Luzern mirror maze, Switzerland.
Luzern mirror maze, Switzerland. (source: Dave Shafer on Flickr)

I recently asked Noah Iliinsky, senior UX architect at Amazon Web Services, and co-editor of Beautiful Visualization and co-author of Designing Data Visualizations, to discuss the principles for successful design, common missteps designers make, and why holistic thinking is an important skill for all designers. At the O’Reilly Design Conference, Noah will be presenting a session, Guaranteed successful design.

You're presenting a talk at the O'Reilly Design Conference called Guaranteed successful design. Tell me more about what folks can expect.

It's a survey of design techniques, approaches, and tenets that are either not-well-known-enough (Wardley mapping, design for human inaction), or are understood but not sufficiently practiced (draw the map or diagram). This talk originated as a lightning talk, where each topic was mostly just a headline and a single line of description. I'll be walking through them in the same order as before, but giving more depth and background for each technique.

You are covering 17 principles that can improve odds of success. How do you measure success?

Great question. Success can me measured by subjective user experience (frustrating, easy, delightful, confusing, etc.) as well as by metrics around task completion rate, number of errors, etc. There's also the greater question of solving the right problem in the first place. Even if your design is perfect, it can't be a success if it isn't solving a real problem. Each of these topics is designed to guide the right sort of inquiry to increase the likelihood of solving the right problem in a satisfying manner.

Conversely, what are some of the major missteps designers make when approaching their work?

The are two major classes of design process error I see frequently. The first is people providing solutions for problems that don't actually exist, or only exist for a small subset of people (who are often similar types of people to the solution-makers).

The second class of error is problem solvers falling in love with a particular implementation of a solution, rather than understanding that each implementation is one of many that can satisfy a particular requirement, and each have different strengths and weaknesses.

Not coincidentally, these topics are both heavily addressed in my talk.

Why do you think it's so difficult for designers to think more holistically about the design process when designing?

Looking at things holistically doesn't seem to be a natural human skill. It can be learned and taught, but most folks don't fall into it easily. Even when it's endorsed, suggested, shown to be more successful, etc., there are barriers to doing it reflexively. Holistic thinking requires awareness of habits, self, and team; that introspection takes training and intention. Holistic thinking requires more up-front investment in research and ideation, which can be hard to justify when time, budget, and technology are being dictated elsewhere. And it can lead to analysis paralysis, where the lack of constraints or guides leads to too many choices with not enough information to select one. In many of these cases, it's easier to go with an option that sounds good or is easy or worked last time or the boss likes and call it good.

You're speaking at the O'Reilly Design Conference in March. What sessions are you interested in attending?

I'm definitely looking forward to seeing Alan Cooper; I saw a talk of his 10 years ago that changed how I thought about how design fits into organizations. Other topics that I'm excited for are the assorted sessions on design leadership and team diversity, and, of course, the visualization sessions.

Article image: Luzern mirror maze, Switzerland. (source: Dave Shafer on Flickr).