How to Win an Argument About Design

This is my new desk fish, Pixel.I get asked – a LOT – how to persuade people to accept a particular design.  It makes sense.  Design, especially visual design, is a very subjective… subject.

I don’t win them all.  There are designs out there, even at my current position, that I’m embarrassed about. In the end, you can’t win them all, because if you do, you’re a dictator and you’re not doing it right.

However, in most cases, the designer should win any argument or discussion about design.  Why?  Because this is their area of expertise, that they have trained in and are paid to provide.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If the designer is consistently being overruled, they are not the right designer for the company.  Or maybe the people having the design discussion just don’t know how to do it right.

There’s one way to always win a design argument:  The designer can say “I’m the designer and I say so.  The end.”  However, I wouldn’t want to work with that person, and I don’t think you would either.  Pedantic is not teamwork.  Nobody wins, not even the user, because the designer might be missing out on better ideas than they could have come up with.

So here’s how to win an argument about design, in six not-easy steps:

  1. Genuinely listen to the other perspective.
    Maybe this isn’t an argument you should win.  Maybe the other side has merit you haven’t considered.  Maybe the other solution is equally beneficial to the user experience and the business case and when you examine it, maybe you win because you are won over.  There’s no shame in that, really.
  2. Apply statistics and standards to the other perspective.
    Really look at it analytically.  What do other sites do?  What’s the accepted standard?  What do studies say?  If statistics or known user behavior don’t support the other method, but do support your point of view, present them.  Depending on your company and team and how much they trust you, you might need to cite sources or show examples.  Be prepared to do this – don’t make stuff up.
  3. Apply your past experience to the other perspective.
    What have you done in the past?  Has their way failed or succeeded in the past and what factors were different?  Share this respectfully, and show examples.  Show numbers if you can.  Explain why you tried it and echo the person’s motivation so they know that you, too, thought that way.
  4. Explain your process in arriving to the conclusion that you arrived at.
    Often the other person is suggesting something because their process is different than yours, so they don’t know a piece of information you know.  If you can’t explain your process, then you probably shouldn’t be defending your position.  This leads to one of my key UX principals:

    If a position is hard to defend, you probably haven’t thought it through very well and it might not be the right position.  Stop and do your homework before you argue.

  5. Weigh the design position against the business needs.
    The number one source of design arguments is a conflict between business needs and friendly user experience.  Sometimes the business really needs to get something out of the user, or the business won’t be there to serve the user tomorrow.  Startups especially run into this conflict.  Weigh it carefully.  If the business needs are winning over good design principles more than 20% of the time, you’re making short-term decisions and will pay a long-term cost when it comes to keeping customers and word of mouth.  Maybe you’re looking for a quick exit, and that’s the right thing to do.  Or maybe you’re looking to build long-term relationships and parlay them into further business, so it’s not the right thing to do.  Your position will vary, but know what it is and act accordingly.
  6. If it’s just a matter of personal preference, be willing to admit it.
    There is NOTHING wrong with saying “I want it to be green because I like green.”  Nothing.  However, I’m going to say that it’s CRUCIAL for you to admit that it’s only preference, and if this is your only support for the position, you absolutely MUST realize it’s the weakest of all possible arguments.  Be willing to back off and swallow your preference for the greater good, if there’s even one data point against it.

There you have it.  That’s how I win the majority of my disagreements on design.

Of course there’s a few critical attitude components too.  You have to respect the other person’s opinion and thoughts and method.  You have to remain unemotional and cooperative.  You have to keep your mind open.  And in the case of an impasse – I sometimes run into these with people who outrank me organizationally – be willing to explore in tandem to find a third option.  After all, whenever it looks like there are only two options, it’s because you are being pedantic and closed minded.  There are always more than two solutions.


Today’s Interesting Link:

Practical Typography – I love type so much.  It’s pretty and it carries words to our eyes and through our eyes into our brains. Type is an art form.  This site is a great primer if you’re curious to learn about type, and it gives you just as much as you want to know.  That’s great UX.

 Today’s Usability Quote:

I am convinced the solution is always in the problem. You could do a design that you like, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Design must solve a problem.
– Massimo Vignelli

Today’s Music To Design To:

I can’t tell you how much I’m digging Blackmill.  It’s melodic dubstep – just what you need for crisp, outside-your-rut (come on, we all have them) designs and Gettin’ S— Done.  Check out Miracle, you can thank me later.