Joshua Long
March 17, 2022

Part 1: Designing without a plan

As a designer working with startups, it’s common that you’ll get a lot of ownership over what you’re tasked with creating. That’s great, and it feels good to move fast and broad across many projects.

At first, you might feel like you’re the most productive person in the company with a full grasp of the customer and their intentions. However, a shift might slowly start to take over the process - a shift you don’t even realize is happening other than a feeling that something is missing or off.

This feeling of uncertainty may creep in around vague or shifting business goals, offhand comments about changing direction, or a broadening or shrinking of the work with no clear explanation for why. These are signs that you’re in a common design build trap - the trap being that without clear business or user goals, product and engineering are going to look to design for magic.

Designers performing magic

(Designers performing magic)

Another sign that a project is off to an unpredictable start. You could be headed in the “design creating magic”  direction is pushing into design sprints without properly feeding the process.

This can look like a room full of product, marketing, even engineering people who are spitballing ideas without a clear framework for prioritization guiding the brainstorm and an even less clear way to define what design should run with and why. When that happens, whatever design does come up with risks missing essential context from market dynamics and feasibility - assuming it is at least taking user need into consideration.

It’s great to be able to iterate and be creative when designing a product. Still, it’s essential to feed that iteration with the proper business foundations. I know boring, stuffy, not very cool — except that when done correctly, it solidly sets design up to be creative in a validated direction versus wandering and hoping for traction.

Great design, informed by great product prioritization, makes a product truly successful and a design long-lasting. The poor aim of resources (people + time + money) quickly sinks startups or slowly sinks larger companies and quite frankly wastes and burns out design creativity and effort.

Another symptom of you being stuck in a design-build trap is the focus of collecting inputs on anything other than focused user value. That might look like sessions to gather ideas from the team or perhaps a survey to the customers, both of which aren’t bad on the surface. Still, you risk creating products that compromise for internal team happiness and a backlog of user wishes that might not always align with target user needs and the value of the product.

The real problem with designing a product without a clear plan is that you’re not establishing a foundation of understanding for your team to build on. Without that clarity, teams start questioning the plan and push and pull in different directions - this is catastrophic for execution, especially if product success depends on speed to market. If the aim of a product roadmap is to get everyone to push and pull in the same direction as a cohesive unit, aligning your team around clear user goals is critical.

You want it to feel like this

Animation of 6 stick figures working together

BUT instead it feels more like this

Animation of 6 stick figures working against each other

Why should a designer care about solving this issue? The most important reason is that otherwise, you are wasting your time and creative energy on something that will fall flat—maybe not today or tomorrow, but with time, it will weaken without a core. Designers are looking to create valuable and long-lasting things. We want to be a part of success, but that success will never come with half-baked plans with a lack of intent. The motion I’m describing can manifest itself in several ways. You might not feel it’s so bad at first, but it will grind on a designer and make them question the actual value of what they are creating.

Complexity is not the problem, ambiguity is

In my next post, I’ll discuss a solution for aligning teams and helping focus the design and build process with clarity and intention.

Part ll: Designing with a Plan