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Time for software design to grow up

Hannes D’Hulster

Photo by Panos Sakalakis from Pexels

30 years ago: software was created by development teams. Software designers were rare and mostly focused on graphic design for posters or nicely crafted furniture. At that time, I was still trying to remember DOS commands and discovering Nirvana (yes, the band).

20 years ago: Jacob Nielsen published “Designing web usability” and usability in software became a thing. It became a personal bible and dictionary. In the beginning of 2000, for every interface there was a Jabob-rule.

10 years ago: Information architects became a new brand of designers. They crafted interfaces based on user needs. Web designers were there to create good looking and smooth looking UI. The web designers’ care for usability has been growing ever since. I worked as an Information architect at that time, having a lot of discussions with web designers on how things should work. Happily, that changed.

Nowadays: the UX/UI designer has made an entry: every start-up needs a good-looking and friction-free app. Design became a necessary part of the software creation process. I started calling myself a designer, but I still think the description of the role UX designer is still too narrow.

The value of software design is greater than having good looking interfaces and frictionless flows. Good design creates an impact on the long-term behaviour of people and therefore it impacts the world we live in.

It is time for software design to grow up.

Like it did in architecture, furniture, and house-keeping objects, design needs to grow up. Design drives the development of software products by combining a clear vision, business goals and user insights. It is not adding some color or a 5 days long zoom-exercise. Design is a fundamental way of creating tools we use everyday.

The value of design

The most important effect of embracing design is that it puts your user, mostly your client, at the centre of your organization. By understanding the user needs, you can create a more fitting user solution. This value is the core of the economic model and is even more relevant in a digital world. Investing in design will make money since it directly creates value.

As you may have noticed: the world is constantly changing, on many levels. It’s not all good news — there are some real challenges concerning the planet we live on. The rise of temperature, the search for energy sources, and finding a way to dispose of our garbage are just some things unsolved.

But, wealth and access to technology keep on growing. In the past decade, the number of smartphone users has grown to 3.5 billion. The impact of digital technology has not stopped and has only grown during the COVID pandemic. This means that the impact of design on technology and the changing world should not be underestimated. Designers not only have an impact on technology but also on the world it influences.

Design is also a creator of transparency. When you start your decision processes with user data and you’re constantly questioning the current state of things (something designers do) then you automatically promote transparency. Working in a changing world requires embracing uncertainty. This forces a desire to clarify the view in search of certainty which improves transparency. Not only is this a good thing for designers, but it also creates healthy management structures and responsible employees.

Being aware of the impact of design is not enough. If an organisation wants to make a difference, design should be part of your processes. Let me guide you through the most important steps.

Durable design

  1. Do research: listen to your customer! You probably already do this, in one way or another. Businesses have marketing channels, support departments and analytics data to learn from. This is a perfect start but make sure you talk to people as well. From quantitative data, you can see what your users are doing but not what the reasoning behind that is. If you get the whole story, via interviews, you can take decisions that benefit your (future) clients. This affects many more people than your designers and decision-makers. Learning how your users thrive is a team effort that requires breaking down silos.

  2. Build a design team: yes you can hire them for a one-off project, but that should be temporary. And I don’t mean “temporary until this project is ready” but instead “temporary until you have shaped your organisation so it can handle design as part of its DNA.” Hiring a designer will make sure you build the right things with less risk and will save you money in the long run. A good designer will always ask hard questions and challenge the current norms. Oh, and the more responsible your team is, the less processes you need. So make sure you find the right designer that can flourish within your culture.

  3. Validate your work: showing your work to your clients requires some courage but it reduces the risk significantly. Check your software plans with your users, but also check if the new features support your vision. Remember that your product has impact, so it is driven by your vision.

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More opinions:

A designer’s guide to talking with users

Hannes D’Hulster

Even with good intentions, it is not easy to get the right user insights. Qualitative research is the basis of a solid digital product that people can relate to. This is why I wrote a blog post or two (in Dutch) about how important it is to involve users in your design research.