Design accountability is the idea that we design, test, iterate based on visual accountability – the stuff that we really put on paper – and not information that only exists within our minds. To borrow a word from Andreas Lund, design accountability is the massification of the presupposed. Design accountability is idea “follow-through” as much as it is idea “generation”. Giving form to that which exists in our minds allows for problem solving as well as creating a space for appropriate discussion. Explaining concepts, interactive elements, and details without having visual reference to them is unwise and dangerous – especially if feedback or solicited response is to inform (in part) the rational for design change. For example, I was asked to provide feedback on a website and was presented with questions regarding the site’s visual details. At one point, after expressing feedback about the color scheme of interactive elements on a particular page, I was asked, “would you like it better if the buttons were blue instead of red?” I asked if there was a version of the website with a blue color scheme that I could look at. The facilitator told me there wasn’t a blue version to view and persisted by repeating his previous question, “would you like it better if the button was blue instead of red?”
At this point, it occurred to me that I was being asked to give feedback on something that didn’t exist. Having an extensive understanding of design and color theory, I was well within my rights to offer an opinion about a color change, but decided against it. Having a more casual relationship with the feedback facilitator, I instead offered the advice: “If you don’t have a blue version, then don’t ask users if they would like something they can’t see. Otherwise you’ll get feedback on something that doesn’t exist.” The decision to refuse feedback on something as simple as a color change may sound bizarre to some designers, but knowing the importance of user feedback in context of design decisions, I didn’t want to improperly inform the facilitator of any “possible” design direction without proper representation. Additionally, (as previously mentioned) I can tell you from years of experience, that picking a certain color for a design element isn’t a done deal until that color is situated in context of other design elements! Without proper visual representation, one could imagine the color “blue” in it’s countless intensities and hues.
Another example of design accountability would be when designers debate over unspecified visual details that don’t exist. One day in a web-design meeting, we had a lengthy discussion about layout details and how feedback information would be displayed for the user. One person verbally suggested that the feedback section would have specific visual information, but they never took the time to actually draw out what those details of the feedback section would look like on the white board. I was frustrated because we spent a good portion of our meeting debating whether or not such details would clutter that part of web site. Instead of taking 15 seconds to draw out the simple feedback container details, we sat arguing over something that nobody could see, discussing difference inside our own heads. If a designer suggests a specific design detail, they should be accountable for their idea and create the thing they see inside their mind–bringing form to the presupposed.
I indulge in one more anecdote – one of my first encounters with the topic of Visual Accountability… I had this design teacher in under grad, Alan Hoshimoto, who was an exceptional designer. He had the challenging task of teaching first-year students Design 101. For our first assignment we had to create a logo and print off both a black/white version and a color version, and bring them to class to share with the teacher and class. I’ll never forget one student who when asked to show the color print off of his designed logo, told the teacher that he hadn’t printed it off and pointing to his Zip Disk, said “The color version is still on my disk.” Alan calmly asked this student to hand him his Zip Disk, and picked it up holding it to his forehead, he closed his eyes and in a really sarcastic voice said, “Oh yeah – that does look really nice in color!” He then took the disk from his forehead and slid it across the table to the student and said, “I can’t see it in color if you don’t print it off in color.” Point made.
Interaction designers are often surrounded by other designers or stakeholders that speak the same “design language” or share the same design space for a given project. We assume a great deal of latitude in expecting others to visualize what we are able to see inside our minds. For designers, part of the challenge of “idea expression” is to effectively communicate the thing inside our head and not unduly burden others with having to understand that which hasn’t been put down on paper yet. We have to be responsible for our ideas and express them appropriately using visual methods and processes. This means cultivating skills of idea expression.
“Some designers have picked up the notion
Designers who are often tasked with idea generation as well as idea completion, should understand a wide variety of visual tools and methods to properly express ideas. Because visual expression and mediums include processes that are both generative and communicative, designers need to be consciously aware of what they are expressing. A visual idea that is generative my not be an appropriate communicative expression. In the end, an idea is only as good as it has been expressed visually!