Are designers really necessary?

The role of “experience” designers and “user interface” designers has been much harder to justify than other designer disciplines such as graphic design or industrial design.

For that reason, I find it interesting that the topic of value added by designers has been coming up more and more often, particularly when customers are pretty adamant about designing systems/interactions themselves simply because they “know the business” or have been doing maintenance on an existing system “for a long time”.

Even amongst peers there has been debate recently about whether the industry has been either making systems “hard to build” in an attempt to retain control over those systems and to create dependency (aka. keep the money flowing) or not being as diligent when it comes to educating customers and allowing them to maintain their systems themselves.

In my opinion, I don’t think there any sort of industry conspiracy going on nor I see designers making things harder than they need to justify their jobs or to serve a hidden agenda.

I think part of the problem relies on the fact that our profession isn’t as well defined or as structured as other design professions, meaning that in our midst we have linguists, psychologists, engineers, designers, sociologists, cognitive scientists, human factors practitioners, etc. that even though share similar goals, can tackle a problem from very distinct approaches, with their own processes and even “vocabulary” which can explain some of the confusion customers might experience.

I think the other culprit is the current economic environment. Companies might be inclined to pick one technology over another simply based on cost, not on customer experience or interaction capabilities. Furthermore, companies are squeezing their budgets as much as they can while trying to keep more control over their projects.

I’m convinced that if they could design the solutions themselves, they probably would, but the truth is they simply can’t. But they don’t realize they can’t! So that’s where I think designers like us come into play to help them learn about our design processes and methodologies in a way that they may be confident enough to contribute, which in return allows designers to obtain very rich feedback out of them.

I really liked the way Mark Baskinger explained the differences he sees between industrial designers and interaction designers:

“[Customers] may think they are directing, but really what they are doing is learning, and as a designer we’re interpreting their direction as sort of boundaries, wishes and desires we can operate within to really challenge the opportunity and do some really good design.”

I think that if designers are conscious about this situation and continue to play the role of sounding boards that customers can leverage to bounce ideas off of, help plan strategies and the guide them through the process, the ones that will benefit the most are the ones that really keep us all in business — our users.

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