Microwave Design

Ad-hoc design, or as some people say “design-by-committee” looks at creating solutions to very specific problems. If set in an environment that compromises evaluation of solution iterations for “just getting the project out the door” and not ruffling any feathers whilst doing so, ad-hoc can be very dangerous. It will negatively impact the success of projects, and with it team moral; through highly inflexible and often poorly constructed requirements made by the wrong people in the organization.

Workplaces that commonly nurture the culture type I described are “in-house” teams. Existing in a strictly defined structure, insecure middle management and executives have limited perspective as well as incentive to examine possibilities of improvements suggested from post-committee team members and are almost never willing to challenge the status quo of ineffective decision making authority structures. It’s not their fault, they’re just managers after all, they don’t know any better. They implement linear processes that utilize rational thinking  and expect great innovation to just happen without realizing they are actually stifling it.

Result as expected, is a mediocre (at best) solution, that is pushed to production cycle doomed for failure from start because teams which have to implement this solution do so through a microwave process of cooking up aforementioned shitty requirements on high for 2 minutes per pound and are left unsatisfied with the outcome. This is primarily because they recognize a better recipe exists. More delicate process in which care is given to each ingredient by individuals with unique sets of expertise, who are assigned appropriate authorities and derived responsibilities.

Decisions by the right people

In theory, requirements should serve the goal of getting everyone on the same page, reducing time spent on realizing them and eliminate unnecessary features. However, in reality there are several shortcomings when requirements are defined by the wrong people, (like committees and business analysts) without involving designers and developers who will be implementing them.

As Todd Zaki Warfel notes in his book Prototyping, requirements written by analysts often lack the technical implementation and design knowledge of their counterparts, which often results in any number of requirements being rewritten several times.

Designers and developers can flex their experience and knowledge, contribute to the process, and ultimately ensure that right people make the right decisions.”

If not corrected at all and pushed to production, you are left with a faulty product that you will have to remake. That’s involves much more time than going back and admitting a simple oversight or misjudgment. Oddly enough, that is not something people enjoy doing. I wonder why.

Responsibilities In Hierarchies

In UXD Project Guide, Russ Unger and Carolyn Chandler summarize concepts of different power distances you may encounter. Understanding power distance between different management levels and their authorities can be a tricky thing. If the culture encourages sharing of ideas and questioning of the vision, it may have a relatively small power distance, but it can also be accompanied by a structure not clearly defined and be very hard to manage.

Reporting relationships in large power distances (most commonly found in “in-house” teams) are often very top-to-bottom structured. Those on top are reluctant to admit people bellow them can contribute anything other than to follow their direction, since that would involve giving them additional responsibilities. On the other hand: people on the bottom are mostly just happy to follow along and not question justifications made by the higher ups.

Why should designers make decisions?

Because they need to be doing just that. Up until recently designers have been solely considered as service providers, at least in the digital realm. However, business owners are starting to recognize the value of design in the digital environments:

because, you know, Steve Jobs and shit” – Cameron Koczon

Cameron continues to explain that if we want to examine the true potential design has, it needs to be elevated to the “committee-member” level since that is where real decision-making power lies, and it would guarantee us a seat at the table from the beginning. Ultimately this approach will result in requirements that consider design and will  connect with clients in a way that makes an impact on the experience and yes, the business revenue as well.

How would that impact the structure?

It would change it, for the better of course.  It would involve retraining the rest of the staff. Current era managers are yesterdays’ news. They have been trained in a wrong manner; again, not their fault, they’re just managers. Past few decades were focused on efficiency and effectiveness, and managers goals were to cut costs and optimize processes, not to foster creativity and innovative thinking, which is proving to yield in higher return.

It would also mean bigger rewards for innovators. Since they will have authority to make decisions, they will be responsible for outcomes of those decisions, both in failure and success.  And no, not monetary rewards – you’re still not getting it! Rewards that encourage further development and recognize their value such as providing opportunities for people to work on ideas that align with innovation, offering roles, titles and training opportunities to further their expertise.

It’s not too late ( . . . ) or is it?

Innovators (a.k.a. disruptors) don’t enjoy working in an environment in which their input is scaled down to just following prescribed instructions on the box and turning a dial. And it’s a fact that those environments need us much more than we need them. However, giving up easy is not something you should pride yourself with.

Probably most ethical approach is to give the dinosaurs a chance: Start by identifying the problem and presenting the solution, as a any good designer should. You might have to do this at multiple levels and sections of the organization to get your point across.

If that doesn’t work, and it most probably won’t since you will get the usual walk-around: “It’s something that we need to communicate to someone” or  “We have really neglected that aspect and should really consider it moving forward”  try a different approach:

Instead of telling them about it, show them; be daring: tell your project managers you need extra time to complete a task because you want to try out some new things that you think can really improve the outcome. Conduct simple exercises that show the benefit of iterating and reconsidering the requirements in many different ways.

If that doesn’t work either, and you just keep getting ignored it’s time to ask yourself is it even worth it.

If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.- Laozi


( . . . ) and if you’ve exhausted all your options, it’s time to let go. Pack your suitcases and those little squishy smiley-face stress balls and wish them all the best. Simple as that!