Apply a design perspective to IT projects to be a more effective leader

Design isn't just for artists anymore. Patrick Gray explains how the principles of design thinking are applicable and helpful to IT leaders.

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I've long been mystified by design. Like most people, I could pick up or use a well-designed product, and sense that something was different, but I couldn't articulate why it was more appealing than a poorly designed product.

Just at IT appears mysterious to outsiders with its own lingo and personality types, design can also appear impenetrable to outsiders. Like IT, however, design operates on a fairly simple set of core principles that outsiders can easily grasp and apply to their own domains. In particular, core principles of design are broadly applicable to IT management and can help make IT leaders more effective.

Users first

Underneath the veneer of specialized tools and terminology, effective design is about putting the user first, and considering how a user will interact with a product, application screen, or something as simple as a switch before any other consideration. To someone in IT, this is extremely easy to grasp, and something many in IT would argue is similarly at the core of how IT operates. Yet if you look at most IT endeavors, user interaction is an afterthought. Cost, technical capabilities, IT architecture constraints, and a dozen other priorities are considered before user interaction. In essence, for designers, user interaction trumps functionality and technology, and in traditional IT management, technology, functionality, and cost trump user interaction.

If you need additional evidence of these different approaches, note the tendency of IT projects to create a change management function, with the ultimate aim of getting users to adapt to a new system or process. Since designers start with the most effective user interaction and work in the opposite direction, change management is nonexistent.

Additionally, most design methodologies strongly emphasize rapid prototyping, even borrowing most of the concepts and tools from Agile-based methodologies. While "art" (e.g., even doodles in a sketchbook) might be out of reach to techies (my artistic talent barely extends beyond stick figures), whiteboarding and Post-it Notes process maps are common tools that techies and artists can use as a common language. Many of the tools for rapidly prototyping user interfaces have evolved to the point where you can begin mocking up application screens in a matter of days or weeks, and let users interact with core screens before a line of code is written or the first server provisioned.

Combing the best of both worlds

A user-focused philosophy is not a panacea. If you've worked with designers, you've likely found that some of their suggestions ignore what's possible with today's technology, or focus on a design tweak that's not worth the effort and cost to implement. This is where IT's traditional discipline around cost, technology, and scheduling can complement a user-focused philosophy and generate a management philosophy that's vastly greater than the sum of its parts.

For your next IT project, consider adopting some elements of a design philosophy and involving designers early in the project. Avoid the urge to use the most off-the-wall creative types for these initial experiments, and rather look for people with titles like Information Architect, who focus on structure and usability rather than the pretty pictures. Don't immediately discuss database structures and process flows, and instead consider who will be using the application and services, and how they'll interact with it. While this will seem painful initially, traditional IT artifacts like process flows and data structures will naturally flow from a detailed understanding of how users can most effectively interact with the system.

You'll ultimately reduce change management and adoption costs as well, since those pesky humans who will actually use the system have been considered from day one, rather than as an afterthought who need to be trained and "change managed."

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...