core services, then find the means to do that.

Often such means are very hard in an established business with established processes. Which is why you need the process-killers. People in leadership positions who are willing to lead. I’ve had some great creative directors in my time who were willing to take risks and fulfil this role. Sometimes I’ve had to work for people who see process and structure as the end not the means.

On the whole though, I’ve been lucky.

Don’t get me wrong. Good stuff happens more often than not when user centred design is at the core of design businesses, especially when good people come to the methodologies in a critical and creative frame-of-mind.

Keeping them there, in that frame-of-mind, is the job of great leadership.

  1. martin said:

    One of my fears is turning things off and nobody notices.

    One of my joys is turning things off, nobody notices, and it means I have saved resources.

    I’m just never sure which it will be when I press the off switch…

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