“I loved holding that sword, not because I had an interest in weapons, or Japanese craft, but because I could feel the quality of the design, and could sense its impact on me. I didn’t want to put it down. Someone really cared about how the sword would be used and about the relationship between the sword and its owner.”
— Scott Berkum1
Throughout my time practicing design, one word has come up more often than any other. But with it has come an equal number of definitions and interpretations. It’s a concept that often disguises itself as consensus — and equally often exposes itself too late as the amorphous and blurry idea that we all hold slightly differently. Of course, I’m talking about that infamous word: quality. This is a topic that I’ve personally become fascinated by — in part due to its elusive and complex nature — and which I believe is one of the most important things to be aligned about as a design organization. I’ve found that it’s a topic that is often discussed in the abstract, and without a shared language:
“We need to make sure we’re delivering work that is high-quality.”
“Is this design high-quality?”
“Is this design good enough?”
“Is this design good?”
Let’s try and rectify that.
Instead of attempting to definitively describe what “quality” means, I thought I’d instead outline how I think about quality, and what I mean when I refer to it in my work. One of the greatest pleasures of the various roles I’ve had is spending a lot of time discussing design work with talented crafter — and often share this thinking with my teams to set a baseline for how I usually look at work. As a designer by craft, most of my thinking is through the lens of design.
I believe that quality is the cumulative measure of our work. It’s something we should evaluate regularly, and is often used as a criteria by which we can decide whether to ship something or not. To decide when something is “finished.” Quality is cumulative because it is multi-dimensional — composed of various factors — and ideally avoids the subjective whenever possible (though in practice, I have found this to be nearly impossible. Taste is a topic for another time.)
In my experience, we can define quality by measuring against four primary criteria:
While some projects will have differing weights placed on these four areas, it is important to not discount any of them entirely. For example: experimental projects may benefit from being less aligned with core business objectives (i.e. trying to validate a need exists), or experiential marketing work (to strategically build brand equity or awareness) may be less concerned with utility. Consider them as levers which can be pulled up or down depending on the project, but which should always be considered.
When I evaluate work, or am thinking about what feedback to offer a team or designer who I am working with, I consider these four pillars first (in no particular order), and the questions they prompt. I’ve found that they help me articulate what I’m feeling about a design, and help me provide more actionable feedback. I’ve also found that they help me be more objective about my own work, and help me identify areas where I can improve.
Design must be about more than satisfying the question of “does it work”. That sets the bar too low in my opinion. “Does it work” may be enough in the very early cycles of new technology — where early adopters are willing to contort themselves into productive users — but in most practical cases, we must strive to excel far beyond this baseline.
Rather, let’s ask ourselves: does this design serve a purpose? Is it empathic, derived from our audience and their environment, and informed by our mission? Is it opinionated — have we made decisions from a unique yet defensible position? Does it allow for a goal to be accomplished or for a need to be met? Utility helps us be crystal clear about the job our design enables, the “thing it does.” Design exists to solve a problem, to meet a need, to accomplish a goal — and we must be able to articulate what that is.
Something which solves a problem — thereby creating value — is not enough. That value must be accessible to everyone, and typically it is the usability of a design that determines whether it is successful in this regard or not. Imagine a rich deposit of gold beneath the surface, but no way to extract it — if a design is not usable, its value is severely compromised.
Can someone use the design with ease? Would they want to use this? Is it efficient, empowering, accommodating, and elegant? Does this save time, is it accessible to everyone, is it forgiving? Is there a learning curve, or is it immediately helpful? Will people remember how to complete their task next time? Is the solution tailored to the environment of the problem it’s solving — does it feel idiomatic and native? It’s important to not set the bar too low — hopefully questions like these will help us identify where and how we can make our products more usable.
Humans are aesthetic creatures — we are drawn to things that are beautiful, and we are repelled by things that are not. Aesthetics are not something to be considered separately or as an afterthought — the form and presentation of a design is an equal factor in it’s measure of success. Aesthetics are not just about visual design, but rather about the entire experience — the way something looks, feels, sounds, and even smells (though this is not often a part of our job — it may be for those designing physical products and packaging!) Aesthetics are about how things makes us feel — which must be a prioritized quality when practicing the craft of design.
However, it is worth noting that aesthetics alone cannot make a design successful. A beautiful design that is not usable or useful is not good design. Aesthetics are a multiplier — they can make a good design great, but they cannot mask a poorly designed experience or product.
So we can ask ourselves: is it appealing, does it feel like it was made for me — does it inspire me? Will someone derive joy from this experience? Is it well-crafted, has attention been paid to details, and does it surprise with its creativity? Is it interesting? Does it seem so blatantly obvious — like it has always been this way — while simultaneously ingenious in its innovation? These types of experiences are not frivolous — but rather serve a critical purpose — they inspire trust. Hard to earn but easy to squander, trust creates loyalty, advocacy, and patience when things inevitably go wrong.
All of the above are for naught if they don’t serve our mission — if they don’t move us closer to the north star that we’re aiming towards. Great design should advance that mission, and should help us accomplish specific goals along the way. As practicing designers, we need to be aware of what those goals are and how we measure them — are they financial in nature, are they a metric like conversion or leads, or are they qualitative (are we modernizing our brand, or expanding our digital footprint — still, how would we measure success?) We must understand how our work is connected to, and impacts, the needs and goals of the business.
This is the most difficult of the four qualities to measure without intimate knowledge of your organization. Much of what is designed can be evaluated fairly objectively — based on the criteria set forth above around utility, usability, and aesthetics. Strategy demands a deep understanding of the purpose of the design, and the goals of the organization. It is the responsibility of the designer to understand this, and to be able to articulate how their work is connected to the objectives of their group. The greatest and most successful designers I have worked with have been those who can clearly and confidently express how their work is connected to the success and mission of their organization. In most organizations, design exists to create and multiply value — we must be able to explain how our work does this.
In most cases, if someone has produced work that stands up to these criteria, and can answer questions like the ones above, it’s likely that they have created something of high quality. I do not impose a hierarchy on these qualities, as in my experience this leads to elements such as visual design, microinteractions or content being cut at the deadline. Of course, every project is unique — and these pillars will need to be weighed differently for a quick experiment or a foundational component — but hopefully these help you add some shared language to the topic of quality in a UX team. As you are making trade-offs, make sure you and your partners are aligned and aware of how those compromises are being made.
To return to that beautiful Japanese blade Scott is describing at the top of this page: definitely well designed. Scott writes that he “loved” holding that sword. This is a deeply emotional response to design. Humans have always valued things that were made to look and feel good. And to many — the why behind it being well-designed may be beyond explanation or understanding — but as students of the craft, we must practice and develop the ability to articulate what makes something good, bad, or great.
Here is a set of questions which may help you walk through the process of evaluating design quality in your own team or work.
Does it serve a clear purpose?
- Is it helping someone accomplish their goal, or is it meeting a need they have?
- Is it clear who it’s helping?
- How will we know we’re successful in helping them?
- Can we measure this?
What’s it like to use this?
- Can they use it? Or is anything getting in their way?
- Is it clear, intuitive, learnable, approachable?
- Does it meet applicable universal design principles (alignment, affordance, etc)?
- Does it embody your specific organizational or project’s design values?
- Is it consistent with the rest of your product(s) and brand?
- Will users enjoy it? Do they want to use it?
- Does it promote trust? Could it degrade trust?
- Will users want to recommend it, or use it again?
Does this help the business?
- How? Can we measure this?
- Is this aligned with the strategy of the organization? How can we know?
- What data (if any) is driving that strategy?
- Will this make us more successful?