School Taught Me Nothing Part 1, Know Your Audience

This is the first content entry in my series School Taught Me Nothing. I should note before starting that the comment left by Georgia in the original post is completely accurate. The HCII department at Carnegie Mellon fosters cross disciplinary involvement. Being said, there is a certain level of self selection in that group. Every one is taught the research methods and has confidence in their teammates skills. The real world is a different beast where coworkers, clients and vendors all come from different educational and professional backgrounds with different expectations and goals regarding design, technology and business needs.

This brings me to the first topic I want to cover, documentation and your audience. In particular, how to communicate design decisions to non designers and how to communicate design decisions as a business requirement.

First, well deserved kudos to Carnegie Mellon teaching me after, not necessarily the easiest four years, how to rationalize every design decision I make. Adding a button or choosing square or circular bullet points is not made without some sort of expressible rationale. This level of obsession is important as a designer and during critiques but means nothing to business managers. CMU Design and HCII taught me how to communicate design decisions but not business needs. Throughout my time working as an in house designer, I struggled with this distinction and how to communicate designs. When selling a design, I found there are three high level arguments one can take.
Design Taught by the design program, based on best practices, personal experience, and popular trends. Design rationale is the hardest to explain as it is the most subjective and is also the hardest to grasp if you aren’t immersed in the field. It is easy to explain during a critique that the audience will respond to a sleek metal aesthetic over a smooth grey interface but expressing this outside of the design community could be more difficult.

Technology Taught through my time in HCII gave me a dangerous understanding of code and various implementation tools. I know just enough to be dangerous, and maybe even less than that. But I can tell you that it is just as easy to implement a metal skin over an interface as it is a grayscale interface, there is minimal difference in work on the developers part.

Cost Cost is the business perspective I never learned. At the end of the day, companies turn to design to increase profit. A preferred design or easier method of implementation doesn’t resound with management as well as cost savings and increased profitability. True whether working in house or at a consultancy, cost reigns supreme. While not a focus of design thinking, these data points must be integrated into a presentation to support design and technological decisions.

So why does this gap matter? Learning two out of three isn’t bad after all. Just as you only get one chance at a first impression, you can only choose one approach to communicate a design solution. Most comfortable in the design and technology realms, I would try one of those approaches first finding time after time the business and cost argument reigns supreme. The end result would be to move forward with the intended design but I also succeeded in looking like an ass as I changed my tactics and, to some, my opinions.

Returning to the topic of this post and the theme of the series, know your audience. School taught me how to present and rationalize design, got me comfortable with criticism but did not convey how to present to the people making the ultimate decisions. This is not to say the skills taught aren’t valuable. Rationalizing design is the first step to present and helps inform business decisions. So school taught me something, just not the entire process. The program as a whole must do a better job of integrating business needs and thought process into the design process as no one works secluded from these factors. I urge the Carnegie Mellon program and any other design program to find a way to integrate these lessons into projects earlier, not to distract from learning design and technology, but to better arm students with communication tools to their clients and managers.

I do need to give credit to the Integrated Product Development course at CMU’s Tepper School of business for integrating this business requirement in a cross listed design course. This is traditionally a graduate level course though and these are skills that must be taught to undergraduates as well.

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