A Designer is a User Representative
In this piece, I explore two essential questions for the burgeoning field of design and its future leaders: What is the role of the designer? What are the boundaries of a designer’s purview? At CMU Design, we often discuss this idea that a designer’s role is fluid, changing as technology develops, driven by ethics and education, and shifting with priorities. If everything is design, then perhaps nothing is design. Below I argue a designers essential role in the 21st century.
Most people believe there are two types of designers in today’s world – strategists that define what to build and visual experts that systematically define how to build it. While this mental model helps pin down the oft-intangible roles of designers in the workplace, it fails to illustrate our fundamental value in today’s complex society. Based on my experience, I believe the modern designer’s role is three-fold. First, they represent the voice of the user, second, they infuse the human experience into development processes, and third, they help build adaptive systems.
Represent the User
Successful designers should be representatives to their users, serving them throughout the design and evaluation processes. Early and often, designers must utilize multiple research approaches, including ethnographic observation, interviews, and user testing, to empathize with their users’ experiences. Just as elected city officials are expected to bring constituent concerns to government, the onus is on designers to vocalize user interests through storytelling and design artifacts, so that they can innovate in their benefit.
Some members of the social impact community argue that large-scale innovations are inherently irresponsible. As Facebook Product Designer, Margaret Gould Stewart (2018) highlights, “innovation can be simultaneously good and bad.” These claims rest on the idea that there will always be a subset of users negatively affected. Take a service like Uber, for example. The app serves 75 million riders and has given more than 10 billion rides. This scale has effectively changed traffic patterns in our cities, often creating more congestion for people on the road. Urban planners are even looking to build more “pull over lanes” to combat the issue. As we’ve witnessed with the proliferation of consumer technology, designers cannot foresee all possible consequences of their work. Despite this limitation, designers should use emerging evaluation frameworks to more holistically consider societal impacts of technology and design.
As user representatives, designers should think long-term about the life, health, and safety of their users. To do this, they must consider how outside forces manipulate their design intent, and then set up frameworks to measure their effects. The design process doesn’t stop after a service has been built because the societal impact has only just begun. By thinking politically, designers can begin to evaluate beyond immediacy.
The design process doesn’t stop after a service has been built because the societal impact has only just begun. By thinking politically, designers can begin to evaluate beyond immediacy.
Social designers von Busch and Palmas (2016) quote political philosopher Raymond Geuss, saying, “to think politically is to think about agency, power, and interests, and the relations among these.” Gould Stewart (2018) calls for designers to use a framework called the Four Quadrants of Design to identify the impacts of expanding user groups and ecosystems. By functioning as representatives, designers have the unique ability to imagine better futures for people and continue to be a trusted voice for their users.
Designers don’t work in a vacuum; they co-create with business managers, engineers, and other internal stakeholder. In addition to designing empathetically, designers must also leverage user stories to humanize the design development process. Successful designers are the connective tissue between disparate departments. Power dynamics, expectations, and growth pressures, can all sway the direction of a project. While most other internal stakeholders have clear obligations from the onset, such as cutting costs or driving a better ROI, a designer relies on users and other stakeholders to determine needs.
The “act of creating” is not something we do just for our users – it’s something we must do for ourselves and our coworkers too. Designers are trained to use shapes, colors, and movement to unravel difficult or unquantifiable concepts. As Jon Kolko (2015) states, design artifacts can be used to communicate, “supplement and in some cases replace, the spreadsheets, specifications, and other documents that have come to define the traditional organizational environment.” By visualizing user stories in presentations, sketches and storyboards, designers help team members stay open- minded about possible outcomes and cast aside ulterior motives during the development of a product or service.
The “act of creating” is not something we do just for our users – it’s something we must do for ourselves and our coworkers too.
A common response to these claims is that user-driven approaches to problem solving are unrealistic in a profit-oriented workplace. While it is true that empathetic problem solving can be messy, emotion and human connection are ultimately what create the most powerful products. A designer’s value lies in their ability to tap into user’s innate feelings, so that they can build systems that collect and tell stories. By doing this successfully, designers can transcend needs and communicate the competitive value in great user experiences.
Finally, a designer must seek to create work that is flexible, so they can be easily built upon, extended, or even deconstructed. In Stuart Brand’s (1994) book, How Buildings Learn, he references an architectural historian, Rina Swentzel, who described her Pueblo culture as, “flow, continual flow, continual change, continual transformation.” People, cultures and environments are always evolving. By accepting this principle and embracing the inevitability of change, designers tap into one of the simplest, yet most important powers that we have. Since we are designing for humans, then we must also design for change.
By accepting this principle (of transformation) and embracing the inevitability of change, designers tap into one of the simplest, yet most important powers that we have. Since we are designing for humans, then we must also design for change.
What does flexible design look like? It looks like a house made of legos: it affords re- arranging of component parts, stacking and unstacking. It’s sturdy, its language is re- usable, easily contextualized, and can be systematically taught to others. When designers have the foresight to build design systems, they make products that can more easily adapt with people over time. I agree with Stewart Brand (1994) when he writes, “an important aspect of design is the degree to which the object involves you in it’s own completion.” Users are loyal to products that grow and develop with them.
Take Gmail’s latest design update, for instance. The fourteen-year-old email service now offers smart replies, generated by machine learning, that enable users to select a generated response when replying to emails. This feature not only lets users save time, but it is also designed to suggest more authentic responses the more it’s used.
A quite different example is Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper Quad. Although new, the building was designed to have lots of open, transformable spaces, with the expectation that students and educators would be using it differently over time. As James J. Gibson’s (2014) states “there is only one environment, although it contains many observers with limitless opportunities for them to live in.”
In sum, the role of a designer is rooted in our responsibility to represent the user. The world is changing rapidly, which is why it’s our job to to stay grounded. Our skillset helps us humanize internal workflows and should also be put to use in developing new tools to evaluate long-term social impacts of our work. By building flexible solutions for our users, designers champion the idea that the work is never done. And we all know, the work is never done.