Design Does Not Mean Sitting in a Room

With Q&A, however, Microsoft “started with just a pure design view,” Netz said. That meant the design team sat in a room for weeks and thought about how to make the user experience as simple and addictive as possible. They worked around the clock and on weekends, he said, with the understanding they’d move on only when “everybody in the room feels that what we have is just going to be awesome.”

If you can believe it, this was published under an article talking about a supposedly new “design-first” strategy at Microsoft. Now, I suspect and hope this is just a mistranslation/interpretation by the journalist here, and that those folks at MS don’t think that “design-first” means sitting in a room for weeks and thinking about awesomeness. But it’s a common enough misconception, I thought I had to comment on it. 🙂 

For example, I remember attending UX Week 2009, and one of the speakers was the lead designer from the then-new Palm WebOS. I couldn’t believe my ears as I sat there in a UX/Design conference and heard a keynote speaker saying that his approach to designing a new OS for a business-user-oriented mobile phone was to stay in a room and reimagine what desktops and calendars were.  (I am probably not remembering exactly, but that was the gist.) The fella clearly thought he had stumbled onto something amazing, and I guess I was ignorant enough of who he was to not be overawed by that. Well, we know how that story ended..

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to bash on Microsoft nor WebOS. But we gotta get away from this notion that the way to do great Design is to lock yourself in a room and dream about awesomeness. You may as well just put some sketches up on a whiteboard, number them, and roll some polyhedral dice to select the best, most “awesome” design. 

In fact, hiding in a room should really be considered a Design antipattern. It implies a few bad things:

  • Isolation from Ideas – good designers regularly seek out inspiration all over the place. They become rabid consumers of others’ designs and design ideas. By isolating yourself, you block out those avenues of inspiration.
  • Echo Chamber/Focus Group Effect – you will very quickly suffer the echo chamber effect, that is, you will soon start coalescing in your viewpoints and ideas, which serves both to further isolate and falsely confirm awesomeness. 
  • Loss of Perspective – the more you are “in” the details of a design project, the more you lose the perspective of those who are “out” of it. Concepts that used to be not-so-familiar or obvious become more familiar and, ergo, more “obvious.” 
  • Isolation from Real Users – this is a key element for ongoing awesomeness and serves to counteract most of the  problems above. Without ongoing design evaluation with users (or at least user-like substances), you can think your designs are as awesome as sliced bread, and it won’t matter a bit. Until the rubber meets the road, it’s all just wishful thinking. 

I think I can safely say that sitting in a room and demanding awesomeness has very little to do with great Design. If what Microsoft (and WebOS) came up with was awesome, it would be because the people involved probably had some talent, solid Design experience, some luck, and a relatively good understanding of the target audience and the possible solutions. And more likely than not, they involved actual users in design evaluations sooner rather than later in their process. 

Looking at more of what the author said, you see some indications of that. Those involved were clearly some sort of subject matter experts and have had a good bit of prior experience with the target audience. He says they consulted experts in solution domains to understand solution possibilities, which likely served to expose them to all sorts of new design ideas. No doubt it took more time than six weeks, and it seems unlikely they were just sitting in the room that whole time. 

It seems safe to assume they were employing some Design professionals and/or at least that they did a fair bit of evaluation with users before sharing it with a journalist. And he does highlight one important element–holding off on technology selection/specification until the Design vision was in place. 

It’s early to say if this particular solution will be successful, and success in the market depends on more than just good product design. Certainly, following a good Design-first approach will help. Demanding Design awesomeness is important, especially in the details of the execution on the Design vision. Waiting on technology selection is important. But there’s a lot more to great Design than just that, and certainly more than just sitting in a room and working hard on it.