The Promise of Iteration

Perfectionism is a common trait among user experience designers. We are known for paying attention to the small details that make a big difference to users. Like QA testers, UX designers look for the holes in the design, catch the dropped balls and find where the approach falls down. Valuable skills to have on any team. But like any good thing, this talent can become an Achilles Heel. Perfectionism stalls the designer in endless meetings and revisions.

Portrait of Heinz Traimer Graphic Designer
Gone are the days when a designer could labor in isolation over every detail. Photo by Matthias Bechtle

Carefully crafting every detail takes a lot of time. Adapting to change quickly generally translates to late nights redrafting wireframes to keep a team of developers from waiting, idle. If a change to the security requirements is made, using email addresses instead of an 8 character user name for instance, you’ll have to reexamine the entire experience looking for those ‘gotchas’ and reworking what you spent so much time creating. So designers take measures to protect themselves from change.

Here’s reality. Design happens in the same Catch-22 environment as development. You will never know everything you need to know before you start. Doesn’t matter how long you spend in discovery or how many business analysts you throw at the project. The digital world is an ever changing environment where business needs shift quickly, the technical landscape evolves, and we never stop learning about our users. As we design and build, we apply the knowledge that we have, and discover new things along the way. No one should be expected to ‘get it right the first time’.

Historically, that’s always been the expectation. Either from clients or just a designer’s professional standards, an issue uncovered in the design has always resulted in an error being given to the designer. UCD techniques are often sold to clients with the promise that the resulting design will have fewer mistakes. Take the time to understand the users first and you will create a better experience. Research alone will not get you perfection out of the gate. At the end of the design phase, you will always have parts of the design that you wish you could go back and change. If you only knew at the start what you know at the end…

Recently, Jeff Gothelf, Chad Albrecht, Steve Schmidt and myself had a discussion about implementing UX into Scrum. Agile methods try to embrace change and lean into the ever shifting environment of the digital medium. Chad says “Expect change, big change. If your approach doesn’t change through the duration of the project, then most likely, there is something wrong.” Jeff added that in order for designers to let go of their perfectionism and move past the expectation that it has be perfect the first time, you have to deliver on the promise of iteration.

The opportunity for designers to iterate their work is a practice that few have experienced. If you get a designer to make that leap of faith from out-of-the-gate perfectionism to ‘go with what I know right now’, he must be allowed to propose sizable changes in the future iterations. Why? Because the designer is taking a RISK. He is trusting that if discoveries are made that indicate the current design is not the right one, he will be able to correct it. He is trusting that the team and it’s stakeholders will not respond with complaints that design changes cause rework. He is trusting that stakeholders will be receptive to the course correction rather than assign blame for not getting it right the first time.

This is a bigger deal than you’d think. 

Agile methods require designers to focus on a small section of the product at a time. Designers push back on this approach because of the difficulty it creates for designing a coherent gestalt. Big design up front affords the designer the ability to adjust all the pieces of a design in reaction to each other to create a consistent experience. This is replaced with iteration. The risk the designer takes in focusing on a singular section is mitigated by the promise of iterating the other areas to make them consistent and coherent in another sprint. If that promise is not kept, designers will not let go of BDUF.

Circle of trust
Trust needs to be established for designers to be comfortable leaving BDUF behind.

The bulk of my experience in traditional teams has taught me that you don’t get a chance to go back and fix things. One shot is all you get. Even when I’ve been told, “Don’t worry about that feature. We know it’s not the way we want it to be. We will fix it in the next phase.” I like to call this The legend of PHASE II, the project that never was. Truth is that once an organization has spent considerable effort getting the first phase out the door, there is little interest in revisiting it. Everyone wants to move on to the next shiny object.  Scrum uses short sprints to deliver features quickly and allow for iterations to occur in tight succession. This helps keep the team from becoming weary of the project and investing too much effort in the wrong direction. It’s a big refreshing change.

By the time I get to the end of a big project, I know every crack and bump in the design intimately. It’s demoralizing being unable to apply what was learned during the course of a project in order to make it something to be proud of rather than make excuses for. Knowing all the imperfections and just having to live with them sucks. With all that history, you can see why it’s difficult for a designer to trade her perfectionism for the promise of another iteration. No one likes to see their hard work fail. Most designers have had to fight many battles to get usable designs into production. Most of the time that has required getting it perfect the first time.

It’s a change that UX designers are required to make in order to be agile team members. But it will take time and experience before designers trust that they indeed will be able to revisit their work and make adjustments. The support of teammates from other disciplines can make or break this transition.

So help us out. Keep your promises. Reach out to us instead of labeling us ‘difficult to work with while’ we’re finding our way. Don’t bristle when we change the navigation or redesign the account maintenance flow. You’ll get better design, faster. We’ll be happier, more effective designers.