What can make design hard?

Like anything worth doing, design can be hard. Lately, we’ve been reflecting on some of the underlying reasons that can make design difficult. Because even if you are following a proven design, inherent challenges can sometimes emerge. We unpack a few of these challenges and share some strategies we use to overcome them.

Undeniably, there are a variety of challenges experienced within the design process. Design is typically conducted within commercial constraints of time and budget, where stakeholders are often experts in the business rather than experts in their customers. The rapidly evolving technology landscape means that design needs to constantly change and adapt. In this article, we focus on the three challenges that we think are intrinsic aspects of design itself.

Challenge 1: Design is often invisible

A hand holding a remote with an air conditioner unit blowing air in the background.

Much of the design process is invisible in the polished final product. It’s sort of like painting a house. While it’s easy to see the perfectly painted wall with neat edges, this finished product belies the complexity of the preparation and skill needed to achieve this outcome. From cleaning and preparing the surface appropriately, to the application of multiple coats of new paint, there are many steps involved that require specific tools, skills and experience. This preparation process is not visible in the final surface, unless something has gone wrong. The paint might hold up for a short time, but you will find it peels off the walls prematurely. It's a similar story in digital design. All of the ‘invisible’ processes and work that lead to a successful outcome are often not evident in a finished digital product.

What to do about it?

Make the invisible part visible. Reveal the ‘hidden’ parts to people who may not have exposure to it. You can do this in several different ways, such as talking and communicating in meetings. Alternatively, you could consider finding ways to visually share all the parts that come before the UI execution such as work in progress virtual whiteboards that capture snapshots of all the work as it unfolds. This can help to communicate part of the process (such as how researching user needs, iterating on information architecture, and sketching options for layouts etc.) are what deliver the polished UI design. A polished design that makes it easy for users to navigate to their top tasks.

Challenge 2: Design means different things to different people

Four people are imagining what design means to them: each has a thought bubble above their head with something different inside: an artist’s paintbrush, a double diamond diagram, a UI for a mobile app, a Norman door (push and pull door handles).

The definition of design encapsulates many things. This can lead to a wide range of different ideas about what it means. A lack of shared understanding about what is included in the design process can result in a mismatch of expectations. For example, some may be familiar with design only in the context of visual aesthetics, and as a result, imagine it is only something that occurs at the end of a project to make something ‘look pretty’. While aesthetics are an important aspect of design (and in fact, there are many layers of skill needed to create visual harmony or convey information clearly), friction can arise if it is viewed purely as a decorative step that is tacked on the end. Misguided expectations that design is about cosmetic surface changes can lead to challenges when the design process starts to investigate the user and their needs or seeks to understand the broader context to resolve complex underlying problems.

What to do about it?

Establish a baseline understanding and get on the same page. Start by understanding the perspective of the people you are working with up front.

Ask yourself, what experience or background do they have? What is their level of knowledge and understanding of the design process? You can then use this to inform what and how you communicate about design. This will help you to create a shared understanding from the outset.

For example, you could work backwards from what your audience is familiar with, and take them on a journey to understand the parts of design they may not be aware of. A common scenario is when someone may be familiar with user interface (UI) design, but less so the ‘invisible’ side of design that started long before pixels on a page.  

In this case, you could share all the aspects of the design process that happen before that point and how they ultimately inform the UI design. 

Forming a shared understanding is something you start doing up front and then continue to reinforce throughout a project by reiterating what we are doing and why. Follow a process that you can talk to (such as the double diamond) and tie each step back to how it relates to the aspect of design your audience is familiar with.

Challenge 3: Design is sometimes perceived as subjective

Two people are holding clothes

Design is sometimes perceived as subjective. And when something is subjective it can invite opinions over evidence. This likely stems from design’s proximity to creative disciplines. Tracing digital and UI design back up its family tree you’ll discover some of its close relatives are graphic and communication design, with slightly more distant ancestors of commercial art. It’s then an easy step to associate design with art, which of course is all about individual interpretation, and specific tastes and preferences. Ultimately, visual characteristics like colour can be very worthy subjects to refine and get right. But there is a distinction between liking or preferring something personally, and advocating for a particular visual design because it is more effective at reaching a desired outcome. You may like blue denim more than black, or prefer a green beanie over a red one. This is an example of a visual characteristic being measured by how it aligns to personal preference and individual taste. In communication design, red colours are generally more effective than others at communicating an error message or a warning. This is an example of a visual characteristic being measured by its effectiveness (or how fit for purpose it is). 

What to do about it

Test with real people. Putting a design in front of the actual people who are meant to use it is a surefire way to understand its effectiveness. Whether it be usability testing a high fidelity prototype or concept testing an initial product idea, gathering evidence is a powerful way to shift conversations from subjective opinions to meaningful discussions regarding outcomes.

When gathering feedback, ensure you are collecting it in a structured way. Make the distinction between preferences and effectiveness. Often the subjectiveness of design can emerge when inviting feedback. Orient everyone to what kind of feedback is needed at each stage of the design process and why. Ask people to tie their feedback to how well a visual characteristic serves the purpose you are trying to achieve. This will help them to provide the kind of input that is required, and not to default to the kind of feedback they assume you want. 

For example, colour can be a characteristic of a UI design that elicits strong opinions and preferences. Try and guide feedback to be given in terms of how effectively it accomplishes a goal. For example: instead of “I like that red” try and encourage feedback that articulates why “I prefer that red colour for error text because it communicates a problem to sighted users”. Or, instead of “The dark blue button is nice” try and extract why  “I think the dark blue is nice for a button component as it has prominence in contrast to the other colours in the UI”. The idea is to guide the focus on visual details back to how they serve the users needs, or how they contribute to a larger design system.

Introduce data if it is available. In addition, while the link between design and art might be front of mind for some, user interface design is also deeply connected to the Human Computer Interaction and Human Factors (also known as ergonomics) disciplines (Check out an 'Abridged history of UI' article ). By understanding the work that occurs in these disciplines to inform an interface, we can help to shift the perception of UI design. Introducing collaborators to known design heuristics and principles, cognitive biases, and other documented human psychological phenomena can help to broaden their view on what underpins a user interface.

Design is about the journey

A person is wearing a backpack going for a hike along a path. There is a sign part way up the pathway saying “this way”. There is also a tree, rock and mountain goat in the scene.

Ultimately, our final suggestion is not even a strategy for making design ‘easier’ at all. It’s about internally recalibrating as a design practitioner to embrace the roles of design communicator and design educator. It’s about talking to clients, collaborators and stakeholders, and taking them on a journey. Wherever possible, enthusiastically sharing design rationale and having empathy for the myriad different ideas about what design is. If we can happily and willingly educate others and have empathy for the different perceptions of design that exist, collectively we can shift perceptions and help shepherd the design process. 

What are your thoughts on aspects of design that can be challenging? Do you have any tips or suggestions to contribute? We’d love to hear from you!

About the author

About the author

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Author photo
Author photo

Chris Gray

Founder and Chief Inspiration Officer

Chris is a leader in the Human Centred Design field with a 18 year track record of improving customer interactions with some of Australia’s largest organisations. He is a strategic thinker who brings a calm and considered approach to tackling complex problems. An accomplished workshop facilitator, Chris excels at engaging with senior stakeholders and guiding projects to success. Chris has expertise in user research, service design and embedding Human Centred Design within organisations.

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