Product design is a messy process. The more complex the user experience, the more work is required to make it simple. Business needs and user needs are often in conflict except for one topic: time. With global competition and limited funding, the tech world and its customers demand that work be done quickly. This can pressure Product Designers into delivering half-baked, mediocre solutions that customers will likely disavow.
If you’re an experienced Product Designer, you’ve probably felt ashamed of a live product before. Maybe you’re wondering how to create work you’re proud of because you’re tired of launching interfaces that are just okay. Maybe you think you’re a bad designer.
Let me tell you, dear reader: you’re probably not a bad designer, but you could probably improve at communicating your needs to collaborators. Communication is the difference between a good designer and a great design leader. Leadership comes from building the skills necessary to advocate for yourself—and, ultimately, your product’s customers. Let’s talk about the different ways you can communicate the value of your work to collaborators and become the champion for a higher-quality product experience.
The Product Design Paradox
Before I dive deep into methodologies, I want to acknowledge the relationship between quality and speed. Over the past 10+ years of my professional digital design career, I’ve solidified the concept of the Product Design Paradox.
This theory is based on another paradoxical Venn diagram comparing the relationship between good, fast, and cheap work. When people think of digital design, they tend to think of visuals. They assume something is ready to be built when it looks high-fidelity. But the visual layer of a user experience only expresses a portion of the effort required, and usability often requires a time investment that tends to feel less valuable than visual design.
Delivering a beautiful, usable experience quickly is unrealistic. Design is about creating and validating hypotheses, and a good user experience takes time to create. A successful design can take months or years. However, the product development process encourages people to move quickly and make guesses rather than being slower and more methodical.
Defining clear boundaries
Your job as a designer is to advocate for the people who will use your product, and sometimes that means advocating for yourself. If you feel pressured to deliver high-quality work on short deadlines, you are responsible for setting appropriate expectations with collaborators. Teetering on the edge of burnout means you have too much work. You are experiencing an opportunity to reinforce your boundaries instead of staying silent and working in a less-than-ideal fashion.
Note: If you are vocal and clear about your overwhelming workload but still feel pressure to overdeliver, that’s a culture issue. I hope you can find a more humane place to work.
Setting better expectations
The following are methods you can use to create a shared understanding of your process. Ideally, it will help you and your collaborators better prioritize your work based on capacity. I recommend these processes, which are loosely inspired by engineering practices, not just for designers but also for PMs and folks in other ambiguous roles.
Assess your availability
As a designer, you have a limited amount of focus time per day, week, month, and quarter. If you solely focus on the day-to-day, you won’t be able get an idea of the bigger picture necessary to communicate your needs. Getting strategic about your time requires you to analyze your work in larger timescales than hours or days.
Take one 3-month period as an example: if a typical quarter includes approximately 13 weeks, how much work can you accomplish in that time period? Generally I work 40 hours per week; on average I have 10 hours of meetings, therefore 75% of my weekly work is focus time. This means I’ll have 9.75 weeks available to work on projects. Assess your role, your working hours, and the requirements of your work—in the average quarter, how many weeks of focus time do you have?
Estimate your work
Once you have a better understanding of your availability, you need to start sizing your work. This is especially challenging for designers because our work can’t be easily defined upfront. However, you can use two qualities to determine approximate sizing: risk and complexity. Risk is the level of impact an unsuccessful solution would have on your product or company. Complexity is how much effort a successful solution will require (including research and approvals from leadership, for example). I limited myself to 3 risk points and 3 complexity points; 1 point was the lowest amount and 3 the highest.
Here is how I used these two factors to create high-level estimates of my work:
This is an extra-small (XS) project.
This is a small (SM) project.
This is a medium (MD) project.
This is a large (LG) project.
This is an extra-large (XL) project.
You can take this formula and iterate on it! I invite you to also define your own matrix with factors that better reflect your work. The point is to create soft estimates that empower you to better understand the scale of upcoming projects. This process has helped me start to understand the scope of my projects and get a feel for my upcoming workload.
Clarify your capacity
Once I had approximate T-shirt sizes, I was able to move onto the next step: comparing the workload to my availability. For this part of the estimation process, I started by converting each T-shirt size into weeks in a world where I focused 100% of my working time on a project:
- XS = 0–0.2 weeks
- SM = 0.4–1 week
- MD = 1.2– 1.6 weeks
- LG = 1.8–2.2 weeks
- XL = 2.4+ weeks
I started by calculating the number of days each size would take; again, this included pure design time as well as facilitating discussions, conducting research, and presenting solutions to leadership. Then, I transformed the days into weeks by dividing the number of days by 5. Again, we are hoping to think long-term, which is why we focus on weeks rather than days.
In one instance, this estimation helped my PM and I realize we prioritized over 20 weeks’ worth of design work for a single quarter. This helped us make more confident prioritization and staffing decisions.
The estimation process depends on becoming comfortable with being incorrect. Estimates are almost always wrong, and you will likely take more or less time than you thought for a project. Let me tell you: I’m a people-pleaser, so I completely understand. I hate disappointing people. I hate estimating my work.
A designer’s job is not to please everyone. In fact, the most effective designers are extremely good at expressing their boundaries. If you are afraid of saying “no” or feel scared to give larger estimates, try baby steps. I highly recommend experimenting with negotiation as your first move toward further honesty and communication.
If you need to deliver a project quickly, you can create alignment with your team by explaining where you’ll increase focus for the time being, what will get less attention based on a quick risk assessment, and what you will iterate on later. For example, perhaps you’ll quickly deliver low-risk parts of the design in order to spend more time iterating on high-risk areas of the product that you need to get right. You can create breathing room by lowering expectations about the fidelity of the visual design and cutting the scope of product complexity. Or, if you’re at a large enough company, ask for other designers to help you work better and faster.
Designers’ jobs are hectic, but there are tools we can use to feel less overwhelmed. Talk with your team, teach them about the Product Design Paradox, and communicate your availability for upcoming projects based on estimates. Even though things will definitely change—because that’s how design always is—this information can empower you to get everyone on board with an approximate timeline that makes you feel confident.
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A digital product designer's story of failure, self-empowerment, and redemption. Over the span of two years, Catt Small experienced the highs and lows of product development—all on the same team. She will share ways to improve your persuasion skills, create a better working relationship with your peers, conduct more holistic research, and ultimately create and release a better product.
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