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Balancing the analytic and optimistic – the role of interface designer in interactive digital product teams

By: , Posted on: August 6, 2013

Tight Rope
Photo courtesy of Graeme Maclean (Flickr: _gee_).

When consulting with teams on product interfaces, my role as a designer includes helping to define a shared understanding of the goals, providing insights into possibilities, and demonstrating those possibilities through visual representations. Because most of the teams I work with do not have designers, they are not sure what to expect. My partner and I are brought in for the following reasons:

1. The product manager wants a better looking interface to sell.

2. Product use/sales are not where the business team wants them to be.

3. An organization has a big idea for an app and wants help realizing it.

In all of these situations there are similar, familiar constraints and requirements, which usually define the scope of the work from the outset; for example:

  • time
  • budget
  • business goal (improved sales, fewer tech support calls, securing funding, etc.)
  • technology
  • engineering resources
  • topic or content space

In addition, there is context of use, where constraints and requirements get less straightforward:

  • target user
  • situation of use
  • user expectations

(There are a host of other “soft” requirements and constraints in team members’ biases, but other than mentioning that they exist and play a role, this post will not examine them.)

No matter the organization or goals, my role is to help define something that the team can stand behind. They will need to make it work, sell it, explain it, defend it, and ultimately profit from it, either financially or professionally. For some clients, I work on interfaces and interactions people need to use; for others, I work on interfaces and interactions people need to want to use. I am a designer because even as a child I felt the power and pleasure of some products (Massimo Vignelli’s colorful stacking melamine tableware, for example), and the disappointment of others. I believe everything can and should be better. This optimism fuels my work.

Visual Usability

It is easier to realize these feelings in the design of apps that people need to want to use, such as applications to help people find and fund initiatives for women and children, or apps allowing them to read, save, clip, and share magazines. These apps provide the opportunity for expression in the visual interface, brand, features, and interactions. On these teams, my role can involve bringing teams down to earth – for example, insisting that accessibility does matter and explaining why the latest trend is not appropriate. In these situations I work to help define informed criteria to ground design decisions. This typically means calling for more information from or about users to inform a design rationale.

I play a different role on teams designing apps people need to use. While both product types require a passion for making something wonderful, teams developing productivity apps typically think analytically. Designing to fit constraints seems straightforward in these situations; however, even with constraints, there are always design possibilities to explore. Without exploration, interface design becomes uninspiring, falling prey to analytic acceptance of utility.

The ability to work comfortably with the tension between optimism and practicality, and to define best case interfaces, is what defines being a designer for me. When issues arise in your interface projects, ask yourself if the work suffers from lack of optimism and inspiration, or lack of analytical thinking. To gain inspiration, more exploration of possibilities may be necessary. If the team is unable to make decisions and come to consensus, more or re-prioritized constraints grounded in what is known from and about users will help.


Kolko, J. “The Optimism of Design,” Interactions July/August 2013

Buxton, B. Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design, 2007, Morgan Kaufmann

About Tania Schlatter:

Tania Schlatter

Tania Schlatter (@TaniaSchlatter) designs interfaces and communication systems by combining user-centered and visual design techniques. Equally interested in content and form, Tania is dedicated to making technology and information work for people’s hearts and minds. Tania teaches interactive information design to graduate students at Northeastern University, and has been practicing design for more than 20 years.

Tania wrote Visual Usability: Principles and Practices for Designing Digital Applications, with co-author and business partner Deborah Levinson, with whom she owns Nimble Partners, a Boston user experience firm. It’s available for purchase on the Elsevier Store and you can save 30% on it and other UX/UI books by using discount code “STBCNF13” at checkout . Learn more about Visual Usability here



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