“We don’t need a designer for this.” (Yes, you do.)

Treyce Meredith ·

Design is an important part of the development process and we don’t want you to take it away without considering the risks.

Carbon Five has been practicing design for 10 years and in that time we have had the privilege of working with many design-driven companies. However, even the most design-focused companies get cold feet. Here are some things we have learned over the years on the (thankfully rare) occasion the value of design is called into question.

Scenario 1: “It’s only an internal application”

Internal teams are sometimes reluctant to invest in design.

We have heard it all, from “This software will only used by a few people, we can just train them” to “It doesn’t need to be pretty.”

What a Designer Can Do to Help

In these cases, design can be crucial. Let’s say you work at a large enterprise and you are building internal software for your sales team. They will likely be interacting with this software every day to do their job. It needs to have both the right feature set and a user experience that complements their other tasks.

In many cases, these applications are technically complex and the front-end often does not warrant as much time and level of investment as the back-end does. We understand that. In this situation, a product designer might wisely choose to de-prioritize visual design and instead focus on ensuring the app is as functional and intuitive as possible. Designers can run usability tests and ensure that the quality of the UX is implemented as close to perfect as possible.

Design is about much more than just making things pretty, it’s the creation of an experience — and those experiences have an impact on productivity and business.

The Risks of Not Having a Designer

Most people use their eyes to operate most interfaces. No matter how visually pleasing the application may appear, it still needs to be legible, coherent, and easy to navigate. Without a designer, that responsibility will land on the shoulders of a Product Manager or Developer, both of whom already have their own long lists of tasks to complete. This is asking one person to not only wear multiple hats, but to do two completely different jobs.

Without a dedicated designer in this situation, the interface will most likely be an afterthought, which causes usability to suffer and potentially wasteful feature development. As the product owner, you may hear feedback from your team saying, “It’s difficult to use” and “I don’t understand it.” In the best case, you will have to go back and recreate, refactor, and redo all of your existing workflows, interactions, and other crucial UI elements — which will cost you more in both development and design time (and money) than if you had implemented those features from the beginning. In the worst case, users will not adopt the product, or if they are forced to adopt it will be dealing with so much pain that they may revert to old software, workarounds, or find new solutions on their own.

What We Suggest You Ask a Designer

  1. Focus on User Experience design (i.e flows, and information architecture) rather than the visual design
  2. Prioritize user testing and participatory design sessions over things like UI animations

Scenario 2: “We Already Have the Design”

Fantastic, this is great news! For us, it means that you value design and have already invested your time thinking about it. But, how much design do you actually have, and is it really “done?”

Often when we hear this, the design is not complete enough to implement in an agile software development process. This could mean your requirements are too vague or the design is too specific, and sometimes both! If you have wireframes, a few mockups for a landing page, or even a style guide, it’s a great starting point. We are happy to use those designs, but for the length and complexity of an average product engagement, you will need much more.

As designers, we have all had complete books of wireframes and product specs handed to us that we end up needing to modify or replace due to unforeseen changes with the application. This is no one’s fault and is actually a good thing when you can adapt to new learnings about your product and users. This is another plus side of designing on an agile team — it allows you to iterate.

What a Designer Can Do to Help

If you have a designer, there are limitless opportunities to help you with the current designs. They can answer questions like: is it usable? Is it visually appealing? Can it be easily implemented and if not how can we change it to be? Are there more features we can add to provide value? What can we iterate on to make it more valuable to the user or make our key metrics most effective?

All of these questions can be explored and addressed. Whether you are looking to do it now or in the future, you will appreciate having answers and the ability to plan ahead.

The Risks of Not Having a Designer

When building software, ideas will evolve and designs will change. If you learn something new about your users or product, and the development process pivots, you are going to want a designer on the team. If you do not have one available and realize you need one last minute, it can be hard to hire immediately, and time is money. Learning new things is great, but if you can’t explore solutions to your learnings in the middle of a project, then they won’t help push your product to be even better.

What We Suggest You Ask a Designer

  1. Review and expand upon the current designs, make sure all gaps are filled, and any missing details are discovered
  2. Spend time learning about how designs are performing and seeing what iterations can be made to help provide value to the user and the business
  3. Spend a lot of time pairing closely with developers and getting the easiest, most valuable features designed right

Scenario 3: “We Don’t Want Design to Slow Us Down”

Meeting deadlines and feeling productive is something we really empathize with.

We know how emotionally and financially taxing developing software can be. Feeling unsure that the team is delivering value is tough. It can make sense to think that getting rid of design will speed up the development process.

However, that thought has some unintended consequences, which can negatively impact your business over time. When developers or product managers are left to design on their own, they will make the best choices they can. But, because design is not a core competency of their jobs, they do not spend enough time crafting the correct experience for your users.

What a Designer Can Do to Help

Designers are generally quite sensitive to what the business goals are, as well as the user needs. If executing pixel perfect design is the least of your priorities and meeting the deadline is the most important thing, great! Designers love constraints, and we are happy to do our jobs under tough ones. Designers can still provide the same amount of value even if design is not the main priority. We are happy to make something useful and beautiful even if we can’t put in every fun animation we want.

While building your product, you are going to have to make trade-offs – lots of them. Without design, how will you know what the appropriate trade-offs are? Is the user experience on this on-boarding flow as simple as it could be? What about our type hierarchy — is it hard to read? What about our colors — are they on brand? Does this meet accessibility requirements?

Designers are advocates for the user above all else. Having that perspective at the table will help you answer these questions and make the tough, inevitable trade-offs that come with meeting a tight deadline or other hard constraints.

The risks of not having a designer

Over time and as you gain more users, these choices will lead to what is known as design debt. The designer is the person who can ensure that user needs and business goals are reflected in the interface. If you leave design out of the product definition process, you’re not only sacrificing aesthetics, but losing the opportunity to use design as a resource to help define products. At some point, you’ll need to pay down that debt — assuming you even get the chance. We have done whole projects to solve design debt for clients.

What We Suggest You Ask a Designer to

  1. Advocate for user needs
  2. Design for the best possible scenario but also have ways to cut costs down easily
  3. Find ways to make quick execution as pretty as possible

In Conclusion

Over our 17 years of experience, we have done plenty of projects without designers. We’ve also seen our share of misinformed tradeoffs, unsuccessful interfaces, misaligned teams, and failed products. That’s why we always recommend a dedicated, cross-functional team to define and build any product. There are very few projects that can be successful without a strong design presence.

If you want to see more of our awesome design projects check out: