16 May 2008

How can business benefit from design? (2 of many)

The topic is going to turn to (design) process for the moment. I have on occasion expressed my disdain for rote process. You know, that stuff commonly associated with Henry Ford, TQM and Six Sigma. Design, plain and simple, does not work the same way as manufacturing. That is because design is about solving problems. And nearly every problem is slightly different. So it begs the question, how do we get reliably great results from design, if we don’t standardize the process? The answer is, we do this by assembling a structure. Let’s take a look at a simple step-by-step method that works really really well.

Step One. Establish the criteria by which the designer will work and the work will be judged. Artist thrive when given the freedom to create whatever their hearts desire. Not so much with the design process. Yes, artist and designers both draw, but that is about where the similarity ends. Expression of self take a much more subtle form for designers. Designers embrace the notion of having criteria to which they can design.

So how do you express this criteria? Simple, build a problem statement (sometimes called a situation statement), state your goals, objectives, policies (if you must), and constraints. We won’t labor on the specifics of these now, but suffice to say this takes some practice.

Step Two. Let the designer(s) work. I will save detailing the ‘magic’ of this (it is decidedly not magic btw) for another day.

Step Three. Evaluate the design against the criteria. How simple could this be? Talk through the weaknesses and strengths of each solution. Personally I think formal grading systems are a little stuffy, but for a tough crowd they can be helpful.

Step Four. Eliminate the lesser solutions and promote the best ones. You might even have a winner here. If you do, ask yourself, will this work? Is it great? Can we do better? If the answer t any of these is no, then it might be time to revisit your criteria. This is not the time to recommend a horizontal layout, or your favorite color blue. And ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’ statements are only worthwhile if they include part of the criteria. If the design satisfies the criteria, and still does not work, you need to rework the criteria, plain and simple.

Here is a huge tip… it helps tremendously to (and some would say ONLY works) if the same people holding final approval were included in the criteria process. If they understand the logic of this structure, and they subscribe to the process, the design team will be confident and things should go well. If you cannot get final approvers to review and bless the constraints, and they still want the final vote, then I suggest mutiny, a new job, or heavy drinking. Seriously, passionately caring about your work in this situation will be a constant frustration if not a living hell. You will be working with the roulette wheel of project success.

If you adopt these four steps and discipline yourself the majority of your frustration with design and design process will go away.