“Design” is a fuzzy word. It takes on a vastly different meanings depending on the industry, context or background. So it makes sense to add some clarity and standard definition to the word.

There has been a hot debate around the philosophical purpose of design, in this quest for clarity and nailing down a definition. One camp gaining momentum advocates for a simplified explanation that “design is simply just solving problems.” And to take it one step further—if you’ve got a problem, the only cure is design.

We went to our CXO and long time UX Designer, John Gentle, to get his two cents on the topic. Turns out he had way more than a couple cents for us.

CXO, John Gentle, working with headphones on.
Roboboogie CXO, John Gentle.

So what do you think of this idea of design being “problem solving” for business?

Calling something a problem infers that it’s not working. Often design is addressing things that are not a problem, but could work better, or more efficient. So to refer to “design problem” and its “design solution” suggests that there is an issue that can only be rectified with one specific solution. I believe this way of approaching design is narrow minded and does not recognize there are often many valid design solutions to the same “problem.”

Design is a continuous process of evolution, designers are a curious bunch and always ask “How can I make this better? Be more efficient? Provide a better experience overall?”

For example, if a client came to us with a design request and I gave the project to three different designers, they would each come up with a solution that they believe will best fix “the problem.” It is likely they would all solve “the problem,” but the solutions would most likely all be different and each would have its own set of strengths and weaknesses, making choosing the “best” solution very difficult or highly subjective (that’s where testing comes in—but we’ll save that post for another day).

Ok, let’s back up for some context. What exactly is “design” to you?

Design is a way of creating that accounts for context. When we engage our clients, we work within a set of constraints. We’re producing something that meets a need for both them and their end user. It’s our job as designers to move the needle forward and be mindful of their constraints, needs and goals. Not just simply create what we think is the best thing based on our biases, opinions or artistic vision.

At Roboboogie, our work is highly user-centric: we design from the perspective of the end-user and work hard to understand what their perspective, motivations, and desires are and improve those interactions significantly.

The design process is a journey of gaining more and more understanding—becoming more accurate and precise to the end user’s needs, and continuously making improvements. A/B testing key elements of our design is critical to that process. Not every test we run is a success from a “design solution” standpoint, but we often learn something from that design and the experiment that opens a whole new world of unanswered questions. At that moment we don’t have a solution, but what we do have is a whole new set of questions and another requirements we can use to evolve to a better place.

CXO, John Gentle, working in design file.
CXO, John Gentle, working in design file.

How has ease of access to data impacted the Roboboogie design process?

It’s removed a lot of the subjectivity and helped fill gaps around presumed requirements and user needs. We still talk to users, but now we can see those things—what’s working well and what’s not—in the behavioral data. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between what people tell us and what they actually do as they’re interacting with something.

It’s been instrumental in significantly improving website experiences and their performance over time. The old way was “we need a new website so let’s scrap this one and start over!” A lot of valuable learnings were tossed out and a lot of time wasted designing websites that did not meet the needs and expectations of the business and/or the end user.

Access to data helps us be more informed with our design strategies and make improvements in confidence, trusting that with the design process there’s no “magic bullet” solution.

Final thoughts?

To tie it all together, no, design is not just about a single ‘right’ solution, it’s a process that combines curiosity, and continuous problem solving. Asking questions, answering questions, continually feeding new data and learnings back into the process. You’ll never fully solve the problem, because you can always go deeper.

— John Gentle, CXO of Roboboogie

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Want to go deeper on this topic? Here are a few articles we’ve been following that have fueled this conversation.

https://medium.com/@salituri/design-is-not-problem-solving-bace64318d56

https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/why-design-is-not-problem-solving-design-thinking-isnt-always-the-answer/

https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/design-thinking-essential-problem-solving-101-it-s-more-than-scientific

https://www.canva.com/learn/design-thinking/

https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2011/08/design-solving-problems/

#teamnotjustproblemsolving

Looking for more design thoughts from the Roboboogie team? Check them out here.