A Conversation About Great Designers

Jul 27, 2010

I happened upon a great dialogue between Google UX Designer Jennifer Bilotta and Hunter Walk, Director of Product Management at Google. Notably, the dialogue took place between Jennifer’s latest blog post “The Role of a Great Designer”, which was posted as a response to Hunter’s earlier blog post “Get more out of your smartest people by asking them to do less”.

Hunter’s blog raised a provocative idea – namely to get your “best” designers to do less, to have them paint the broad strokes, not get bogged down in the details and move on. The driving factor being that you can’t clone a great designer and finding them in the first place is still a challenge.

Bilotta’s post responds to and expands upon Hunter’s ideas. These are a few of the topics she explores:

  • The flow of ideas is collaborative, not directional
  • Every possible design iteration doesn’t need to be explored
  • Context switching is the enemy of quality
  • The devil’s in the details
  • Anything that users can see is the responsibility of the designer
  • Strong team relationships accelerate design innovation

I don’t want to regurgitate her points; I really encourage you to pop over and read her thoughtful post.

I do want to say that my own project responsibility often lies somewhere right in the middle or at least sways back and forth: the need to work with a design team on every last detail to submit to engineering and the need to often times compromise detailed planning in order to keep production moving at a required pace.

With a background in multimedia from back in the day of “Gold Master CD-ROMs” – I appreciated that every design layout, information flow, and technical implementation was thoroughly thought through, tested and re-tested.  That was the only way to not sweat approval of several hundred thousand CD-ROMs being pressed for a client’s trade show.

These days, as a Product Manager, I’m trying best to shift my own thinking and that of my teams to accept that everything we do is iterative – we can let some things slide because websites and even apps are being experienced more and more as “living, evolving things”.  Just take a look at Twitter, billions of tweets a day and it’s still down 1/2 the time!  I have to admit, though, the designer in me often cringes when we can’t get something just perfect before sharing it with the world.

While I agree with nearly everything Bilotta points out, the most notable for me are around the issues of context switching and strong team relationships.

Designers are most often on the hook to come up with “amazing” things.  For this, they need to be given breathing room, runway to explore, and time to focus.  I find that when think time on any project is disjointed, it severely undercuts ability to hit the mark.

On the flip side, when you have a designer (or designers) that work with engineers very closely, they can often work through details collaboratively much faster than the typical linear flow (PRD -> Design -> Engineering).  This is where the concept of iteration really fits.

And, of course, having great designers in the first place is pretty important

Thanks to Jennifer Bilotta and Hunter Walk for sharing their conversation!

FYI: I spotted the dialogue by way of a Twitter post from Silicon Valley blogger, Louis Gray.