Lola Oyelayo was formerly Director of Strategy & User Experience at Head, and a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to see her excellent talk on Wicked Problems at NUX5. I was even luckier to have the opportunity to chat to her the evening before about how designers can tackle complex problems in digital projects.

One of the themes – both of Lola’s talk and the day more generally – was about the responsibility that UX designers have to understand the larger contexts in which their work exists, and to empathise with those they work with.

Design exists within an environment

Design does not exist in Photoshop files (or Sketch ones), Axure prototypes or Invision; not even in HTML prototypes from designers who code.

Design work in digital projects doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but within an environment, typically with at least some of these constraints to consider:

  • Legacy software (even if that “legacy” is only a couple of years old)
  • Interfaces with 3rd parties and other systems
  • Existing users/customers, with their associated data and knowledge
  • Contractual obligations or regulatory deadlines
  • Purchasing/procurement decisions or processes
  • Established tools and technical platforms
  • Business strategy and goals

To borrow from Eliel Saarinen:

"Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan."

Design is delivered by a multi-skilled team

I’m going to say that it doesn’t matter if designers can code, if they understand the environment they are designing for. Even if they can code, almost never is a single designer going to be the only person needed to deliver a product. Design work is part of broader team activity that defines, shapes, designs, builds, tests, and deploys.

That team is going to be made up of lots of different individual human beings. They will differ in a million different ways, including:

  • Skills
  • Knowledge
  • Experience
  • Specialities
  • Location
  • Perspective
  • Motivations
  • Challenges

Successful, productive teams are going to be sensitive and adaptive to the nature of the people within them.

Make it your job

Designers are well placed to make things better in this world of changing environments, constraints, and people. They will often be involved throughout the product process, and have the opportunity to contribute insights along the way. They’re often good at stepping back and seeing larger system connections and journeys. They’re empathetic with others, and attuned to discovering goals, motivations, and difficulties.

But others find themselves in these positions too, and – whether you’re a designer or have another role on a project – there are three key things that you can do to be part of better projects.

Make it your job to:

  • Understand the environment you’re designing within
  • Understand all the people that will be involved, where they’re coming from, and how you can work together
  • Surface all this information for others and to cultivate a shared understanding