UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 764 November 10, 2011

4 Strategies for Working With Designers Without Killing Each Other

Fourteen years ago, in my first job where my title was “Information Architect,” I clashed with a designer. We were working at a large advertising agency that was known for stunning design work. The art directors wielded a level of power at the agency that I have never seen anywhere else, and the result over the decades was a portfolio of gorgeous print and TV ads. The design-first method had worked well for this agency, winning them awards and a long roster of Fortune 500 clients, so they naturally decided to use this approach in their newly launched web department, too.

Things went well for a while, until I attended a kickoff meeting for a new website project. The designer came to the meeting with an already completed graphic design, before any information had been provided about who the site was for or what it would do. This designer had been at the company longer than me, and she had been happily designing sites without an information architect for several months. As far as she was concerned, this was a process that worked well for her, and why shouldn’t it? She had complete control of the site, her designs looked lovely, and they were not in any way influenced by user needs, site goals, or reality.

What followed was a long, drawn-out battle for control of the site between me and the designer. This battle usually sounded something like this, played out again and again:

Me: And when you click on this button where does it take you?
Designer: I haven’t worked that out yet, but it’ll be fine.

At the time, I thought I had encountered a particularly obstinate designer, but in fact I had just bulldozed my way into the biggest challenge in information architecture (IA): navigating the line between beautiful design and usable IA. Because this was early in the web world, the agency had yet to learn about this balance between usability and design, and I hadn’t either. And in the intervening years, things haven’t changed much. Designers still want to make things beautiful, UXers still want to make things usable, and those two goals are frequently at odds. What has changed for me, though, is the approach I now take to working with designers.

1. Get the Right Designer on the Project

We don’t always have the luxury of selecting the designer who will bring our wireframes and prototypes to life, but on occasion this happens. All UXers should have a roster of designers who are UX-friendly who they can call when the opportunity arises. More and more frequently, I have clients who either ask us to handle design or ask for designer referrals. When this happens I always feel like I’ve won the lottery. I have a collection of designers I’ve met over the years who are great at working with highly functional sites; if you have the opportunity to influence the designer selection, you need to be ready to jump in with names and portfolios.

2. Don’t Just Throw Wireframes over the Fence

Last year, I worked on an unusual project where the timeframe was so compressed that there was no time for wireframes. Instead I spent many, many hours each day on the phone with the designer discussing the interface, working out where each element should go and exactly how it should function. While I wouldn’t recommend this process as a rule, the end result was a beautiful working relationship and an interface that we were both thrilled with.

Many agencies are structured such that designers are just handed a stack of wireframes and told to execute on them. The end result tends to be either a site that looks like a very pretty version of the wireframes, or one that is only very loosely based on the UX design. To strike the right balance that prevents designers from either taking an overly literal interpretation of wireframes or from developing their own new interaction models, designers need to be involved early and often. As soon as you’ve got a few wireframes done, pull your designer in to start mocking up a visual design so you can work together through anything that needs to be rethought.

3. Give Designers Space to Do Their Thing

People go into design because they want to express their creativity, to play with shapes and color, and to have fun doing it. In some ways, information architects just come in and rain on designers’ parades by imposing structure and preferring the obvious over the unique. But there are designers out there—more and more all the time—who look forward to working with information architects because working off of wireframes makes their jobs easier. These designers still want to play and have fun, and (in the right place and time) new and interesting designs and interactions can make people happy, so it’s a good idea to include a design-centric section on sites that warrant it, where the information architecture takes a back seat to the design. This works for areas of a site that needs to provide a visceral feel for a brand, or portfolio sections of sites that need to showcase work or case studies. If you respect the designers’ need to create something beautiful, they are more likely to respect your need to create something usable.

4. Don’t Discount the Importance of Design

It’s important to remember, as Don Norman has famously said and Dana Chisnell recently reiterated, that beautiful design makes people happy. Good UX design is the backbone of good visual design, and one cannot exist without the other. Back when I was engaging the designer at my first IA job in thermonuclear warfare, I did it because I only barely registered design as something that mattered to the user experience. But the joy inherent in beautiful design is important as well, so sometimes when a designer overrides your UX design on aesthetic grounds, the designer is right. UXers need to weigh the pros and cons of all design decisions very carefully in order to determine where visual design should triumph over UX design, and vice versa.

There are still struggles, of course, and there are projects where designers want to go one direction and the UX team wants to go another. But I do seem to encounter fewer and fewer all-out wars between design and UX teams. When designers and UXers work well together, the ultimate winners are the users, who get a product that is not only easy to use but lovely to interact with.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Hana Schank is the Principal and founder of Collective User Experience, a user experience consultancy which works with Fortune 1000 clients to help make their sites and applications more usable. She has over 14 years experience in information architecture and user experience design. Hana blogs about IA in the real world at beautifulbutdumb.blogspot.com, and has finally broken down and started tweeting @hanaschank. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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Comments

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"It's frustrating that so many people refer to visual designers and art directors as "designers" and interaction designers are IAs, UXAs, UX strategists, etc."

Seconded. Especially as an ex-product designer who thinks really good designers should be able to do both. (The new generation of graduates can, so I'm hoping these kind of issues will be a thing of the past soon.)

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I think it's funny to see this internal battle between Information Architects (or UX Designers) and Designers (Art Directors). There's a much more critical battle that not many people talk about: UX vs Develpers. In any case, having all of those guys working together with the shared purpose of building solutions that not only will enchant the final users but also add value to them, is key for the success of any end-to-end team.

I talk about this in this article I wrote about Lean UX, or at least my view of what Lean UX is, which differs from some consultants associating it exclusively with Lean Startups.

http://www.uxmindset.com/2011/11/lean-ux-agile-development-the-next-big-thing-in-software-development/

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I'd just like to clarify the statement "People go into design because they want to express their creativity..." because it seems that it is being misinterpreted in some of the comments. I do not mean by this that designers sit around all day expressing their innermost feelings via client work. Designers, particularly those working in an agency, are of course working to communicate a wealth of information about the brand and the audience. Nonetheless, the statement that designers go into design because they want to express their creativity is simply a fact. There are creative fields where ten people will come up with ten different solutions, and and there are other fields where there is always a right answer. Design is a creative field. Designers who are not interested in expressing their creativity become something other than designers. Further, designers are interested in playing with shapes and colors in the exact same way that copywriters are interested in playing with words and meanings. For both professions there is joy in coming up with unique creative solutions, and for the most part that is why people choose to enter a "creative" field. If there is a designer out there who isn't interested in color I haven't met him or her.

I agree with the statement that a good designer can make a wireframe layout even more usable (@David), which is why I believe UX-ers should bring design in to the process early so UX and Design can work together, as stated in my second point. I also agree that brand sites and highly functional sites have very different design priorities - there wasn't room to go into that here but it's a valid and important point, so thanks for raising it.

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I gave been involved in building websites for over a decade now both doing UX and design and I have to say that this battle is usually touched off by poor communication and teamwork. The very statement "Designers still want to make things beautiful, UXers still want to make things usable, and those two goals are frequently at odds." is usually false.

I have found over the years the UX people think they know everything about interaction because they went to school and learned from books. The best UX people I know are those that work in the real world testing sites and looking at real design patterns not book patterns. A well done site needs equal parts of UX and Design to truly engage a customer. Thinking one or the other is more important is extremely stupid and will lead to a site that isn't used.

Visual design should enhance the UX work done and make the site more usable. I don't disagree with fact that the designer UX conversation above happened as I have heard it myself. But when you make statements like "People go into design because they want to express their creativity, to play with shapes and color, and to have fun doing it" you are belittling an entire profession and this is why you fail with designers. If that was what they wanted to do they would have become starving artists and just done Lite Brite installations or something.

People like you, that foster this mentality, are the ones that cause all of the usability issues. By people like you I mean, designer or UXer alike, that foster division by belittling what the other side does is why so many projects fail.

I thought UXers were supposed to think through things before completing work but clearly you have not.

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It's frustrating that so many people refer to visual designers and art directors as "designers" and interaction designers are IAs, UXAs, UX strategists, etc. If you don't consider yourself a designer, you shouldn't be designing systems.

Also, having UX and art direction on separate teams is a (nearly ubiquitous) bad idea.

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"People go into design because they want to express their creativity, to play with shapes and color, and to have fun doing it. "

"These designers still want to play and have fun, and (in the right place and time) new and interesting designs and interactions can make people happy, so it’s a good idea to include a design-centric section on sites that warrant it..."

"If you respect the designers’ need to create something beautiful, they are more likely to respect your need to create something usable."

As a UI designer I find your comments condescending, highly inaccurate and bordering on offensive. As a UX designer, I can tell you that you are missing opportunities to improve the effectiveness of your work if you subscribe to the tired and demonstratively false notion that a visual design professional contributes nothing more than pretty pictures - for his or her own enjoyment at that.

Successful Design/UX teams are born out of mutual respect and understanding of each others roles. That might be a better starting point for your article on working together.

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"People go into design because they want to express their creativity, to play with shapes and color, and to have fun doing it."

Is that really what you think that designers do? The issue is that you don't understand the role of design. Graphic Design is visual communication; it gives form to ideas and messages. Designers create design systems using typography, hierarchy, and grids to make content accessible. And yes, if the project goals require it, they make things pretty.

A designer should dictate that layout of the page and the placement of elements. Most IA/UX designers don't have the experience or skill to balance all the elements of a design to create a meaningful layout. You cannot judge whether a layout is effective in the wireframe stage because you haven't added the layers of brand messaging, color, contrast, etc. So a designer needs the flexibility of being able to alter the layout of a wireframe. Any good designer will take a wireframe and make the layout even more usable.

The other factor that you allude to is that sometimes design/branding should drive the design. Not everyone works at a UX consultancy creating software, many IAs and Designers work at brand agencies where doing the obvious isn't the objective.

IA/UX designers should read about the history of graphic design particularly about the International Typographic Style. Step outside your world and realize that there are other things that an effective website needs.

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"People go into design because they want to express their creativity"... I don't think that's accurate, a good and professional designer does not design for themselves, but for the client's needs and goals, the audience's needs and goals, the goals of the project, etc. Visual design is deeply rooted in goals--you design for a purpose, there is a desired outcome. Designers don't design based upon air or their own whims, they are designing with specific goals in mind and usefulness is one of them. I think the problem at your agency was the leadership.

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"People go into design because they want to express their creativity"... Perhaps is one of the core issues in the IA/Designer relationship. Design should not be used as a way to express the designer's views, creativity, opinions, etc. Design should visually communicate something else. That something else is what a good IA/UX person needs to help identify.

Good article. We need to explore this topic a lot more.