Subverted Design (joelcalifa.com)
5 years ago from Joel Califa, Senior Product Designer at GitHub
5 years ago from Joel Califa, Senior Product Designer at GitHub
Thank you for articulating what's been on my mind for quite a while now.
"With that choice, project goals became increasingly centered around company needs rather than user needs. Our language changed to better communicate with stakeholders. Words like "polish” and “value” gave way to “adoption” or “engagement” or “platform cohesion.” It’s laughably easy to rationalize that these things are good for users too."
I’m trying to understand how anyone managed to convince us that becoming more senior meant caring about users less.
I think it all stems from biases in human psychology, such as being agreeable and easy to work with will get you further with product dev stakeholders than being perceived as hard to work with and a bottleneck for product development to ship on time.
Working at a for profit company where shareholders/investors and executive leadership have perverse interests (C.R.E.A.M), your paycheck rests on the fact that you can prove your value in generating more revenue than if they did not hire you.
Designers who are more senior can go toe to toe with MBA goons and explain in their business school speak (e.g. adoption, engagement, retention, etc) cause this speaks to the business' return on investment on a per project basis and largely justifies keeping a designer "resource" on payroll along with mitigating liability (i.e. accessibility CYA type stuff) otherwise your design work would have just been outsourced to the lowest bidder. Seniors need to be able to speak in terms of vision/ roadmap/strategy and that requires business acumen and playing the political silo'd corp game. They risk their seat at the table if they can't balance user needs with business metrics being tracked by the powers that be.
Green/junior designers cant speak the language of business or just lack visibility/allies in the political aspects of big silo'd orgs to make their case for design vision or strategy. They are focused on leveling up and designing with their rose colored glasses until they've paid their dues and learn how to play the political game in their company and justify their worth to the decision makers paying their salary... so you can leave your soul sucking corp gig promptly at 5pm and get on with your life... cause your job as a designer is actually making some 1% shareholders filthy rich unless you start your own company.
TL:DR at the end of the day, a business is in business to make money and your livelihood depends on proving you can do this through ensuring an easy to use, thoughtfully designed product which allows more people to use the product and ultimately generates more $$profits$$ for shareholders. The users never mattered and we are just lining the pockets of the 1% shareholders/executives. Maybe AI will make us irrelevant in the coming year when developers are replaced by machine learning and we are replaced by computer generated style guides and pattern libraries?
I need a drink, also if anyone knows of any fulfilling design work I'm listening, seriously burnt out of the enterprise corp game. Any veteran designers please chime in and tell me it gets better, haven't even started a family yet.
This comment is very real. Hit me up and I'll help however I can.
for sure, thanks for writing this piece, it's definitely worth discussing further. Hit me up if you are ever discussing this further somewhere or just expanding on the piece, I'd love to join in on the convo and am literally bursting with thoughts on the topic daily.
I sent out a follow-up this week this weekend via newsletter. If you sign up you should get access to the archives :)
I don't disagree with a lot of what you're saying here and a lot of the same notions nearly drove me out of the tech industry in the first place. Essentially as soon as a company takes venture funding they are looped into a vicious cycle where they have to continually grow.
There is a lot of satisfying design work needed in the world, and some of the same skill sets we use in our day to day to prove our worth in these institutions can also be used to prove worth in other areas. I'm not there yet, but I've got a few friends that are making a serious go at it, and I hope to soon as well. There's a lot of NGO's that could use the "design thinking" that we've crafted over the years.
Now that being said we will probably not get that sweet tech salary, so if then we have to weigh those, what's more important some money in my pocket, or feeling like I'm contributing positively in the world?
In all seriousness though, thanks for sharing <3 It's better that we are starting to talk about it.
I'm relatively young (late 20's), these are just some of my observations and thoughts on the subject. Glad I could have resonated with fellow designers and that I'm not just crazy for thinking what I do :)
I believe we're all being way too hard on ourselves in a lot of situations.
Our way of assessing ourselves is by abusing impossible-to-meet standards, by turning them into the holy goal of goals.
Anecdotal analogy: I play basketball. I'm on a pretty solid team. Amateur level, but we carved up several competitions around the city for two years in a row. Am I in the NBA? Hah. No way. I'm an overweight guard/forward with a suspect lefty. Could I beat a 54 year old Michael Jordan? Not even when I was in my prime. Am I proud as fuck that of the game where I single-handedly outscored the opposing team? You betcha.
Back to work;
Yesterday, I hacked together a landing page with WordPress. It's not ideal on mobile, and I won't be able to reuse much of the code. However, I also designed and built an email campaign, and slapped that into Campaign Monitor. And did images for our social media outlets for the coming few weeks that tie into the campaign.
On my own. In a day.
Is it the world's best campaign? No. Is it going to out-shine the multi-million-dollar campaign made by that famous agency? Hell naw... but is it going to sell within our market? You betcha.
You HAVE to judge yourself not by your losses, but by your wins. Count your achievements within the context of your capabilities and resources.
Hey everyone. I promised you a few articles, so here's the second.
This one's a bit more serious, and puts into words something I've been feeling for a while now about our place in the industry and what we've become.
I'd love to hear what you think!
P.S. the article was getting really long so I had to cut a lot out, but I'll be sending it out this weekend to my newsletter, if you're interested.
This is something I've been conflicted about recently with some projects, specifically related to quality vs. impact. Thanks for the article Joel! I needed that today.
I work in a media company with 3 key "users," Stakeholders, partners and users. Stakeholders are our content-creators and editors, partners are our advertising clients and users are our actual end-users. Our entire product team is fighting the same things described in your piece daily. Appreciate your broaching this subject. Keeps me beating my dead horse.
PS I like your dating advice article. US date does make sense, its just annoying when you're not sure which date system in being used.
So, yes, this article was way more thoughtful and interesting than 99% of the clickbait marketing slogs I've read on here, so much that I'm curious as to whether Github would have a problem with this.
what's git got to do with it?
It's where he works. It reads like a manifesto.
It's a very thoughtful piece. I'd imagine they're happy to have him there, and happy to have thoughts like this. :)
They don't :)
I agree with parts of this, but others just seem like standard sales and customer retention tactics, especially in some of the examples. They aren't dark patterns, they're not loot boxes (which, honestly, are much more evil than the examples given). The examples given are extremely mild ways to steer user behavior to serve the business. Of course we should make efforts to hang on to customers and to get them to purchase! That's the whole point!
Designers and developers too often look at the business side of a company as the evil empire. This is often not the case. Building a business is enormously difficult even in good times. We can serve the user while also serving the business, they're not mutually exclusive. This isn't a zero sum game.
There are definitely businesses that have the equation messed up, and the negotiation between serving user needs vs business is out of wack. But man, this doesn't even feel close to the mark. Look at Oracle bilking Oregon out of half a billion for their health care exchange. Look at the Skinner boxes that many modern games have become.
Don't show me a little notice from AirBnB that tries to get me to commit to the place I'm already interested in but maybe on the fence about. If anything, I appreciate their nudge.
I mean, you might appreciate it, but many others don't. These examples were picked on purpose as stuff that isn't all out user-hostile, but is a ways away from user-friendly.
Unfortunately going into more depth on this stuff felt like it diluted the point. I actually agree with you 100% about business and user needs not being mutually exclusive, and that's part of what got cut from the article for the newsletter. Here's an excerpt:
Business needs and user needs aren’t always in opposition. My favorite companies are those where these needs align.
That’s one of the main reasons I love working at GitHub. Our approach is fairly simple: make things that are valuable to users. We don’t need to manipulate users into paying for their accounts or engaging for the sake of engagement. They either need those features or they don’t. This is fantastic because I get to focus on what I’m best at: maximizing user value.
This model isn’t unique to GitHub or even that rare, but it’s entirely dependent on where the money comes from. If it comes from providing user value, decisions will likely be easier. If it comes from ads, your business goals will inherently be at odds with your users’ needs.
That’s not to say you won’t find variation at ad-driven companies. A solution to a business need can be user friendly or user hostile. Some companies are comfortable with design patterns that could be considered hostile, others aren’t. Avoid the latter. The Ubers of this world do not deserve us.```
It's hard to put every thought into a relatively scoped article. I definitely think this conversation is nuanced. I just wanted to start it.
The problem with the way you frame this whole article is that it comes down to the silicon valley ideal of "If we build it, and it's good, they will come, and they will purchase". This is true for a lucky few, and only up to a point. You've clearly worked for some companies where you've been lucky enough for this to be true fairly often.
Too often in our industry, sales and marketing is looked at as some sort of manipulative evil. "If we have to sell it, then it must not be good, because the customer recognizes and purchases only greatness".
With any of these things, the dose is the poison. If you ratchet up 'growth hacking' to a crazy degree, you get LinkedIn style contact scraping, or Uber level competitiveness with its now obvious downsides. But plenty of people implement these tactics without going overboard, and without harming or offending their users. I love the one-click buy button on Amazon. Does this button make me more likely to purchase something I might've hemmed and hawed about? Of course! Is that bad? Occasionally maybe? But overall I certainly enjoy it.
Everything in moderation.
I agree that it's hard to put every thought into a scoped article, but I feel like there's too much of an 'us vs them' mentality here. Why is the little hint that this AirBnB is being looked at by multiple people not user friendly? What if they don't get it, then come back two days later and realize it's been booked? Is that a good result or a bad result for the user?
Every business is a balancing act between competing interests, constantly prioritizing. I don't think it's healthy to turn it into warring factions. I'd avoid it if I could. Just like we empathize with our users, we can empathize with the business side. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
Look, on the one hand you say that "if we build it they will come" doesn't necessarily work (and you're right), but on the other hand you're defending a sketchy tactic used by Airbnb, who already has what, a hundred million users and the accompanied momentum? Where does the optimization stop? When is enough enough?
To be clear, I don't think marketing and sales are evil. I agree that they are necessary to grow a business. I also agree with "everything in moderation." I don't actually think we're on different sides of this.
The article isn't about warring factions and I regret that it's being read that way. It's about a system in tech that consistently prioritizes money over user health. The first step is for us to break out of it—because I'm a Designer and I write what I know—the next is for the rest of the industry to break out of it. That can't happen overnight and honestly it's unlikely that it'll happen at all without a serious reckoning, but I have to try. The article is about being better, not about who's wrong and who's right.
I appreciate the intention, I just feel like it’s overly sensitive and ignores problems that are far worse.
The Airbnb thing to me is not sketchy, I’d like to understand you’re thinking on this more. I also think Facebook’s efforts to retain someone who is deactivating an account are pretty mild. They do far more shadey things with your data than they do with design based retention. Gamifying your attention with Skinner-box-like dopamine hits is far worse.
In general, in an article like this I’d really want to understand what we’re fighting against, and why it’s bad. Your article is too high level, and instead of exploring the business vs design perspectives, it mostly focuses on a “badness” that has pervaded the design sanctuary.
Rereading my responses, they’re definitely overly confrontational. However, I knew everyone in here would golf clap this and say “here here!”, and I feel like these ideas need to be challenged.
I respect you, a lot of your writing is very good. I just disagree with some of your points here, and I think that nuance and detailed examples are pretty important in an opinion piece like this, especially from someone with influence.
Airbnb didn't start the whole 'x viewers looking at page' urgency pattern, it was in the hotel booking industry... so you can't really blame them for implementing this as they are competing with these travel booking sites.
For the record, I think it is a shady tactic cause the false sense of urgency really messes with people and their rational decision making process.
It's funny. I've been working on my portfolio site (haven't we all?) and noticed myself shift. Not only am I writing about the products we built, but my writing has a huge focus on what our resources were limited to, and how we achieved a desired outcome with those limited resources.
Not only that; I actively love achieving as much as possible, with as few resources as I can.
My opinion; a good designer (UI, UX, wathever) translates and attempts to meet the desires of everyone that touches the product. From CEO, to employee, to end user.
We're kinda peacekeepers on a battlefield nowadays :)
Good writeup, as always, Joel.
Fascinating article, really well written. I suppose the ideal is a balance of both needs. I feel like until there is a proper objective metric on feelings, this will never be settled.
People coming up with product ideas without representation from design is an indication you're not in the right discussions. That's what a design manager/director is supposed to do—build those relationships and showcase the metrics and principles being met.
I like this article BTW. Lots of good thought in here on challenges designers will face as they gain experience.
As a Corporate Entrepreneur/Designer this is so true. But I still believe that you cannot succeed with creating a product that solves the users needs without looking at all parts of the "feasible viable desirable" triangle. Doing that without being the baddies is just a matter of effort - and of course being part of the decision making part of the organisation.
But if you're looking at the greater picture doesn't it also have to do a lot with our current economic system where success is defined with monetary gains over positive human impact created or social progress?
The examples of bad design you give are too small to have impact for change. How do these designs impact the individual in a way that impedes them?
I will agree that AirBnb puts irrational fear into users like many hotel booking websites. Don't get me started on linkedin, they are underhanded.
When we make small changes to the design that impact the user in a big way, it's because its a action they constantly engage in. The facebook example helps users from making a rare, and possibly rash decision too quickly. They could be destroying years of accumulated personal data. Etsy's just humorous. I don't think the facebook and etsy example should be included as crimes against humanity.
Where the design community meets.
Designer News is a large, global community of people working or interested in design and technology.
Login to Comment
You'll need to log in before you can leave a comment.Login
New accounts can leave comments immediately, and gain full permissions after one week.Register now