designing "at" people is destined to fail

one of my favorite parts of the obsessed with design podcast, is the question about red flags. miles, the host, asks interviewees what signs they have learned to see that give them hints that their client might be a bad one.

mark palmer said that this is one of his red flags (paraphrasing):

“when people expect you to design at them, it’s a big red flag for me. when a client doesn’t believe that they need to be involved in the design process you don’t get buy-in. without buy-in, it’s much easier for a client to change their mind during the process without much reasoning. additionally, without client involvement, it almost always means the final design will be lacking critical information. good design must include those who want the design (usually clients) and those that the design is ultimately for (usually end-users).”

this resonates with me on so many levels. from a design standpoint, it’s unbelievably obvious when this is happening. when clients expect that design is going to be a silver bullet to their problems, their expectations often derail projects late in the process. when they haven’t been brought along, giving their thoughts and being a part (or at least informed of) major decisions, it’s super easy to say “hm. i don’t like that, but i’m not sure why. can you go back to an earlier stage and come up with some more ideas?” people usually won’t do that if they were a part of the decision. hopefully because they really incorporated their thinking at the decision point. but even if not for that reason, at least they won’t because they won’t want to contradict themselves.

from a process standpoint, this insight parallels the stakeholder engagement thinking in facilitative leadership methodology. the less you involve people the process that leads up to any decision, the more likely it is that they won’t be happy with or implement the outcome. as some of my colleagues used to always says “even if the decision was in their favor, if people don’t trust the process, they won’t like (and may even block) the outcome.”