Can we afford to design in a vacuum?
I came across an article in a recent New Scientist issue (4 August 2007), where they interviewed 2 retired Apollo programme engineers from Grumman Corporation. (Grumman built the lunar module for the first manned moon landing 38 years ago.)
The engineers’ reply to the first question stood out to me:
Q: How closely did you work with the Apollo astronauts?
Gerald Sandler: Very closely. They would continually come into Grumman and they were on the inspection teams for the vehicles. Everyone who was working on the lunar module saw them personally and recognised that their lives depended on what we were doing. Having the astronauts involved and very visible played a key part in ensuring that people felt personally responsible. That was one of the reasons why the quality levels where so high.
Joe Mulé: Whenever a problem wasn’t getting attention I had a guy working in my group who used to say: “Are you going to tell the widows?” It was something we always kept in mind.
This reminds me of what I said in a recent post on intranet design and governance:
As part of the research, we had to conduct many interviews with different staff, to understand their work habits, their informational needs, and so on. As of now, we’ve interviewed close to 10% of all staff.
Personally, those interviews weren’t just to find out what problems needed to be solved or even to understand the users – what was more important was that those interviews gave me an opportunity to have personal contact with those who will be using the intranet that I’m redesigning, to actually care about them. I’m not redesigning the intranet for some faceless silhouetted entity called the user; I’m doing it to help make the lives of these nice people a better.
The longer I’m in the field of design, the more I see the importance of first-hand interaction with the clients and final users.
More so because I’ve also seen instances where the designers were “designing in a vacuum”.
I know of this web project done by a large web design company where the web designer never got to meet or have any contact with the client. Everything went through the project consultant.
The designer was simply asked to create the design based on a given layout, and so they did, to the best of their ability.
It was obvious from the design that the designer didn’t grok or have an understanding of what the client the final users needed.
So, that marked the beginning of a long and frustrating process of redesigning and rejecting and re-redesigning and re-rejecting.
Perhaps, that web design company wanted to save costs – it is costly to get the designer involved in attending meetings with the clients and the final users.
But it’s even more costly for them not to do it. Costly not just in terms of the effort in redesigning, but even more in terms of branding, where the client becomes displeased with the whole experience.
Rather than asking if we can afford to let the designer spend time meeting clients and users, we should be asking if we can afford not to do it.