Tuesday, May 12, 2009

On Engineering and Design: An Open Letter

Matching the talent and knowledge with the task ...

"Well-intentioned engineers often ask me how they can become designers, or how they can "do" design. A typical question might be something like this: "Can you please share guidelines for maximizing user experience while designing a UI? For instance: When should I use radio buttons instead of drop down bars [to minimize clicks] and so on?"

Questions like this are tough in more than one way. So I thought I would share a considered response—in the form of a hypothetical e-mail reply—to the well-intentioned engineer:

Thanks for taking the initiative and demonstrating interest in user experience (UX).

Without intending any disrespect or discounting your sincerity, I must admit that my first reaction goes something like this: You're kind of asking for a master's degree in an e-mail. Let me explain by paraphrasing your question, but with the professions reversed.

"Can you please share guidelines around supporting concurrency, while avoiding deadlock and race conditions, while designing a real-time system that has optimal performance and minimal code footprint?"
Hone your questions, find the talent

Imagine how a trained computer scientist would respond to this question if it were put by someone who came from a design school, or whose training was in the social sciences. You might not be entirely generous, right? That's how a designer would respond to the first question.

The magnitude of what is actually being asked is overwhelming, so the short answer to both questions is:

Add to your team the professional competence appropriate to the task. In your case, you need a UX professional. The UX people clearly need a professional computer scientist.

End-user satisfaction and quality of experience need to be the fundamental pillars of any worthy company's value system. Hence organizations must be structured in a way that tilts the odds in favor of achieving these goals. Good intentions are a start, but they are not sufficient. Appropriate tools and skills at the highest professional standards, applied according to best practice, are what's needed.

Every project thus needs equally high levels of competence in the mutually dependent but different disciplines of engineering and UX. Professional stature is equally hard to achieve in each, and there are no simple shortcuts that let one jump from one to the other: This is no place for amateurs."    (Continued via BusinessWeek, Usability News)    [Usability Resources]

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