Defining good design
A few years ago someone asked me the simple question of how I define good design. As a professional designer, you might think this is a simple question with a straightforward answer, right?
Wrong. I cringed as I struggled to string a few vague words together in a poor attempt at an answer. What became clear to me, and the person asking me the question, was that I had no idea how to articulate this. This worried me. I design every day, I review the work of other people, confidently giving an opinion on what works, what doesn’t, and why. Surely I should be able to clearly articulate what good design means to me?
The reality is that there is rarely such a thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ design but rather a spectrum of possible outcomes, each valid depending on the criteria that we are using to evaluate them. What it comes down to is if the design is delivering on the stated goals in the most enjoyable, efficient, and elegant way possible. The question of how we can define good in this context has haunted me a little ever since I was asked and this article is my attempt at a better response to the question.
What we mean by design
First up, some context. It’s an important point in itself that I will come back to later but for now, I want to give you some more information that is relevant to how I have formed my answer. Design is of course a broad term that means different things to different people. The design industry is in many ways, due to the rapid growth and expansion of the profession in recent years, a constantly evolving and moving target. Any attempt to define it as an entity or a process inevitably falls short in some way.
A definition that I find particularly useful to communicate the work I do is from Steve Jobs, who said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works”. This gets to the core of how I see design and the value it brings. It is, at its core, a process that can help us understand how the world and the people within it works. It is an approach to problem solving that helps us manage complexity while hopefully adding some joy to people’s lives.
“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” — Steve Jobs
There are many interpretations of how the design profession is defined and the boundaries within what we broadly consider as design are loose. Take the example below from Dan Saffer, who attempted to explain the many roles that make up UX design. As you can see, there are many and varied. The point is, there is no single definition of design that can ever encompass the entirety of the profession and process. This definition will change depending on your perspective and what’s important to you.
I am a Design Director at Fjord Dublin, part of The Dock — Accenture’s global innovation centre. My role sits at that fuzzy intersection of people and emerging technologies. For the purpose of this definition — I will primarily be speaking about design as defined as the various design-related activities that are required to envision and build new digital products and services. Even that is a broad definition but the people on our team that work within this definition include design researchers, business designers, service & systems designers, interaction (or UX) designers, data designers, visual designers, content designers, and motion designers. When we consider the application of design within these disciplines, it means a broad range of processes and outputs. This can include strategies, research insights, service blueprints, visuals, data-visualisations, socio-technical system maps, digital user-interfaces, content and motion. What unifies everyone is that we are working towards a common goal of creating the most intuitive, impactful, and elegant experiences for the people who interact with the products and services we create.
How others define good design
There is a long history of different approaches to defining what good design means. Instead of attempting to do the full history any justice, I am going to focus on some examples that I have found to be most relevant in how I work. I have drawn primarily upon two sources, both of which offer slightly different perspectives on what ‘good’ can mean. The first is a set of principles that were initially considered for the design of physical products. They get to a very foundational view of the value of design and for that reason, are still relevant in today’s digital age. The second set of principles were formed as an articulation of the best practices in the design of screen-based interactions. They are a lot more prescriptive and actionable in comparison.
When considered together and combined with the nuances of how we work in The Dock, we can create the principles at the end of this article.
10 principles for good design
Let’s start with the classic and much-quoted 10 principles for good design by Dieter Rams, a German industrial designer who was responsible for the design of Braun’s consumer products for many years. In 1976 he developed the principles in a quest to answer the question “Is my design a good design?”.
The principles have been frequently referenced and were cited as a major influence by many design teams including Apple. While they were initially considered only for physical products, the principles and their underlying ideals have endured into the digital era.
Good design is innovative
The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.
Good design makes a product useful
A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.
Good design is aesthetic
The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.
Good design makes a product understandable
It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.
Good design is unobtrusive
Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.
Good design is honest
It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.
Good design is long-lasting
It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years — even in today’s throwaway society.
Good design is thorough down to the last detail
Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the user.
Good design is environmental-friendly
Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.
Good design is as little design as possible
Less, but better — because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.
We obviously live in a very different era to when Rams conceived these principles. The internet and its infinite possibilities didn’t exist but I think it is amazing how much they still resonate.
While each of these could be explored and explored further, it is the last one, ‘as little design as possible’, that I come back to again and again. Today technology pervades almost every aspect of our lives, often in very intrusive and disruptive ways. For this reason, the idea of going ‘back to purity, back to simplicity’ feels more important than ever. Like Jobs said earlier, this is should not be interpreted as being stylistic but rather about striving for efficiency and designing with purpose—no matter what the application. In a world where everything is connected, the more we can get technology (and design) out of the way, the better. I think there are echos of this in how Golden Krishna, a writer and designer at Google said ‘the best interface is no interface’ in response to society’s obsession and over-reliance with screens.
As little design as possible also means constantly questioning assumptions and ensuring that every little addition to the user experience has a strong justification for being there.
It doesn’t help that it is all too easy to create new things that add to the noise. The barrier to creating good looking design is lower than ever, thanks to intuitive and accessible design and prototyping tools like Sketch, XD and Figma. While such tools have been transformative additions to our workflow as designers, like any tool, they can easily be misused. What’s important to remember is that we always design in an intentional way. Dialing up the finish only when absolutely necessary. This leaves room for new ideas that might not have previously been considered and importantly, permission for others to contribute. Designer Michael DiTullo puts it nicely:
‘A rendering is a statement, a sketch is a conversation’.
10 usability heuristics for user interface design
Within the world of interaction and interface design, there have been several notable attempts at codifying best practices (heuristics) in the design for screen-based interaction. One of the best known within the industry are the 10 usability heuristics for user interface design by Jakob Nielsen, who developed them based on work with Rolf Molich in 1990.
Visibility of system status
The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within a reasonable time.
Match between system and the real world
The system should speak the user’s language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.
User control and freedom
Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.
Consistency and standards
Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.
Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.
Recognition rather than recall
Minimize the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.
Flexibility and efficiency of use
Accelerators — unseen by the novice user — may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.
Aesthetic and minimalist design
Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.
Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.
Help and documentation
Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.
In comparison to Rams’ approach, Nielsen’s principles take a more pragmatic and actionable approach. A major difference, of course, is they have been designed specifically for screen-based interactions. On the principles, Nielsen described them as more directional than specific guidelines:
They are called ‘heuristics’ because they are more in the nature of rules of thumb than specific usability guidelines.
This is an important point — principles can only go so far in terms of how much they can prescribe for what best practice looks like. Nielsen spoke about this in more detail:
Often, the most important design elements are those that cannot be specified by a standard
Guidelines or principles are of course only a starting point and achieving good design. As the examples above show, good design is the result of the consistent consideration of the quality of the user experience.
There are other equally influential approaches worth noting. The eight golden rules of interface design by Ben Shneiderman (1985) are in many ways a precursor to Nielsen’s principles above. Much like Rams, there is a lot of foundational thinking there that is still relevant today.
In addition, the 7 principles of universal design were developed in 1997 by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers, led by the late Ronald Mace in the North Carolina State University. The purpose of the Principles was to guide the design of environments, products and communications. In comparison to the other examples above, they are notable for their emphasis on accessibility.
Why does good matter?
This is a really important question. Why does something need to be well designed? This depends on what we mean by ‘well designed’ of course. There are many times where a simple whiteboard sketch and conversation with the right person, is infinitely more valuable and efficient than well-designed mock-ups. What’s important is designing with intent and tailoring the approach accordingly. This means when we do need to invest in design, people listen.
There is also lots of evidence that good design is good for business. Research from McKinsey has shown that design-centric companies achieve higher revenue growth and higher returns to shareholders. Investing in the user experience is no longer optional, it is increasingly what sets great companies apart — especially within the enterprise product space.
Another reason why good design matters is that customer experiences today are liquid, meaning they translate over from one industry or domain to another. This is evident in how consumer-grade experiences are now the expectation for many enterprise applications. Look at the explosion of emerging enterprise productivity and communication apps like Slack, Airtable, Notion and Superhuman as evidence of good design differentiating products within enterprise. Even incumbents like Microsoft have made big statements about the value of design, with the investments to match.
I think Tom Kelly, co-founder of IDEO sums up the point really well when he says:
‘Some skeptics insist that innovation is expensive. In the long run, innovation is cheap, mediocrity is expensive’
Defining good design
So what can we learn from all of this? Should we just tick the box on each of the principles mentioned above whenever we design new products or services? While we could probably do a lot worse than attempting this, that in itself will not, of course, guarantee great design. The question is not so much which principles, or combination of them, we should follow but rather what meets the specific needs for how we work at The Dock.
The approach I have taken incorporates both foundational elements and practical examples. The goal is not of course that these should sit on a poster on our wall, referenced infrequently only by the design team. Principles are only effective when they are embedded in how the broader team works. To this end, the audience for these principles is not just designers but the wider multi-disciplinary team we collaborate with daily. This means that ownership, and accountability, for the design of good products and services is shared. We can ultimately only establish the conditions for good design to happen — hopefully these principles help to do that.
Note: These principles are my first draft. This will be updated once we get input from the wider design, business and technology teams in The Dock. In the spirit of continuous iteration, they will hopefully never be finished but will evolve as needs and priorities change.
Grounded in the problem
We are conscious of what problem are addressing at every stage in the process. This helps us to focus on the core innovation and how it helps our customers.
We don’t create in a vacuum but we are aware of the broader context that our products are used. This means understanding who we are designing for, where our products will to need a operate and clarity on how it will go to market.
Proactive & propositional
Designing artefacts early can be an efficient and impactful way to synthesise abstract ideas. By asking what could be early, we move the conversation forward, challenging assumptions and building momentum in a constructive way.
Just enough design
Are we trying to show what’s possible or are we solving a specific problem? Being clear about the job that any design output needs to do is critical. A great solution for the wrong problem is meaningless.
Good is in the details
It’s the details that make the design. Simple, seamless experiences are the result of lots of work, trade-offs and perseverance. Conversely, a lack of consideration for detail instils a sense of distrust of confidence in your users.
Good design is not the responsibility of the design team but something that the entire team takes ownership of and is invested in.
Culture of continuous iteration
Embracing good design is not a one-time event. It should be a fluid, continuous part of every business’s long-term strategy. Great products are not the result of a point-in-time action but the result of a fluid, continuous part of a long-term strategy.
Good design is inclusive
We don’t always know who our users are or know their needs. We try to address the broadest range of users possible, engaging with the relevant standards.
We create highly technical solutions within complex domains. Just because things are complex doesn’t mean they need to be complicated. Our job is to simplify this complexity in order to create the most robust, user-friendly and enduring experiences possible