Design is about meeting business goals, not making you feel good

In this post I make the argument that companies should hire designers that have a strong foundation in psychology and design theory. I further make the case that when Product Managers and other UX practitioners give feedback on designs, they should move away from their personal visual preferences and instead focus on feedback that relates to the user and business goals they are trying to meet.

I recently had a discussion with an Interaction Designer friend of mine about the perils of Design by Committee.  His take on it was, in essence, as follows (paraphrased a little bit):

The problem is that everyone thinks they’re a designer. Not everyone can code, so they don’t go to developers telling them their markup needs to be more semantic or more valid. But everyone has a gut feel about design – they like certain colors or certain styles, and some people just really hate yellow. So since everyone has an emotional response to a design, and “it’s just like art,” they think they know enough about design to turn those personal preferences into feedback.

It is a real shame that we have come to this point where design just means “making things pretty” for some. Even among people who do understand it’s about more than that, there is sometimes this misconception that there is so much personal taste involved that “your guess is as good as mine.” And to add insult to injury, they way that feedback is given to the designer is often more destructive than helpful. Look, I’m not against design feedback at all – it’s an essential part of the process. But if you’re going to give feedback, do it right. More on that a little later.

The truth is that design is science. Yes, of course it’s a creative discipline, and every designer has a style they like, and strong ideas on aesthetics.  But it is important to understand that aesthetics is the last mile of design. Before that (if you do it right) comes hours and hours of analysis and thinking, resulting in solutions that are built on very real psychological principles, easily proven using the user experience validation stack.

The major problem with focusing too much on aesthetics (and our personal views of it) in design is this: it makes the site harder to use.  Jeffrey Zeldman’s excellent 1999 piece Style versus design places some of this blame on designers themselves, but it sums the problem up perfectly:

When Style is a fetish, sites confuse visitors, hurting users and the companies that paid for the sites. When designers don’t start by asking who will use the site, and what they will use it for, we get meaningless eye candy that gives beauty a bad name “” at least, in some circles.  Not enough designers are working in that vast middle ground between eye candy and hardcore usability where most of the web must be built.

So let’s be clear. Design is not about what feels good to you. Design is about meeting business goals. It’s about solving user needs so that your business can make more money. In Mike Monteiro’s recent post on Giving Better Design Feedback he builds on this idea and gets to the crux of it:

First rule of design feedback: what you’re looking at is not art. It’s not even close. It’s a business tool in the making and should be looked at objectively like any other business tool you work with. The right question is not, “Do I like it?” but “Does this meet our goals?” If it’s blue, don’t ask yourself whether you like blue. Ask yourself if blue is going to help you sell sprockets. Better yet: ask your design team. You just wrote your first feedback question.

This madness has to stop. I’m not arguing that we should create ugly web sites. In fact, as long as the focus is first and foremost on meeting user needs and business goals, beautiful sites can make the experience simply wonderful. But I am arguing that those of us in the Product Management and User Experience field need to fight for three things:

  • A design culture that is routed in theory, analysis, and critical thinking.
  • A company culture that hires designers with strong roots in theory and analysis
  • A managerial culture that trusts their designers to do their jobs.

So how do we as Product Managers and UX practitioners help affect this change?  We need to gain a much better understanding of what goes on under the hood of design. We need to do this so that we can give better design feedback, but also for the sake of the business in general, so that we are able to make a strong argument for what’s right when it comes to design culture. And lucky for us, there are plenty of great resources online to help us learn how to objectively look at design, and understand the science behind it. Here is my initial suggested reading list:

  • The psychologist’s view of UX design is an incredibly detailed look at user behavior on websites, with additional outgoing links to more great content. I go back to this post often.
  • Designing for the Mind explains how the brain interprets visual information, and how that translates to web design that works (and is also aesthetically pleasing).
  • Gestalt Principles Applied in Design goes further down the path of using established psychological principles to create better designs.

But just how important is it that we solve this problem? In a scary, almost prophetic way, Zeldman ends his post on style vs. design with the following words of caution:

Most of all, I worry about web users. Because, after ten-plus years of commercial web development, they still have a tough time finding what they’re looking for, and they still wonder why it’s so damned unpleasant to read text on the web “” which is what most of them do when they’re online.

I fear that now, more than 10 years after he wrote those words, we’re still in the same boat. Let’s change that. The next time you need to give feedback on a design, don’t go with your gut. Go with science, and keep your user/business goals in mind. Ask your designers goal-oriented questions, and if they can defend the decisions they made, trust them. If they can’t, you just gave constructive feedback. As you should.