When people talk about “sustainable design”, they’re usually talking about environmentally sustainable design. But sustainable UX design, in its most literal sense, can mean that the design process has orchestrated a system that allows the design to stay flexible, to grow and to endure.
Sure, all great designers consider the flexibility and long-term states of the end-product throughout the phases of the design process — when they conduct research, when they create the information architecture, when they plan how users will interact with the design on a variety of devices, and so forth. Ensuring sustainability, though, goes beyond the ordinary phases and activities of the design process, and even goes beyond the designers themselves.
To maximize UX sustainability, designers and clients should prioritize three key attributes: client education, organizational guidance, and what we at Catalyst call “ongoing support”.
A few years or so ago, a stakeholder from a client team called my direct line after a big presentation. She had recently joined the project as her department’s representative to make sure the design addressed all her department’s business goals and priorities.
“This is really embarrassing,” she said immediately. “But, I only understood a little bit about what was presented and discussed today. ‘Information architecture’? I have no idea what that is. I feel stupid. I feel really stupid.”
This wasn’t the first time a client admitted to feeling dense about design and designer jargon. But, her confession really got to me: Her desire to understand extended past comprehending some basic design vocabulary words. She wanted to get the gist of design best practices so she could give valuable feedback, and thus effectively fulfill her role on the project team. (Also, a client should never, ever feel stupid.)
From that point on, I worked with that stakeholder and the rest of the client team to coach them on design principles and best practices as we traversed the process together. Not all clients need this sort of attention, of course, but for those who do, the extra time spent pays off for a few reasons:
- Better and more informed design feedback yields better design
- Faster decision-making takes place, along with a shorter approval process
- The connection between client and designer strengthens as they learn to speak the same language
- The more people on the client team who can advocate design best practices, the more likely it will be that best practices will be adhered to in the long run
Of course, you can’t educate everyone from the client side, let alone everyone who has the power to affect how the design is implemented — that’s where providing organizational guidance comes in.
New clients who come to Catalyst with website redesign projects typically come with a current design that’s in pretty bad shape. More often than not, you are your website: Inconsistency issues surrounding content, labelling, structure and functionality make for a fragmented experience, and usually reflect a fragmented system for updating and maintaining a site.
No one should take the blame for piecemeal site maintenance — it’s almost always a result of a combination of things, including the content management system(s), no dedicated resource or team to update or maintain the site, and the push-and-pull of various priorities across an organization. Everyone wants their own website, or wants what they want on the homepage (and they want it all above the fold).
So, how does a design team help this situation?
- We can assess the current state from a design perspective, and also offer an objective outsider view. From here, we can strategize together (with the client) to come up with a solution that can corral rogue microsites and unify all systems in place.
- We can recommend the type of resources and/or team that’s needed to upkeep the redesign. Catalyst has even helped clients write job descriptions for new teams and roles.
- We can help to define a good process for site maintenance, as well as who should hold responsibility for what.
- We’ll work directly with the people who will be updating and maintaining the site to create customized resources and references that suits their team’s way of working. These references and tools will help them to maintain the site’s design and overall strategic goals, and to help grow the site in the future.
But, even with design-savvy clients and organizational improvements, things come up — times change, users evolve, resources move on, uncertainties arise. We encourage our clients to empower themselves to learn about design and its value, but we don’t expect them to become design experts. After all, that’s our job, and we’re here to provide that support whenever it’s needed.
On paper, “ongoing support” looks like a bucket of hours within a project plan that can be put towards any old thing. Because the task seems extraneous, it’s usually the first to get cut to thin out the project budget; however, ongoing support can be a very powerful thing because it can include any needed task or activity (which works out great for emergencies).
Some particularly valuable things ongoing support can be put towards include:
- Conducting testing on the newly live design
- Working with developers to make sure the design is implemented correctly
- Helping to QA test the new design for bugs and errors
- Answering questions and adding any clarification for clients, stakeholders and/or developers
- Designing new elements and modules for last-minute changes
- Providing extra documentation to act as a reference for how the design should work
- And more…
The biggest value of “ongoing support”, though, is that the design team and the client team truly become one team — with no rigid project scope or specific task delegations, the relationship dynamic feels symbiotic, flexible and relaxed.
Justifying Sustainable UX
Spending more time and money in the short-term seems like a downside of creating sustainable UX. But, in the long-term, clients save money and are guaranteed to get their money’s worth: A great design team can plan and present the most amazing experience possible, but that doesn’t mean it will be implemented well or maintained properly. When the execution of the design suffers, the high-quality design work that’s been done goes to waste.
Investing in sustainable UX means investing in high-quality design that doesn’t go to waste and doesn’t have an expiration date — it also means investing in a lasting relationship that provides knowledge and value that extends beyond a project plan.