Design is only a hypothesis

Design is only a hypothesis



A genius of the Renaissance reminds us why we should always test and improve our designs.

Art is never finished, only abandoned.

Leonardo da Vinci

Now I’m not saying that we are Renaissance geniuses. I’m not even saying we are artists. But isn’t it telling that the biggest artistic genius of all acknowledges that perfection can never be achieved?

When it comes to design, however, sometimes there’s an expectation that, as design experts, we should get everything right first time. And maybe we should. With all the facts on the table, a clear brief, great insight into the audience, and a talented design team who are armed to the teeth with design theory and cutting-edge tools, we should hit the bullseye first try.

But the truth is, even with all that, design is often slightly off the bullseye. Occasionally it’s not even on the board. Should we be surprised by this? Not if we acknowledge that design is only ever a hypothesis rather than a definitive answer.

a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.

The initial design is just the first step to getting it right

A design is a hypothesis. It’s the designer’s best guess, based on the information and resources they had available to them at the time. But it’s unlikely that they really had all the information, as there are so many variables to consider (from the known unknowns right through to unknown unknowns).

Many other factors can steer a design’s course: feedback from clients and colleagues, time and budgetary pressures and so on. So when your design is finally ‘done’, it’s unlikely that it will be 100 percent perfect.

This is why testing, refining and iterating design is so important.

Don’t stop until it’s good enough

If a design is a hypothesis, then, by definition, it is the ‘starting point for further investigation’ rather than the finished article. It needs to be tested and improved until it performs as well as it possibly can in meeting its objectives. Is it communicating what it should be? Is it allowing users to achieve their goals effectively? Test the hypothesis and find out, adjust the design, test again, and keep repeating until you are meeting diminishing returns.

Is this all starting to sound more like science than creativity? Well, in many ways, design is the marriage of science and creativity, which brings us back to Leonardo (of Da Vinci fame).

Da Vinci was ‘the’ Renaissance man, a polymath whose areas of interest included painting, music, invention, sculpting, botany, literature, architecture, history, science, maths, geology, engineering, cartography, anatomy, writing, and astronomy. He encouraged others to ‘Study the science of art and the art of science’, seeing no great distinction between the two disciplines, instead seeing them as informing each other. For example, by studying anatomy, he was able to better capture the human form on canvas. The real proof of this informed-by-science pudding is in the incredible art he produced, which endures to this day.

But it’s not just Renaissance geniuses who have benefited from applying science to design. Even companies who have the world’s best design talent acknowledge that they won’t get it right first time. Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Google, etc. test, refine and optimise their designs, acknowledging that they can always be improved.

Making it happen: Testing big and testing small

The enemy to this scientific, iterative approach to design has always been time and money. But that’s only really a problem if the project starts with the point of view that a design is not a hypothesis, and is instead something that will be right first go. As soon as the entire project team (and, most importantly, the client) acknowledges that the design phase is about testing a hypothesis, and the design will need refining before it’s done, budgets can be split accordingly.

It takes great client service teams to make this happen as for some clients it can feel like an admission of weakness to say that we aren’t going to get it right first time, especially when the agency round the corner claims to have all the answers upfront (they might think they have, but they haven’t). I’ve seen arrogance in design been proven wrong over and over in my career – all big presentation and visual impact but terrible at achieving any meaningful results. The best design teams are the most unsure; they question everything and are hungry to see how their designs can be improved.

Modern ways of working (such as Agile) acknowledge that we won’t have all the answers first time. But however you work, and whatever your budget, it is possible to test your hypothesis and create better, more effective work.

We generally try to test for usability and desirability at an early stage, and then test at scale after go-live (e.g. A/B testing), refining as we go. This mix allows us to ensure that we are putting out something that people want, is easy to use, and is as optimised for success as it can be.

But the most important thing to remember is that you won’t get it right first time, so acknowledge that and factor it into your ways of working. Always ask yourself, what would Leonardo do?

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