Digital design is conflicted

Digital design is conflicted
Image by Rich Renomeron (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)

In digital design, we are conflicted between thinking fast and slow, and between caring and causing harm. I'll explain what is happening, why it is happening, and what we can do to correct it. I'll also give you some concrete advice about checking how appropriate your speed is.

UX is conflicted. I’m conflicted. I'm conflicted between pushing to go fast and fighting to slow down. I’m caught between fixing things and breaking things. I’m forced to compromise between caring and causing harm. 

On one side, we are constantly encouraged - expected - to go faster,

On the other side, we as digital designers, are the ones who are looking out for the user, considering the human aspect. We don’t want to cause harm - one of our core tenets as designers is working to improve the quality of people’s lives. To make things that matter.

A decade ago, in her explanation of what UX is, Whitney Hess wrote:

“User Experience is a commitment to developing products and services with purpose, compassion, and integrity.” 

Purpose, compassion, and integrity… 🤔

Big returns with collateral damage 

Go fast, ship early, do the minimum, put in the least effort, experiment on people (in secret)

Organisations try to go fast by their very nature. Slowness runs the risk of another organisation beating you to the market, or getting there with lower costs and less waste. 

There is a desire to innovate quicker, experiment quicker, learn quicker. According to a Forrester report for IBM (PDF, 1570KB), adopting “design thinking” in your organisation can help achieve all those things, reducing costs, and generating huge returns. (A 301% return on investment for IBM, according to the report.)

The returns are juicy and appealing. But we are causing harm. The path we’re cutting through the hillside is littered with bodies. People are less happy, more suicidal, addicted, harassed, angry, excluded, lonely and anxious. We didn’t aim to do all that. That wasn’t the dream. But it’s what happens when you drive fast and recklessly; you hit a few things on the way.

Making "progress" fast - a culture of speed - can really break things.

The go-fast propaganda 

It’s a big lie, and we seem to believe it.

One of the most famous go-fast bits of advice in digital design comes from Facebook (Meta). Move fast and break things - “Unless you are breaking stuff,” Mark Zuckerberg says, “you are not moving fast enough.” 

Ship early, ship often or Release early, release often. Eric S. Raymond said in his 1997 essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar - It originates from the open source movement, but is often adopted by startups. The reasoning behind its importance is that if you’re shipping late and infrequently, your startup will fail to grow.

Design sprints. Sprints - A short spell of running at full speed. The word sprint by definition is speedy and so is the process: Research, build, and test a prototype in just 5 days. 5 days. Design sprints were not intended to be used in all situations. They should be used when the cost of getting the design wrong is high, not for producing artefacts for agile teams.

MVP - minimum viable product, doing a slice, doing just enough to satisfy user needs (and confirm a hypothesis). Maximum learning, minimum effort. A related phrase is “Good enough” - knowing when to stop; doing a sufficient amount of research, design, and development in order to deliver some kind of minimum. Often, MVP becomes good enough, and a destination in itself.

Shitty first draft - Gaining momentum through releasing something that’s not polished or near to being finished - To prioritise the creation of something tangible and real.

Trying to be a little less shitty over time… it’s noble, but underwhelming, and potentially creates and prolongs harm. It’s one thing to overcome writer’s block and produce a first draft to get something out there, it’s another when that first draft becomes something to be used by other humans to achieve a goal or complete a task.

A/B testing and Multivariate testing. “Throwing shit against the wall and seeing what sticks”. Pitting variations against each other. Users are exposed to different experiences - even if you try to keep them from experiencing different variants, it’s not always that easy to guarantee. 

Data is collected and used to determine which of the variations was most effective. It’s perceived as a fast way of testing hypotheses. “A/B Testing, also known as Split Testing, is an unemotional, entirely logical, coldly scientific way to compare variables” 

Unemotional, cold, logical. How does that fit with your definition of UX?

A/B testing, MVT and many of these techniques are like testing different routes up Everest by counting how many people make it to the top, but ignoring how many die in the attempt. They ignore collateral damage by design.

We seem to be constantly on the hunt for ways to work faster
9 tips for designing faster.
10 Habits That Help You Design Twice as Fast

The current onslaught of Generative AI is pushing the desire for quick and easy results to entirely new levels.
Design 10X Faster with These 4 AI Tools

“However, in the real world, more often than not you’ll find yourself in a situation where you need to deliver something yesterday, and in such situations you just have to deliver.” - 7 tips to design faster.
“We need full-speed-ahead; design can’t afford to be the slow kid or the bottleneck.” More, better, faster: UX design for startups

No! Not only is this bad for mental health, it’s also bad for our industry - but thankfully, it is getting called out.

“We find ourselves saddled with impossible deadlines that require us to compromise on features and details. It’s all we can do just to get the project done. Our final products are minimum viable.” - The case for slow design

Avoid going too fast 

Pursuing a deliberate strategy of breaking things isn’t innovative, it’s reckless and irresponsible.

We’re breaking things at an unprecedented rate, and we’re contributing to the breaking of things on a global level: Business models, privacy, democracy, mental health, even societies. 

If there was ever a time we should avoid going too fast, it’s now. Yes, Mark, going too fast means you break things. You shouldn’t break things. It's not enough to apologise after the event and say no one should have to suffer like people have when you created that suffering! You should slow down to give yourself the breathing space to avoid unnecessarily and accidentally breaking things. 

It’s perfectly OK to fail and to learn something from that experiment. This is at the heart of hypothesis, research driven innovation and design thinking. But trying and failing isn’t the same as breaking things and creating negative consequences.

Slowing down doesn’t mean you go slow, it can actually result in achieving what you want faster. 

When growth becomes excessive—as it does in cancer—the system itself will seek to compensate by slowing down; perhaps putting the organization's survival at risk in the process.” - Peter Senge, from the 6th Law of The Fifth Discipline, 1990.

Confusing operational with strategic speed

Delivering value faster vs just going faster

In the Harvard Business Review in 2010, they wrote, “Firms that ‘slowed down to speed up’ improved their top and bottom lines, averaging 40% higher sales and 52% higher operating profits over a three-year period.

They went on to say that “Firms sometimes confuse operational speed (moving quickly) with strategic speed (reducing the time it takes to deliver value)

This might be quite a subtle difference, and one that cognitively may be difficult to grasp. By taking longer to do something than seems needed, actually results in something that is more valuable to the organisation.

To understand that difference requires management that is adept at communicating and motivating movement towards the correct goal; the underlying goal - the definition of done. If something is “done” quickly, but taking more time would create more value, then the definition of what we are creating isn’t aligned. We have different definitions of done.

That is still quite binary, and still aligned with the production of stable and uniform widgets. In digital design, we are often dealing with complex situations or problem areas. The landscape changes, and even changes while we are moving through it.

It’s hard to adjust the machine to go faster, or get it to make more valuable widgets if the machine, the tools to fix it, the requirements on the machine, the demands upon the end product, and even the materials needed to create them, are constantly changing.

Quantum leadership

Newtonian vs quantum world views of leaders

“The Newtonian world view, where leaders strive to control and structure their challenges and guarantee outcomes.

In the Quantum world view – where everything connects – we accept that our challenges are complex. We recognize, too, that we need to pace the speed of our work, slowing down in some moments for a deeper dialogue and understanding of our challenges and speeding up elsewhere.”

- McKinsey and Company - Slowing down to speed up

A Newtonian world view is a deterministic one. It’s mechanistic. One that is stripped of the mind. Stripped of emotion. Everything has been boiled down to its smallest components - atoms and the laws of physics. With this world view as a leader, there is a belief that with enough knowledge of the components of your organisation you will be able to predict, adjust, and influence its behaviour. It’s a machine to be tweaked.

A quantum world view is one where it's acknowledged that the Newtonian world view was an oversimplification. A misunderstanding of how things actually are. The smallest components are much smaller, and the complexity much greater - we are entangled. Everyone is connected to everyone else and affects everyone else.

Leaders that have adopted a quantum world view have accepted that their organisation is complex and fundamentally interconnected. Full control isn’t an option, but sensing the moments when to go slow and when to go fast(er) is both possible and key.

Processing capacity 

The passage of time: Slowing down when processing more than normal. 

The perception of the passing of time is something fundamental to the experience of being human. At some moments, time feels like it is passing quickly. At other moments, time feels like it is passing much more slowly. 

Of course, from a measurement point of view, the duration of time is very well-defined. A second has a specific definition. In most regular situations, a day is a day and its duration is a constant. 

Time perception from a human perspective is complicated. How we judge the duration between two events depends on a number of factors, but a relevant one in the context of this essay is the type of activity. A period of “doing nothing” feels longer than a period of “doing something”. Passive activities will feel longer than those requiring active participation and engagement, such as complex creative thinking. 

“Since we know that familiarity makes time pass faster, we can slow down [our perception of] time by exposing ourselves to as much new experience as possible.”- Steve Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Leeds Beckett University. Feel like time is flying? Here's how to slow it down

When we are analysing information, reasoning, and deciding, our brains are working hard. We are processing more information than normal. We will perceive time as going more slowly. Don’t confuse the perception of time passing as the duration of time that has passed.

Complex creative thinking 

Going fast was applicable to production lines. Applying it to the digital age is causing harm. It's time to slow down. 

Going faster is something that was applicable to production lines; when increased efficiency during a (standardised) production process reduced costs and reduced the time to market. That does not apply when we are working in complex creative thinking “production lines” producing digital products.

By going too fast, it’s more likely we will fail to test and assess the impact of what we are doing - Positive and negative. Negatives are very easy to overlook. 

A crucial skill going forward will be recognising when to go fast and when to go slow. An important aspect of the culture in your organisation will be creating the opportunity and space for assessing the pace of your process. Allowing your organisation to be mindful and regulate its breathing.

Assess your pace

Three ways to check your speed.

To start you off in recognising when to go fast and when to go slow, here are three ways you can assess the pace of your organisation/team/solution: 

Check the alignment of your users’ goals with those of your organisation. If they are not fully aligned, then you should slow down.

Measure how often research is skipped in favour of shipping features. If research is being skipped, then you should slow down.

Evaluate the positive and negative impact of your creations. If you are aware of the positive and negative impacts of what you are doing, then you will know when to stop (prevent negative impact), or speed up (creating increased positive impact). 

Making sure goals are aligned is key in ensuring that value is created for the users and consumers of your creations, as well as your organisation. We should be designing at the intersection of user goals and organisational goals.

Skipping research means you will understand even less about your users’ goals and the suitability of your creation or proposed solution in helping to achieve them. Prioritising shipping code and features is fast, but it shifts the short-term cost of failure from the organisation to the user. The long-term cost (of failure) will be larger and fall on the organisation.

Impact management is a tool that can be used to help you understand your negative and positive externalities - as well as understanding the harm you want to avoid and the good you want to create. It helps uncover outcomes, who is affected, how much your organisation responsible, and the risks involved.

You could start by doing these three assessments yourself, and then as a next step try doing them together with your team - or with stakeholders and leaders if that’s possible. The more inclusive your assessment, the greater the feeling of shared ownership you will create and increase the likelihood of recognising when to go faster and when to go slower. 

But right now, let’s slow the heck down, allow time to process what we’re doing, stop dumping more stuff downstream, and above all; stop breaking things and show purpose, compassion, and integrity.

James Royal-Lawson - Senior digital advisor · Designer · Digital analyst · Economist · Podcaster