Quality, like love or beauty, can often be in the eye of the beholder. It’s subjective to suggest that something has quality, yet, as designers, we strive for that very subjectivity in every product and service we create. The concerning thing, however, is that our industry as a whole has recently shifted focus to how quickly and efficiently we can arrive at such designs, showing less concern for quality.

I’ve heard and been a part of many conversations in recent past extolling the virtues of being “lean” and doing agile UX. These discussions have often led to very useful ways of getting to a design faster, working more efficiently, and removing dependencies and fixations attached to the artifacts we make. These are all great things, but the unfortunate side effect is incremental blindness to the bigger picture.

While the need for UX has gained traction in many organizations, we’re beginning to lose the forest for the trees. Experience design has the ability to exert a larger influence on the overall strategy of a product or service, and that comes with responsibility: we cannot make uninformed design decisions.

Put Something Out There

Many of our new lean and agile processes have us committed to “putting something out” there and then pushing ourselves to “fail fast, fail often.” Overlong planning sessions and over-analysis are enemies of many industries, not just design, but why aim to fail at all? By doing so, we lose sight of why we’re actually making or doing anything (i.e. why are we designing what we’re designing?).

Placing priority on doing versus planning is generally a good idea in order to work through many sub-par concepts before arriving at the optimal one. When it’s taken too far or misinterpreted to mean that the end result is greater than the means by which we arrived there, however, there is a problem. Remember, we're here to bring people into the design process earlier and deliver a great experience, not just arrive at the finish line.

I’ve seen a great deal of lean and agile UX applied in spaces where teams are creating a brand new product or service. Most of the time, that’s a startup environment where speed-to-market is a key driver for that company. Being that lean and agile UX methodologies have taken root by allowing us to arrive at solutions faster and more efficiently in some cases, we can see why they make a natural fit in the startup environment. Sadly, this is where things can often take a turn for the worst.

In this case, there are inherent dangers to designing something, putting it out there, and then testing and refining it. Creating a new product or service is like going on a first date, if we make a really bad first impression, we might not get that second date. For a new product or service, an initial impression that paints it as being of poor quality, untrustworthy, or just plain lousy can be an absolute killer. Speed-to-market shouldn’t be the only driver. “Just putting something out there” is dangerous in the world we live in.

A Time and a Place for Speed

There are, of course, places where placing priority on the speed to a solution is more appropriate. When we’re working within an organization that has established customer segments and value proposition, it makes more sense to emphasize the ability to create design concepts and iterate off of them. In this context we’re still making informed decisions. A rich history and actionable knowledge precedes the work of generating design concepts, allowing us to narrow our focus.

Creating concepts first only to test them later breeds risk into the entire organization

Presumably, a product roadmap was driven by user research, agreed upon, and prioritized to the point of enabling swift execution. Consider the alternative, where we may be creating a brand new product or service without the luxury of that foundational knowledge and history. To focus on creating concepts first only to test them later breeds risk into the entire organization, not just the product itself. While we can test designs later, they will only allow us to evaluate the utility of the design and are less likely to allow us to discover an entirely new means of providing value. If a product could have been something else entirely, we’ll may miss that opportunity by focusing on improving and iterating on the initial concept.

Amazon is perhaps the best example of arriving at designs and quickly iterating on them. They ship software roughly every 12 seconds. From there, they evaluate the performance of the change(s) and iterate. This process is fantastic and clearly successful enough for them to have become a juggernaut in the industry. It’s important to consider that they also have millions of people seeing these designs in a very short amount of time. This provides them with incredible amounts of data to make informed decisions.

The Right Time and Place

There are two important things for us to remember. First, lean and agile methodologies should be applied specific to the resources we have and the amount of feedback we have access to from our audience. Second, we must evaluate whether or not moving to design-first-and-iterate-later is our most effective option. UX design has a breadth of techniques and methods to employ on the front end of our efforts to inform any design decisions before evaluating them. There’s a difference between generative research and evaluative research. One should not replace the other, and if we only evaluate what we’ve done, we risk missing out on something truly innovative.

The call for quality is one that gives us permission to make informed design decisions. We have the responsibility to educate our organizations and clients to ensure that we don’t misuse the concepts of lean and agile UX to become “shoot first, ask questions later.” The call for quality allows designers to help guide the people we work with toward the best approach for a given design problem. We can bring co-workers into the design process by helping them understand how we all arrive at concepts and build empathy with the audience those concepts are meant for. Doing so shows the importance not just of the end goal, it also emphasizes the importance of how we’ll get there. Help your organization make informed design decisions and create great products and services that people love.


Image of blacksmith forging courtesy Shutterstock.