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About that C Word …

Compromise: is it a dirty word or not?

I once read that design is a series of compromises. A fellow designer told me that making compromises is about capitulation, which results in low-impact and low-value outcomes. Does it, or is it about being pragmatic and thinking of the end game?

Image: Compromise is a delicate balance

Earlier this year, I was working on an agile project with lots of great people. There were a lot of very emotive discussions during our collaborative sessions and many hard decisions made on a daily basis. While it was a challenging project, there were some key lessons:

  1. Design does not happen in a vacuum. Working with stakeholders, technical folks and end users means understanding and balancing a number of constraints and different perspectives. It’s about acknowledging the constraints imposed upon other teams to ensure that the design can be reasonably implemented within their constraints.
  2. Design with intent. Dropping elements onto a user interface without understanding whether they are crucial or not to the user experience means that we may not understand the implications for the developers or to the end user. A decision we take at the experience level or at the interface level may cost hundreds of additional development hours. Understanding the intent and communicating this onwards helps the team to decide whether those additional hours are worth it.
  3. Design is about making decisions based on the information you have. We make the best decision we can with what we have, even if we don’t have a lot of information at some points in the design process.
  4. New information is likely to surface throughout the design process (e.g. through usability testing, new subject matter experts who bring a different perspective/knowledge), which may result in having to change our design approach. Sometimes this results in conflicting requirements, which require prioritisation to ensure that we’re still keeping to the overall design and user experience vision.
  5. Design is grey. There is very little black and white. At the end of the day, we’re designing for people with people. People are complex. Behaviours and motivations are complex.

Doug Bowman summarises the compromising challenge nicely:

“Someone recently put it to me that all design is a series of compromises; but good design finds the right ones.”

Ruth Ellison

Ruth Ellison

Ruth is a design researcher from Canberra, Australia. In the last 15 years, she has worked across a range of industries, from airlines, to banks and government, doing research and design. She loves doing design research as she's fascinated by what makes people tick and how they interact with technology. In her spare time, she makes science and geek themed jewellery under her Crankybot design label, using her lasercutter in her garage.

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