Software’s missing humanities
February 7, 2022
February 7, 2022
Recently I asked my design pals on Twitter about their background in psychology, sociology, or human-computer interaction. Of course you can’t draw scientific conclusions from social media polls, but the results roughly matched what I would have guessed based on my own experience. Only about 20% of designers had formal training in these areas, with most identifying as self-taught.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think this is a problem! When you distill a product designer’s job into focus areas, there are 4 broad things they need to know really well.
1) The craft of product design.
This one is obvious, and it’s surely what most designers focus on most. You need to know color theory, typography, visual hierarchy and layout, information architecture, interaction patterns, and how to combine all of that into a clear, usable interface. You also need to learn the tools that help you produce this work, whether that’s Swift, Sketch, CSS, or Figma.
2) The process of product design.
Knowing the craft is fundamental, but it’s still not enough to get anything done. For that, you need to understand the varying phases of product work, from explorations to experiments to production. You need to know how to present your work, how to write about it, how to make difficult tradeoffs, how to timebox and prioritize what’s most important, and how to turn customer research and quantitative data into a working solution. Most of all, you need to know how to pair up with peers like engineers and product managers who are crucial to your success.
3) The economics of product design.
Usually you’re designing a product for a company. That company probably wants to make money. That means you need to understand the business impacts of the work you’re doing, and balance corporate needs with customer needs. Ideally you can build something that’s mutually beneficial for everyone, but it’s not always easy—and of course, biz performance is ultimately what pays your paycheck.
4) The customers of product design.
Now back to my main point. All of the previous parts are critical for a product designer to understand deeply, but they aren’t worth a hill of beans if the designer doesn’t also have a depth of understanding about WHO they’re designing products for, and what those people are trying to accomplish.
As we learned from my unscientific Twitter poll, a lot of designers have no formal training about how humans think or make decisions, which is literally what software is all about. Software is a process of presenting people with choices, giving them tools and commands to complete tasks, and guiding their behavior in one way or another. It’s all extremely psychological. Just look at the common practice of A/B testing—this is like running Pavlovian experiments on a large anonymized population. You ring many different sounding bells for a bunch of hungry humans, and see what makes them salivate the most.
Understanding the psychology behind software design is possibly more valuable than all the other skills combined. If you know how people think and how they make decisions—often irrationally—you’ll know how to help them more effectively. You’ll develop curiosity about the who and the why before you even get into designing the what and how. Then you’ll make a better product, which in turn means you’ll have a more successful business.
Yet so many designers are still winging it, learning about the behavioral impacts of their work on the fly, or deferring to research partners to bring all the answers. This surely results in poorly designed products, makes businesses less efficient, and causes inadvertent harm on customers who have to suffer with the consequences of ignorant design.
I don’t have any great solutions for this, but the root cause feels like lacking educational options for anyone looking to do software development. We’re all cobbling our knowledge together through imprecise college curriculums, bootcamps, and self-taught random learning on the job. It makes the whole field extra inaccessible and difficult to master.
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