How product design decisions get made

Recently in a Facebook group dedicated to designers, known as Designers Guild, a young design student named Marina Candela asked why many modern designs tend to feel so terrible or "backwards” looking, like digressions. Specifically designs from large tech companies like Uber, Apple, or Facebook.

You don't have to read all the latest headlines or browse the countless unsolicited redesigns on Dribbble to understand what this question entails. For many people, both designers and not, the gut reaction to seeing a new design is typically: that is stupid.

The problem with this is that design is not a process of beautifying things. Designers don't get paid to make things necessarily look nice. Yes craft is certainly part of the job, but it's not the job.

There's a lot of work going on behind the scenes when design decisions are made. More than you might imagine.

This is particularly true for companies like Uber and Facebook, or really any large company today. Design at these companies entails everything from research, experimentation, iteration, lab or small group testing, and real-world testing. Each of these steps can take anywhere from a few weeks to months, with the time invested in researching, conceptualizing, and testing, reflecting the potential impact of the design decision. The larger the design task, the longer it takes to move on it.

It's common for amateur designers and the average Jane or Joe to look at design projects like Uber's logo or a new design for Instagram or Facebook, and respond solely with their gut. "This looks worse than before! How can anyone understand this?! What were they thinking? This is terribly designed.”

In reality, these are vastly more surface level responses then what design intends to deal with.

The purpose of the design isn't always to make something look good, or even better than before. What these design processes are about is solving a problem.

Good design solves problems.

Sometimes the problem is that customers view your brand as a lower-scale version than what they are paying for, which dilutes the value of the company. Other times the problem is that the platform you've created is itself outweighing the content it produces or hosts. Or that a primary feature has become hidden, or an influx of new features has crowded the interface, or what you and your team thought made reasonable sense is immensely confusing for people who use the product out in the real world.

Other times still there are issues the common designer may never be aware of: scaling a website to suit the needs of almost everyone on the earth, for example. That's a really hard problem to solve, and an equally hard problem for most people to wrap their heads around.

My own experience at Facebook is a good example of this. Most designers will say that Facebook is extremely ugly (and as a designer myself, I tend to agree). Yet Facebook doesn't have to look phenomenal to work well. And this is what I'm most proud of being a Facebook product designer: the problem of scaling a product for the entire world to use is really, really hard, and yet Facebook is doing it fairly well.

Consider a few of the problems a designer working on Facebook may encounter: Every word, every button, needs to be translated to hundreds of languages, which creates issues with layout spacing among other major hurdles. Content reverses sides of the screen depending on which part of the world you're in (left-to-right text VS right-to-left text). In some parts of the world certain types of content are simply outlawed, and placeholder or legalese must be put in its place dynamically. Some people use Facebook on their $700 iPhone with unlimited data plans while others use it on a $5 flip phone and only 1mb of data to spare each month. Some people have an internet connection that is 1,000 times slower than others, which means things like images and app size really matter

The best designers consider not only the objective of a project (like the ability to live stream from the app) but also the constraints they must work within and the issues they must work around. Not only that, but much of the design process we encounter day-to-day should be about determining whether or not the problem being solved is the right problem to solve to begin with. And if it's not: how do we go about identifying the real problems?

So while it's easy to look at a design and think it's ugly, or lame, or a digression, the reality is that there are many, many, many, many decisions being made and considerations taking place behind the scenes which have led to the latest design.

And if the team behind the design has done their work well, they've tested and experimented and validated their work enough to push it to the place where people like you or other designers can finally get a look at it.

That doesn't mean the design is done, but it does mean that it's "done enough” to satisfy any major concerns.

One thing you can do to better equip yourself to evaluate design work is to step back and think of all the scenarios the person(s) responsible are attempting to address. I outlined a few we encounter at Facebook above, but I'm sure you can come up with many more of your own.

Before judging a design you should ask questions like:

  • What problem is this attempting to solve?
  • Who is it solving it for? If not me, then who?
  • What problems or scenarios might those people encounter that this design is considering?
  • What are the limitations being designed for?
  • What about constraints?

Lastly, as additional food for thought, consider the fact that people simply don't like change. Change presents challenges we mostly want to do without. But change is inevitable, and while new designs can feel strange or unfriendly at first, we inevitably grow into them because… well, time works that way.