I recently found some wise words about the design role.  In the book Wisdom by Andrew ZuckermanTerence Conran says “Designers are servants of the community”. In addition to that, he also includes some great insights to consider: “How are you going to make this practical? … How much is it going to cost?” He takes it further and says “have a clear idea who you are aiming this product at.” And “get to know them. You have a social responsibility. You are not designing for other designers.”

Sir Conran is talking mostly about manufacturing of homes and furniture but he clearly states this applies to “everything that has ever been made”. In the IT world we are often guilty of designing for other designers. We should take his wisdom to heart and see where that would lead us.

The obvious step is to do as he tells us and get to know the users of our software. The CIPS code of ethics says we should demonstrate competence which includes “knowledge required to undertake the work at hand”.  Sir Conran is telling us that some of the knowledge we require is only known if we talk to our users.

The other part of his message is that our design must be practical. If we really know our users, we often design to solve all of our users’ problems and end up with what the management sees as “gold plated systems”. A gold plated system is seen as more expensive than what the group can afford; it has everything they need but an overall bit extra everywhere that would be wonderful to have but is not within their reach. Other designers praise us for the fine solutions that cover all the requirements and fit with the system architecture. These are often the projects that don’t get approved, or get delayed until the problem has changed or become worse. It is hard to make a business case for a design that has everything. It is often too expensive.

This does not mean that we must always build the cheapest option. There is a balance that is required. Sir Conran is adamant that everything should be well-designed. He feels that will also make it incidentally beautiful and “It should be affordable to the market it is being made for”. This is the value that we add as designers. We look at all the options including some creative twists that we must find so that the balance works. As is with the law of parsimony, the simple solution is likely more preferable instead of the gold plated one.

I believe there really is wisdom in these words. They lead to assumptions that a designer must know what their company or client can afford. We have been repeating the mantra that the IT folk must have business knowledge but it is not just knowledge of what the users need, it is also knowledge of what the business can afford. And it is not just a nice to have. It is a social responsibility to ensure dollars are spent well so everyone has the best design.

And to show that he is really wise, Terence Conran acknowledges that some trade-offs are hard to solve and adds that the best we can all say is that we “do what we can”.

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