Ten Ways to Kill Good Design
It’s a given that we at Cooper—and most of you reading this article—believe
design is the right tool for translating market needs into tangible product
specifications. The people who hire us to design their products or who attend
our Cooper U courses think the same thing. Unfortunately, the best designs
and the best intentions won’t always lead you to success, because the problem
goes beyond your product and beyond your design or development process. Building
better, more innovative, and more profitable products requires organizational
change on a deep and difficult level.
When design pilot projects fail, it endangers everyone’s willingness to
adopt design methods. Over the course of doing hundreds of design projects
and teaching our methods to more than a thousand people, we’ve seen that
several reasons for failure keep showing up. A discussion of these reasons
follows, along with some solutions to consider. Let’s start with the easiest
ones and work our way up.
1. Poor choice of pilot project
When you first bring design into an organization, you generally have to
convince others of its efficacy. The best way to do this is usually to pick
a pilot project and demonstrate how design helped it succeed. However, if
you pick the wrong project and can’t demonstrate success, you will certainly
lose credibility and may also lose any further chance of persuading people.
Choose a relatively small project with a clearly measurable outcome. For
example, if a particular part of your application causes 30% of your tech
support calls, fix that part and track the decrease in calls. It’s also a
good idea to choose a type and size of project your company has done several
times before, so you can show the savings in development time and cost. Also,
avoid ill-conceived projects—if it’s a product or function no one will
ever use, there’s only so much design can do to help.
2. Not having one consistent project owner
Every design project needs a business decision-maker associated with it—someone
who can make trade-off choices between desirable design directions and difficult
implementation issues, and will shepherd the product from concept to completion.
In many cases, this is a product manager. Companies that try to do this by
committee, with no single person responsible for the project’s outcome, seldom
succeed. Everyone thinks everyone else is responsible, so the process proceeds
very slowly, if at all. Changing project ownership partway through the process
is also an enormous risk, particularly if the new project owner has not been
involved until now; you will need to revisit every project decision, and
may end up throwing out quite a few and starting over. This will lead to
a perceived project failure, and will devalue the design process in everyone’s
So, senior managers, choose a single project owner and be sure that person
is someone you’re not planning to reassign in a couple of months.
3. Incomplete design or insufficient design communication
The best design in the world won’t get built if it’s incomplete or undocumented.
When clients ask us to design to the framework level (major navigation and
interactions) but not provide the detail, they are much less likely to succeed
than our clients who ask for bitmaps and widgets. This is generally because
the people who have to fill in the rest are not interaction designers, and
don’t have the appropriate skills and context to fill things in. Likewise,
your documentation must be very complete, because if anything is open to
interpretation, trust me, it will be interpreted. It might seem obvious to
a designer that my bank’s ATM shouldn’t offer me the ability to withdraw
from a money market account if I don’t have one, but it apparently wasn’t
obvious to the people who built the ATM software.
This kind of problem is relatively easy to fix; be sure to assign designers
for the duration of the project, and make sure there’s someone on the team
responsible for providing detailed documentation.
4. Not getting buy-in from top executives
Every time we interview stakeholders on a project, we ask whether there
are any executives higher up the chain of command who need to approve the
project’s direction. One of our worst nightmares is being told that no one
else will influence the project, then having an executive we’ve never met
suddenly object to our direction. On one of our projects a few years ago,
we were told that a senior executive didn’t need to be part of the process.
Sure enough, two days before the end of a multi-month project, he didn’t
like the design because he hadn’t gone down the path with us. Several months
of formal usability testing finally convinced him, but the opportunity cost
to our client was tremendous.
Interviewing top executives at the start and involving them at each decision
point will help you avoid this.
5. The wrong people doing design
If you wanted to persuade people that martial arts were an effective means
of self-defense, would you hire me, or Jackie Chan? (Believe me, you’d want
Jackie Chan.) Design won’t take root in your company unless people see it
done by experts. The vast majority of companies I’ve seen try to bring design
in-house by telling some programmers that they’re now designers, or by having
the product manager do some design in his spare time.
Although the need for designers varies during the project life cycle, design
is a full-time job as well as a profession that requires many years of practice.
Good interaction designers are hard to find, but they do exist—hire
6. Not committing resources to design
Even with the right pilot project and the right people doing the design
work, if the management team doesn’t provide support in other ways, it’s
much harder to succeed. We often see companies that won’t give designers
access to users, or that won’t allow enough time to understand the problem,
solve it to the level of detail required, and document it in a reasonable
way. Unfortunately, until they’ve seen its value demonstrated, many people
view design as a cost, rather than a savings (and more importantly, a strategic
Think about mini-projects you can use to demonstrate value, even with little
or no budget. Use those small successes to ask for resources on a modest
pilot project with an obvious opportunity for gain.
7. Failure to separate innovation from renovation
If you have one product manager and one development team, it makes sense
for them to be responsible for the visionary new release 3.0 as well as the
2.x maintenance releases, right? Wrong. When that version 2.x deadline looms,
no one has time or attention to spare for what the next major release should
be, so the future product always gets shortchanged.
Instead, carve off a small team to focus solely on designing 3.0 in parallel
with the implementation of maintenance releases. This might mean you throw
away a little more of that 2.x code when you build 3.0, but it will save
calendar time and increase what you can accomplish for the big upgrade.
8. The inmates are running the asylum
You knew this had to be in the list somewhere, right? It’s here toward the
end of the list because it’s a big problem that takes a long time to solve.
When we say the inmates are running the asylum, it means the programmers
are making business decisions that should be made by executives. In most
cases it’s not intentional, and the majority of people are unaware of the
extent to which it happens. However, every time a programmer says "That’s
not technically feasible," he’s just made a business decision that’s
invisible to most people, since "not technically feasible" really
means "not in the tiny amount of time or with the constraints I know
you’re going to give me."
It’s a designer’s job to mediate this conversation. Changing the process
on paper is relatively easy, but changing the attitudes and behaviors behind
the process takes more time and effort. One way to help things along is to
make sure that design doesn’t report in to engineering, but instead reports
to a cross-silo manager who can balance marketing and engineering perspectives.
Ultimately, responsibility for fixing this problem lies with senior managers,
who have to ask, "What would it take to make it technically feasible?"
9. Unrealistic expectations
I can’t even count how many times someone has called me up to say "We
need to design or drastically redesign the product that generates 100% of
our revenue, and we want to ship it in two months." For some reason,
Fast Company or some other part of the Web boom hype created this perception
that you can design, build, and launch a successful product faster than you
can get a new driver’s license. While this may have been true for a couple
of people who got lucky, it’s simply not true in most cases.
We seldom encounter this myth in companies that build physical products,
because they’re much better acquainted with the reality that spending up-front
time ultimately results in more efficient manufacturing and more profitable
Unfortunately, many companies assume their problems come with the territory,
just like traffic noise comes with living in a big city. Have you ever noticed,
though, how much more annoying the traffic noise is when someone points out
that it’s there? You can do the same thing: bring the points of pain to the
attention of the management team, identify the cause, and propose design
as your solution. It may take a while to have an impact, but be persistent,
tie the problems to dollars, and you’ll eventually get through.
10. Unhealthy corporate culture
For design to work in an organization, that organization has to be basically
functional. By this, I mean there needs to be open communication at all levels
of the organization, clear delineation of responsibility and authority, competent
staff, and trust between managers and their teams. Some degree of risk-taking
must be acceptable; otherwise, no one will be willing to stand up and say, "I
believe we need to do this." In healthy companies, certain kinds of
mistakes are OK, as long as people learn from them. Senior managers challenge
their teams to do better, but never ask the impossible, and they give their
teams clearly stated problems to solve, instead of specifying solutions.
If your company lacks these qualities, work on fixing these major issues
first before you try to implement design. Again, you’ll succeed in getting
management’s attention if you tie these problems to dollars: talk in terms
of lost productivity, employee turnover, and project delays. A good human
resources manager will be your ally in this.
One step at a time
When you’re trying to bring design into an organization, it’s important
to realize that you’re not just changing a process—you’re attempting
to change the company’s culture and dearly held beliefs. It’s entirely possible
to change any company, but it will take a clear goal for where you want to
be, a plan for getting there, executive sponsorship, and excellent communication
about the benefits of change. Change on this scale isn’t easy, but isn’t
that true of just about everything that’s worth doing? Find allies within
your organization, look to designers outside your organization for moral
support, and don’t forget to celebrate your successes, because you will have
some. Every time I get discouraged about the state of the industry, I remind
myself that five years ago, no one know what interaction design was except
those of us who did it. Today, marketers, developers, and executives call
me up asking for interaction design. We must be doing something right, after