Design teams and leaders need to define what good design looks like within their context to be able to push for better outcomes.
☕ What is good design
Why is it so hard to define good design? Any design team’s main objective should be to produce good design, yet is so rare to have a clear understanding and clear definition of what good looks like.
There are plenty of ways to describe good design. We can use existing sets of principles and heuristics. We can re-read and refer to Ram’s principles. We can think about aesthetics, and interfaces fulfilling business goals or consider the context of use, constraints, and company and brand values. Still, none of these are particularly precise or very specific when it comes to having clarity on what’s good. What’s understood as good design often boils down to subjective and personal factors.
If design organizations and design leaders strive to increase their impact, they need to own design outcomes. Thus they need to have an idea of what good design looks like. They should be able at the minimum describe what’s good and what’s not good to the design team and the rest of the organization. Often this means advocacy, other leaders up to the C-suite might need help to recognize something as good design and to articulate what they expect from good design.
Once we start to talk about good design, we also need to understand what’s mediocre design and what’s great design. Good is good, though depending on the context it might be just good enough. Good is vastly different in a mature team compared to a startup that is burning cash like crazy.
Mediocre is barely fulfilling requirements, with poor execution, not focusing on users, and not considering the context. Mediocre is often the result of misalignment between design, product, and engineering and shows the failure of collaboration.
Great is exceeding expectations, able to elevate the product’s experience in novel ways. Great design is innovative, memorable, and has a lasting impact - by challenging conventional thinking and setting a new standard on what’s achievable.
There is certainly a difference in polish between mediocre, good and great - and not only on the interface level. You can’t get from mediocre design to good if problems in user flow are not fixed. So to get better, the design might need to get better in understanding goals, and needs and creating better macro and micro user flows.
I found with the teams I’ve been working with, that good design was often an emergent idea appearing in discussions. While leaders have the dominant opinion, the rest of the team needs to absorb, agree and add their own for the team to be aligned. Design critiques are especially well suited for this, as participants get to articulate what’s working and what doesn’t. Over time, these articulations (and other types of feedback) set the space for what good design is within the team, and patterns and common ideas emerge.
Besides design critiques, two practices seem to be the easiest to implement to get to a good shared understanding of good design. First, establishing a set of principles that focuses on common criteria that all designs need to fulfill. Principles can be also emergent ideas, for example by asking all team members to define principles in their work and later use these as input to a definition exercise - this way the principles are more grounded and less fluffy. The second practice is the collection of good examples, stories about successful projects. Over time, these examples develop into a library of good that the team can refer to and try to move beyond.
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🍪 Things to snack on
A lot of what we understand today as good design in product design comes from Dieter Rams, here is a write-up from Bora: # Dieter Rams and 10 principles for good design (plus some nice Braun product imagery). Since good design is hard to define, the ten principles set what’s important to consider in good design (such as being innovative or honest). Even if the principles are 50 years old, they are still relevant and important today (such as being environment-friendly).
Scaling brings challenges to how design teams understand design quality, as Peter Merholz writes in What is “good design,” anyway? It’s crucial for design orgs to define quality. The article breaks down the definition to a few components: Usability heuristics, Brand personality characteristics, Experience principles, Design guidelines / design system, Inclusive design and accessibility practices, Measures of success, Explained exemplars of work, and Mature and inclusive critique practices.
Akos Csertan writes about how good design is created in Good designers don’t make good design with the main point that the whole company needs to be human-centered, it’s not enough to throw designers at projects and expect great design output. Maybe the broader point is also that while design teams can drive the definition of what’s considered good design, there also needs to be a common understanding, so the design team needs to train the rest of the organization on what good looks like.
Since we create products for humans it makes sense to consider all sorts of human capabilities even if we limit the target audience as much as possible - hence accessibility should be considered in good design, as Sharlene King argues in Good design was always accessible. Accessible design is good design since considering all sorts of people makes the experience also for everyone else.
Good vs Great is an inspiring list of contrast by Andy Works - showing the differences between a design that designers usually aim for (such as usable or consistent) and what we could be aiming for (enriches the soul or opens new vistas). The final conclusion being that once good is achieved, designers can start thinking about great.