Why Design Isn’t Just Lipstick on a Pig

Dramatic Impact

Theater and the creative process of design

A column by Traci Lepore
December 21, 2015

Does it sometimes feel like design has become a four-letter word? As I interact with product teams lately, design seems to have become a bit of a groan inducer. And I had thought we were beyond that! It had been a while since I’d encountered this particular issue, but it is starting to creep back in.

Why are we experiencing this déjà vu? Simple. Teams are again treating design like an embellishment, a superficial veneer whose purpose is to cover flaws—that dreaded lipstick on a pig. I blame this sorry state of affairs on agile and Lean methods. These so-called iterative processes are all the rage. Their focus is on fast execution and ditching documentation. But in focusing on production, some teams set up a situation in which they fail to think and plan. And, without any vision, teams are heading down a treacherous path.

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Don’t get me wrong, I think there are many benefits to agile and Lean approaches. I work within an agile process every day. But the attitude that spending time on design is optional is a harmful one and is detrimental to product development.

Design Kicks Ass

Steve Jobs said, “Design is not just what it looks like. Design is how it works.” It was this kind of thinking that propelled us into a new era in which people revered design—good design. But this does not give the complete picture.

No, design is not just the way an application looks. Nor is design just the way it works. It is so much more. I prefer this definition: Design is the creation of a plan or convention for the construction of an object or a system. This definition gives design its due, because, in actuality, design kicks ass by

  • maintaining and communicating a vision
  • forming a shared understanding of the plan
  • helping to gain buy-in from stakeholders and entire teams

Design Is a Production

The reason Design is able to do its job so it well is that there isn’t just one discipline that contributes to successful design outcomes—there are many. Design encompasses aspects of fields such as psychology and sociology that enable us develop marketing strategies and do field research that helps us understand personas and scenarios. Writing and the visual arts help us develop the part of a design solution that we see. Engineering and technology help make the vision happen. Design is a production.

Agile methods can’t take that value away—no matter how much they try to gloss over it. But designers have to learn how to adjust and work within a more iterative, faster-paced development cycle to make the magic happen.

In many ways, design reminds me of a theater production. There are so many aspects of a production that have to come together for a successful show. And the process from audition to production can be quite rapid.

I know the idea of putting on a production may sound daunting. But one thing theater can do really well is teach us how to manage a rapid, iterative process. Clearly, there are some characteristics of a theatrical production that can help designers working in an agile context:

  • iterative cycles
  • distributed, independent, simultaneous invention
  • unifying action
  • a director who facilitates
  • a forum for conversation
  • a way of establishing structure—the design artifacts

Increments Versus Iterations

If we want design to be a coordinated process for realizing a product vision, we need to start with an understanding of the difference between increments and iterations. Often, teams believe they are iterating when they’re really incrementing. This isn’t the way to create a holistic solution, nor is it the goal of being agile.

When we do design incrementally, we give people only a piece of the puzzle. There is no way to see the big picture or where the plan is going. Instead, we provide deep detail on a small part of the overall solution. This is not a scalable approach because, each time, we have to create a whole new piece of the design

In comparison, when we iterate, we start by going broader and getting a rough sense of the whole picture. Then, we finely layer on more detail in every round of iteration. Think about how a painter first creates a sketch, then starts painting over it in layers. in this way, people get a sense of the larger vision and the project’s goal first—even if things are rough at the beginning.

Next, we must understand that our iterations need to be small enough to be manageable. Plus, once we’ve done a few small iterations, it’s important to do an iteration that unifies all of the work we’ve done so far and make sure we’re staying true to the overall vision. This is similar to rehearsing scenes in theater, then putting them together and running through an entire act to make sure it hangs together. This is crucial in ensuring that there is actually a design vision that permeates everything we’re doing.

To make things easier on ourselves, we need to follow the design principles others have already defined, as well as recognize technology constraints, and employ design patterns and coding best practices. Once we’ve chosen the right design paradigms, we can keep things moving quickly and communicate easily. Take advantage of all the tools and libraries out there. Granted, these rules and resources are not the be all and end all of design, but they can be lifesavers in a pinch!

People Make Process

When talking about process, it is easy to forget that much of process is about people. Managing an iterative process or production requires constant feedback and dialogue. Communication has to be open and honest, and we have to be open to hearing what others say. We need to function as a team.

Natural dialogue happens when we have an open forum for conversation. It may be a daily scrum, regular check-ins over IM (Instant Messaging) or video, or even that hello over your coffee in the kitchen. If you can’t have regular communication, it is impossible to have dialogue. So don’t hide in a corner! Interact!

Being a good team member also requires that we be accountable for being the best we can be. We need to be open minded and willing to change and take risks. This lets team members work toward the same goals, but be flexible enough to handle the challenges an agile process presents.

And lastly, self-organization is key to being a responsible team member. Unless each individual on a team can get organized, the team as whole can’t be well organized. Make sure you have all your ducks in a row, and things will move much more smoothly.

Artifacts Create Points of Reference

If Design is to be successful, development teams need to stop hating documentation and let go of the fear that it makes the process too heavy. Documentation can be as informal as drawings on paper or as transparent as whiteboards that remain visible in a place that everyone can access. It lets us maintain a shared understanding and keep communication flowing.

Without some object of reference, communication breaks down quickly, and we can lose sight of whether we’re talking about the same thing. So embrace the concept of a war room. Your team will surely benefit from sharing a common workspace.

Design Is Good Business

If we can be mindful of all these things, we can make design a successful part of any agile or Lean development process. Just remember that, sometimes, designers have to drive the vision. If we want to create a successful product, good design really is good business. Besides, wrestling a pig to get lipstick on it just doesn’t sound all that fun, does it? 

Principal User Experience Designer at Oracle

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Traci LeporeWith over fifteen years of experience as an interaction designer and user researcher, focusing on user-centered design methods, Traci has experienced a broad range of work practices. After ten years of consulting, Traci transitioned to working on staff with product teams at companies such as Avid and Oracle. Through her UXmatters column, Dramatic Impact, Traci shares how she infuses aspects of theatrical theory and practice into her design practice to bring a more empathetic, user-centered focus to her work. Traci holds an M.A. in Theater Education from Emerson and a B.S. in Communications Media from Fitchburg State College. She is a member of the Boston chapters of UXPA and IxDA and has spoken at conferences such as the IA Summit and Big Design. She is also a nominee for the 2016 New Hampshire Theatre Awards in the best supporting actress category.  Read More

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