Design for yourself! (Sometimes)

‘Always remember — you don’t design for yourself!’ is a mantra you hear a lot in the UX and interface design world. I must admit that I disagree with it.

It is not fundamentally wrong. But I strongly dislike the implication that if you let designers design for themselves, they will come up with something that is terrible and unusable for anyone else. I challenge the notion that the result will just be arty stuff — aesthetically pleasing but essentially useless. Rather, I argue that the best designs and the best products in the world have been created by people who designed something for themselves.

In order to illustrate my point, here is a short excerpt from the Steve Jobs Biography by Walter Isaacson on the early stage of the iPhone development:

‘He [Steve Jobs] had noticed something odd about the cell phones on the market: They all stank, just like portable music players used to. “We would sit around talking about how much we hated our phones,” he recalled. “They were way too complicated. They had features nobody could figure out, including the address book. It was just Byzantine.” […] So Jobs and his team became excited about the prospect of building a phone that they would want to use. “That’s the best motivator of all,” Jobs later said.’

This anecdote demonstrates that designing for yourself can have a considerable impact on innovation and great design. It is a tremendous motivator, and it can drive individuals and teams to extraordinary results!

If you are unhappy with a product or a service, try to make it better! Being critical — yet constructive — with your surroundings, your tools, your software, and your hardware is a great way for generating new ideas. Noticing bad design is often the starting point for good design. The ability to analyse and criticise the products you use is essential for innovation. If you don’t like something, propose something better! Using your personal expertise as a designer enables you to envision a superior alternative.

Sometimes it is rewarding and productive to practise individual creativity instead of user-centred design. If you have identified a pain point and if you are convinced that you have a good solution — if you feel an impulse to design something in a specific way — if you want to make something because you feel it would be great to have — if you have a strong visual and conceptual idea — go for it! Not all designs need to be validated by user research and spec sheets.

Obviously, there is no guarantee that it will work. You might not succeed to achieve what you have in mind. And just because you love your designs, you cannot be sure that everyone else will. But I have seen products fail that were the result of a long and comprehensive user-centred design approach. There are no guarantees either way.

Design is not just a profession — for many of us it is a vocation. It is the belief that we as individual designers can make a difference and shape the unique qualities of a product. Different designers create different designs. Design is an expression of beliefs, ideas, skill, and individuality. We love shaping things.

I am under the impression that in the UX and interface design world, there is currently a tendency to stifle individuality in the design process. Everything is organised around design and business methodologies that result in predictable outcomes and visual conformity. Teams are often levelling down creativity. Designing for yourself is the exact opposite. It emphasises individual creativity and opens up spaces for experiment and exploration.

To be clear — designing for yourself has its limits. Current design methodologies are a great framework for analysing, structuring, and evaluating the design process. As designers, we often work on problems that we initially cannot relate to. In this case, user-centred design provides us with great methods to understand the scope, the involved persons, the challenges, the objectives. If you work on the design of a communication system for a hospital, you cannot just rely on the experience of your last medical check-up. However, even in a well-structured, methodological design process, it is sometimes good to forget everything and trust your intuition. It will give you an opportunity to discover something that no one anticipated.

We should remember that creativity is the core qualification of professional designers. And while creativity always needs constraints to be productive — it should not be drowned out by procedure and conformity. Designing for yourself can provide you with a creative breathing space in the design process.

I sometimes feel that creativity should be valued more in the UX / UI industry. Far too often, designers are forced to stick to a pre-defined process, pre-defined structures, and pre-defined aesthetics.

Designers have an inventive and aesthetic autonomy that can be tremendously valuable for creating new forms of expression, interaction, and articulation. From time to time, all designers should design for themselves.



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Boris Müller

Boris Müller

Professor for Interaction Design at FH Potsdam, co-director of Urban Complexity Lab | |