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A Common Point Between UX Design and Politics : Irresolvable Problems.

UX design is Politics - It is about finding a solution to a problem without solution

Politics attempts to address irresolvable problems. Problems which cannot be solved by a definitive solution; any such solution would inevitably be imperfect. This might be because it cannot satisfy all parties, cannot scale to an infinite extent, or cannot remain stable over time in a changing context. Mindsets, visions, and issues internal and external evolve, rendering the problems we attempt to address through politics irresolvable.

I have often considered UX designers as people tackling irresolvable problems too. For many, including me, contemplating the infinite number of potential responses to a single design request is apt to result in nothing more than a headache. It makes satisfaction in a job well done elusive.

So how can designers find their way onto the path of truth?

A universe of multiple solutions

There never is a single political solution that would completely satisfy all interested parties. There will always be those who are unhappy or less happy than they could be. The range of people’s circumstances, opinions, aspirations, and interests is, after all, as infinite as the range of problems they are attempting to resolve.

Taking this across to the design process, numerous are the similarities. There is an infinite number of ways to attain a single design objective. Infuriatingly, each of those ways arises from a single context, a single client brief, and a single expected outcome.

Life is a string of minor decisions involving just ourselves, plus bigger decisions involving other parties. Every decision involving one or more others – from, say, a relationship or family, through a team, to political parties – will most often encounter opposition. The inevitable consequence is that decisions involve finding the best compromise. Thus, politicians classically seek solutions that make as many constituents as possible happy and as few as possible unhappy.

Regarded in this light, the role of UX designers is strongly analogous to that of politicians. In practical terms, UX designers are placed in circumstances which invite them to lead debates and maneuver developments to the best compromise.

UX design is about finding the compromise that suits most users best.

What and who is that ‘best compromise’ between? Of course, it includes the expected design outcome in terms of business. Then come the different stakeholders – decision makers and endorsers, colleagues, the client. Not least important are the designers themselves: their individual styles, convictions, and accumulated sense of what is sound or unsound.

And above all, comes the end user.

Each of the above stakeholders has objectives, and each of these objectives as often as not contradicts those of other stakeholders. Thus, an agency and its client will have conflicting objectives on the amount and cost of product design and development. A marketing team and a customer care team might have conflicting objectives on the conversion pages of an interface: one will root for a very straightforward process; the other will root for customer satisfaction. Clients often wish to imprint their, sometimes poor or unsuitable, visual identities, while designers wish to redesign these assets. And so it goes on.

A talent all good designers exhibit is their ability to weld coalitions between all these different parties around a common purpose. In doing so, they lay the foundations of making all parties adequately happy with the eventual result. Design is involving much more than its simplistic image of sketching and daydreaming. At its extreme, it can involve perilous juggling. Even its grey workaday manifestation can call for metaphysical mixes of psychoanalysis, diplomacy, and dark wizardry.

I immensely respect designers who succeed in delivering jobs that satisfy everyone at the first go. They got it right! But, sheer luck apart, ‘getting it right’ means accumulated experience of evaluating, rejecting, and honing numerous iterations, each of which gets a tad closer to the desired outcome. In any case, jobs that satisfy at the first go are exceedingly rare.

The existential, and often disheartening, truth is that nothing can ever be perfect.

What would each of us not give to have a design team that delivers perfect work! Yet, even if we had such a team – one that met all objectives and achieved user accolades after implementation – inside our deepest selves we would still know we could have done better. This recalls the microeconomics concept of ‘opportunity cost’: the loss resulting from failing to pursue more promising lines of development.

Philosophy and microeconomics aside, the fact remains that concentrated problem solving and focused optimising of user experience train us to move a tad closer to elusive perfection. Yet, the closer we approach perfection, the more clearly we realise that we shall never reach it.

The ideal of equality and the impossibility of ‘fixing’ a design

Whenever I hear someone claim to have fixed a design problem, I know the claim is hollow.

You can’t “fix” a design.

The truth behind such claims is usually much more prosaic: a design has become that little bit more engaging, or has shed some of the shortcomings of its prior iteration.

The same applies in politics, where nothing can be perfect and will never be. Here too, the essential reason for imperfection is the infinite diversity of people who all fall within the scope of a single law, which by definition applies to all without distinction.

Like the law, a Design applies to all without distinction.

Legislating and designing thus also share the disapproval they generate automatically. Not everyone will be happy with them, and not everyone would wish to agree with them. Indeed, some people would be inclined to oppose them violently.

Article 1 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Equality, this eternal aspiration of humankind, contains the implicit condition that each legal provision shall apply equally and without distinction to everyone. This is the supposed principle upon which politicians base decisions (in theory at least). The resulting decisions inevitably please some people and displease others. It is probably infantile to define a piece of legislation as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Politics should be a matter of 100 percent. It is usually a matter of 51 versus 49 percent.

Reading this across to design, once we achieve a solution that pleases (ideally), or works for (most of the time) a large majority of our users, we can consider our job done. By opposition, we should never satisfy ourselves with a merely adequate solution, or one that fails to give satisfaction to a major part of its users. Yet, once a job is done, perfectionism will often begin breathing in our ears. Surely, it will whisper, we ought to try to reduce the proportion of dissatisfied users! By measuring, understanding, and gradually improving the design – not forgetting that it only tends towards the best, and even counting that this proportion includes users outside our focus, who use the service by sheer accident, or even sometimes who are simply too tech-unsavvy to own a computer.

UX design is about getting closer to the right way.

And ‘the right way’ sometimes means the way which promises satisfaction to somewhere over only half of decision makers, decision endorsers – and, of course, users. The design simply has to win these people over if it is to stand a chance of being considered, selected, and eventually implemented.

UX design is about canvassing for votes

Wherever in the world they might live, people often regard politics as the source of more frustration than hope. Yet, politicians go into politics not because they are sadists, but, as much as we presume the best about their intentions, because they have vision, conviction, leadership ability; because politics is their chosen arena for debate and public service. Yet:

Vision and convictions alone do not make great politicians. Power does.

So politicians resort to trickery. To gain visibility and attractiveness and get elected, they form alliances, advocate party or coalition positions at odds with their personal views, and even betray their group when opportunities emerge elsewhere.

UX designers might be horrified and offended by the analogy, but the same imperatives often frame their existence. They seek visibility and attractiveness to obtain clients or win favour with management or teammates. They often have to put their personal views aside to please someone or get things moving. They have to please over half of their ‘constituency:’ first the end user (yes, the job title does have “UX” in it!), secondly the decision maker (in house or at the client), and finally themselves.

The final part of the constituency repays careful attention. It is tremendously important for UX designers to express themselves freely, find satisfaction in their work, and sleep soundly at night. Too many constraints can clip the wings of their creativity and would result in indifferent performance, or a search for a more rewarding job elsewhere.

Put this way, the ‘political’ aspects of UX design carry far more weight than one might at first think. The imperatives of obtaining adherents, capturing acceptance, and winning ‘votes’ from teammates, management, and clients, are all too real.

A problem with no solution, yet a problem that can’t be circumvented

Just because a problem has no solution does not mean we can wash our hands of it. The late, great JFK famously said “We choose to go to the moon … not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard.” Medical researchers seeking ways to cure diseases do not give up just because of indications that some might prove incurable. Despite shaky results, the UN Conference on Climate Change convenes annually, purely because it might stumble on solutions.

Politics is nothing but a set of attempts to fix problems: in good ways or bad, in ways that history might even condemn, but at least ways that accord with politicians’ visions of what is better for their community, country, or the world.

UX designers ardently wish to make the world perfect, they are just making it a tad better.

This is surely enough, and definitely worth it.

They make the world more accessible, pleasanter, and more enjoyable. Digital technologies have revolutionised the lives of billions, and their bigger promise is still to be fulfilled. Even if nothing can ever be perfect, and even if everything were already invented, designers would still have the power to surprise and delight us.

In the ultimate analysis, if our problems had solutions, would we still need politics and politicians? Would all problems not have been fixed already? The answer is clear – and applies with equal weight to UX designers.

There is nothing more universal than imperfection, and that is why we need Designers.

One problem; not a solution, but the solution

A UX designer can tackle any single job in an infinite number of mutually exclusive ways. The outcome will, however, be a single one. The delivered design will follow the brief, be engaging to users, answer the needs, and help resolve a problem by bypassing or fixing it. This unity, multiplicity, and unity again is an interesting paradox. Though we set designers an irresolvable problem, we expect them to find a solution. The designer has to summon up magic to make it happen.

By trial and error,  elimination, and sometimes trading, designers have to deliver the outcome that represents the best compromise. Or better said, the one they will convince you that it is the best compromise. They will have arrived at it by placing their vision above every possible subject of prevarication, and they will be able to back it in front of you, teammates, clients, and end users.

In doing so, they are leaders. They shed light into the darkness, and gradually gain the support of stakeholders. And the aplomb with which you witness them doing so is the measure of whether they are good politicians – and good designers.

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