The Outsourcing of Design


It took a while for people to recognize that the design of software and tech products really matters. And still there’s a lot of emphasis put on features and functionality, rather than the human or emotional elements.

Perhaps part of that is because design is so often understood in such superficial ways. Engineering, tech architecture and code are specific and measurable, but what makes “good” design easily becomes about subjective opinions. I’ve recently dreamed about printing out a wearing a t-shirt to work every day that reads “you are not the user.”

And in the past when I was freelancing with startups, I found myself spending time with so many startup founders who view themselves as a product visionary. People with MBAs, finance or business backgrounds who had never designed anything, see a tech gold-rush and decide they too can be the next steve jobs. And so they dictate product decisions about what users want, and weigh in on design decisions about what functionality, ui patterns and branding and visual design is best.

Worst situation was when I was with a CEO who just wanted to dictate or art direct design decisions. I found myself sitting in front of photoshop while an abrasively immature startup CEO stood over my shoulder, telling me what color combinations to use in a UI. But that’s not the ultimate problem I want to raise attention to. The issue at hand is that companies of all sizes have to decide to outsource design — and to effectively outsource quality, thoughtful rigor and craftsmanship.

Take a moment and think of how many offshore design and dev shops are building apps for startups, or how many “full-service digital agencies” are creating apps and websites for major brands. There are countless examples of this across the web and in the App Store. This isn’t about agency vs. in-house teams. It’s about the decision makers who direct design efforts and an increasing trends for them to see design as necessary but outsource-able, not worth investing in real talent or in empowering design teams and leadership.

The truth is great products are great because designers were empowered. They put blood sweat and tears into the details, into the thought of how a product will be used, into validating it with testing — they cared about what they made.

Want data to show that this outsourcing of quality and thought is an increasing problem? Ask yourself: when was the last time you truly felt amazed by an app, by a site or by a device? Do you remember that experience when you held the original iPhone touched that screen for the first time and pinch-zoomed the web. It was amazing! Your face lit up! And yes, partially because of the novelty of the interface, but so much more because it just made sense — it was well thought out, but ally simple, and beautiful crafted, so much so that toddlers and seniors got it right off that bat.

What’s an example of that from the past few years? That quality and that resulting delight is not a checkbox in a product roadmap. It’s not a CEO saying “we’re investing in mobile” or “design is a necessity.” Instead it’s someone with the power of a CEO giving product control to a design team because they recognize that design isn’t just the “make it pretty department.” It’s the LAST thing you can outsource. Design IS the product. It is the strategy, it is the marketing, it is everything.