How Do You Know It’s Good?

We do not describe the world we see, we see the world we can describe.

— René Descartes

Let’s say you’re working on a project. The project launches, other people start using it. How do you know it’s good? 

This is an important question, but trickier than it appears at first. I divide it into three parts:

  • Someone is being cast as the arbiter. (“You.”)
  • A continuum is implied: from no-good to good.
  • An objective is specified: you want the thing to lean towards the “good” end of the continuum.

All three are up for examination. Let’s start with the arbiter of “good.” If the project is being developed within an organization, it’s likely that many parties will have stakes in its success. And even if you’re working alone, there will still be other parties involved. For example, there will be people interacting with your system. They, too, will have a say on whether it is good or not. “Good” will likely mean different things to different people.

There’s a point along the continuum at which the thing is obviously no-good; it’s not meeting anyone’s criteria of success. As it evolves and (ostensibly) improves, it moves closer to meeting more criteria. (In theory, this process ends with a “perfect” artifact. In practice, this is an impossibility; the context around the system continues to evolve as the project progresses, changing the criteria for success for at least some participants.) Eventually, the system moves far enough along this continuum to flip over into the “good” side. (We say it’s “good enough.”) In other words, it meets the success criteria of a large enough group of stakeholders.

Who defines the threshold where the artifact flips from no-good to good enough? How is this measured? This is the crux of the matter: What “good” means in a particular context is up for grabs. Often there will be one lead stakeholder who will be calling the shots. There is an expectation that this person (or team) will be the arbiter of “good”. But these stakeholders are often buffeted by political forces that influence their decisions one way or another.

Designers working on complex systems need to understand how success will be measured. The criteria stakeholders will use to evaluate success will have an important influence on the structure and form of the system. For example, if the organization defines success and an improvement of a Net Promoter Score (NPS), the system’s designers will be strongly incentivized to structure it in such a way that feeds that measure. (As Jared Spool has pointed out, this may not be a good idea in the case of NPS.) Stakeholders and clients using NPS as a filter will see the world through that lens. This can leave out important factors for success.

What’s good for an internal team may not be good for an organization as a whole. And — more importantly — what’s good for the organization may not be good for society as a whole. As designers of complex systems, we’re called to see beyond the world we (and our stakeholders) can describe and measure. Our vision needs to encompass a wider (and longer-term) perspective if we are to provide real, enduring value.

Aligning Incentives

Incentive structures work. So you have to be very careful of what you incent people to do, because various incentive structures create all sorts of consequences that you can’t anticipate.

— Steve Jobs

What incentives drive your actions?

I don’t mean this in an aspirational, high-level, mission-statement sense. I mean: How is the value you add to the ​world remunerated? How do you put bread on the table? If you’re rewarded for a particular set of behaviors, you will most likely engage in those behaviors.

Some consultants charge by the hour. They get paid more the longer they focus on a problem. But the client doesn’t want the project to take longer (or cost more) than it needs to. In fact, the client wants a good job done as fast as possible. He or she is driven by different incentives than the consultant; time is usually a key factor. This is a case in which incentives are misaligned.

If you look around, you’ll find many such misaligned incentives. For example, as a citizen, ​you want to be well-informed so you can make better decisions. However, many mass news media are driven by engagement — how long they can keep you around so you can watch more advertisements. Engagement is a very different metric than elucidation; people will write and say outlandish things if they think it’ll make you pay more attention. (And if they get paid more when you do.)

We’ve never before been able to learn so much about what drives people, and instantaneously re-define their contexts based on what we learn about them. Incentive structures become reified in information environments. So when designing an information environment, we should work towards aligning the incentives that drive the environment with the incentives and goals of the people who will use it.

Design as a Way of Knowing

“The act of envisioning possibilities and elaborating them is itself a pleasurable and valuable experience. Just as realized plans may be a source of new experiences, so new prospects are opened up at each step in the process of design. Designing is a kind of mental window shopping. Purchases do not have to be made to get pleasure from it.”

— Herbert Simon

After years of kvetching, designers finally have a “seat at the table.” Large organizations increasingly acknowledge the importance of good design, and many have developed internal design capabilities. But many also misunderstand what design is good for.

Design is not just for creating more engaging experiences, or seamless interactions, or driving conversions, or reducing call center volume. The point of design is to envision and test possibilities in a tangible way. What would the world be like if this product/service/system existed? How would our customers react to it? What would it do to the rest of our product line? How does it fare compared to competitors? What do people call something like this? How do they interact with it? What effect does it have on our systems?

We can argue about these things and build mathematical models to compute the odds of success. But there are limits to the things we can know about the future using only words and numbers. Design gives us a different way of knowing; a way that involves making and testing models of the thing we’re imagining. What would the effects be on our customers/our organization/the market/the world if something like this existed in this particular configuration? Does it feel natural? Does it make us more or less assertive? What changes does it ask of us?

Trying on possibilities is very different from imagining what it would be like to do so. The acts of making and testing (even if it’s just a rough sketch of the thing we have in mind) provide insights that no spreadsheet can account for. Design allows organizations to sample different ways of being in the world without committing to production — a more strategic role than merely making things better and making better things.

Aspire to Ever-Fatter Markers

A sketch by Louis Kahn
A design exploration for the Dominican Motherhouse by the architect Louis Kahn. Kahn surrounded himself with people who could realize his ideas at greater levels of fidelity. Image: Arcade

A design career is a progression from thin markers to fat markers.

When you’re starting out, someone else gives you direction. You’re expected to fill in the details using very fine lines. To do so, you must understand the characteristics of the materials you’re representing on the paper, whether they be code, words, images, or bricks.

Once you’ve mastered the details, you can graduate to Sharpies. You can’t get too granular with Sharpies. This is good since it allows you to focus on the relationships between elements without getting lost in the details. You now understand how things can fit together locally. You can also identify, define, and convey patterns that allow designers with finer markers to work faster.

Eventually, you move up to whiteboard markers. With these blunt tools, you explore systemic issues: how elements relate to each other at the highest levels, how the outside world interacts with the system, how the system will evolve resiliently, who is responsible for what. You do this with collaborators in real-time; this includes stakeholders with concerns that are very different than yours. You develop gravitas and political savvy. At the whiteboard, you have an audience, and the stakes are high.

This audience includes designers wielding Sharpies and fine markers. Now you’re the one giving direction. As the person wielding the fat marker, it’s your responsibility to nurture the people using markers finer than yours, so they move on to fatter markers. You must also bring in new people to take up the fine markers others have left behind.

And what if you’re a team of one? Then you must keep markers of varying widths at hand. You must know which work best in which conditions, and when you need to switch pens. (You must still work on the gravitas and political savvy, by the way.)

You can’t design exclusively using whiteboard markers any more than you can with only fine markers. You need a combination of both. Good design managers help their teams master their skills and broaden their perspectives, and keep a vibrant mix of line widths in play. As a leader, you don’t necessarily stop being a practitioner; you just move on to a fatter marker.