What’s the Purpose of Design Artifacts?

At a high level, the purpose of design artifacts is always the same: to communicate intent. However, audiences for artifacts vary widely, and they all want different things out of them. Hence, we have many different approaches to documenting design which vary in scope and degree of fidelity.

Audiences can include:

  • Stakeholders
  • The stakeholders’ bosses
  • Customers (who will be testing the system)
  • Developers
  • Other members of the design team
  • The designer herself

Purposes can include:

  • Understanding the general direction of the system
  • Exploring structural directions
  • Exploring possible interaction mechanisms
  • Exploring visual directions
  • Understanding decision-making
  • Providing construction guidance to developers
  • Testing with customers

Designers need to understand the needs of the audience(s) that will be using their design artifacts, and which artifacts work best for particular needs. Artifacts suited for communicating visual directions do little to communicate structural directions, and vice-versa, while those that provide construction guidance are not best for justifying decisions — or at least they don’t if they’re any good. A stakeholder may have little use for construction documents other than to know they exist and can be used to build the system. On the other hand, this same stakeholder may need documents that justify the reasoning behind design directions, something that would be of little use to users of the system.

It’s easy for us to fall into the trap of believing that artifacts are the design. I’ve seen situations where stakeholders specify upfront the types and quantity of “deliverables” for a design project, with no regard for what they will be used for. Designers willingly comply because they, too, tend to measure their progress based on the wireframes, sketches, prototypes or whatever else they’ve produced. This is a mistake. Artifacts are communication tools. They’re a sort of language we employ when communicating intent; a means to create ​a feedback loop between the design team and others in the world — which is to say, a means for bringing others into the design team. Using the wrong feedback loop with the wrong audience at the wrong time can do more harm than good.

Knowing which type of artifact is most appropriate to a particular audience for a specific purpose requires two-way agreement: both parties must negotiate the protocol. Ask people what they need, and know when you’re called to suggest alternatives. After you find out what works best for the people involved, you can communicate intent in ways that make it useful for the situation at hand.