Why UX and web project managers should never say the word “design” again

Ask ten people what the word “design” means and you’ll get 10 answers. Some will relate to UI, others to functionality, and still others to the emotional experience. Which is right? All of them ofcourse!

That is why I have banished the word “design” from my project vocabulary. Its nebulous nature inevitably leads to confusion. We dont have a “design” group on my teams. If you have a team of designated designers it erroneously leads to the belief that the other teams dont do design but as Alan Cooper says “All design is behaviour”, and websites are in essence a funnel for user behaviour. Every part of the web development process deals with “design” in some way.

Through the lens of design as behaviour everyone working on a website is a designer, like it or not. It is a difficult and complex topic to break down, and many people have early training to overcome telling them they are not ‘designers’, they are ‘bad at art’, and so on. Changing our vocabulary is essential. Its only by banishing the word design – a major web development crutch – that we can change our way of thinking.

When conversations in a meeting are framed as a “design” question it will inevitably exclude some members of the team, atleast psychologically. I challenge our teams to frame questions and answers in terms of user behavior instead of visuals. We all instinctively feel that user behavior is everyone’s business, and therefor conversations about visual interface elements (see? I didnt say “design”!) are for the whole team.

However banishing the word design takes some getting used to. Early discussions are like an awesome game of ‘Taboo’. When we discuss topics we traditionally might call “design” team members are forced to find more accurate ways to describe them. “Hows the design coming along?” becomes more a far more accurate inquiry into specific challenges. “How are you merging the two competing color palettes?”. “Is the lo-fi navigation UI accomplishing its user goals?”. “What is the rationale behind the signup form coming before gallery in the wireframe and how will it affect user behaviour?”. “What is the user feedback on the new widget layout vs. the old?”

A discussion that fully involves all disciplines on your team is the ultimate encapsulation of parallel workflow. The goal of these discussions is to generate tasks for the backlog of all active teams (depending on the phase) focused on user-centered behavioral understanding. Backlog items may be generated by any team member, for any team member. When questions and answers are framed in terms of user behaviour, with the clear visual of a wireframe to refer to, all team members have valuable insights to add.

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