Design Elephants: FRONT Design Conference


I was invited to speak at Utah’s first, local design conference – FRONT. This was the natural growth and progression of the previous year’s efforts organized by locals Ben Peck, Andrew Branch and Wade Shearer. My presentation was identifying design problems (elephants) that most designers face in software production, along with thoughtful solutions for taming those problems.


The insights and advice that seemed to resonate most with the audience was first, thinking about design feedback in terms of opinion conviction strength vs. opinion expression strength. The graph helps designers work with feedback from individuals and offers strategies for people who express strong opinions, but don’t necessarily hold strongly to them. Likewise, designers may receive weakly-expressed opinions from people who feel quite strongly about them. I covered tactics for identifying and responding to the different variations.

I also spoke at some length about how some problems designers are tasked to engage, are “wicked problems”. Wicked problems are problems that have contradiction success scales, deal with subjective qualities, are formed of ambiguous causal webs, and irregular permutations (variants). Most “wicked problems” are social or cultural in nature. This is very important to understand because most engineering approaches to problems rely on the fact that a specific problem can be verbalized and articulated – accordingly, a solution can be defined. But most of the important problems that designers and business face, aren’t engineering problems, they are complex in nature – making the process of identifying such problems impossible. An engineering approach cannot solve such problems.

Finally, I spoke to the idea that designers need to increase their discipline to narrow their own ideas down with thoughtful constraints. I feel like most designers don’t know how to evaluate their own ideas with a certain degree of pragmatism, helping them to focus on the most critical parts of a design. I addressed this problem by showing the audience how one of my designers, Matthew O’Rourke, was able to design our new mobile app by designing towards “known” constraints, and thoughtfully working with anticipated constraints.