What in-house design taught me about consulting (Part 2)

August 9, 2013 Nina Mehta


In the design world, a river runs between the consultants and in-house designers.

I’ve worked at big start-ups, small start-ups, corporations, newspapers, non-profits and universities, and I have hired consultants myself. Having been on the other side, each job unique with its own challenges and joys, here’s what I’ve learned from working in-house that still applies.

During my first week at Labs, I wrote Part 1 of this series:

  1. Preparing for a consultant is hard

  2. This product, whatever it is, is the most important thing in the world

  3. User experience exists beyond the product

  4. Consultants can be the bad guy

  5. Clients are tough cookies

One sketchbook later, on my second project, here we are.

  1. Prioritizing shipping is not giving up on design
    There is a difference between making compromises and compromising design. It’s an unrealistic expectation for an entire design to be built-to-spec on the first go. An ugly but functional design up on Heroku is at least something upon which to build.

    In my early days, it was very hard for me to see my grand vision chopped up into little pieces and hear the rest would go out in next sprint or quarter. All I heard was “maybe we’ll go to Disneyworld next summer.” Translation: We’re not going to Disneyworld and your design dreams are not going live.

    But often those things do go live. Over time they take a different form and shape, needs of the users and the company change but something from that seedling of an idea makes it out. It’s a fine balance to know when to push for a design feature in its immediacy and when to wait for the next or next next iteration loop.

    A beautiful design in the woods that never gets seen, never gets seen.

  2. Work in person
    Designers, developers and the client all sit together at Pivotal Labs like a small startup. A common scenario is the two designers are wireframing and a dev-pair will pop-over with an implementation detail question. Instead of making a guess or waiting for a reply from an IM, they can just ask. Similarly, designers can do the same with the client. The amount of time saved by not emailing mocks or sitting in long design reviews mirrors the kinds of projects I did that got built as the project got designed. Working in person has always helped my best work see the light of day with the least bumpy path.

  3. Copy matters
    The language throughout your site and product should be consistent and thoughtful. It should consider the knowledge and personalities of the users. Working in-house gives you an opportunity to learn and re-write copy for those people over time. There is so much copywriting for designers in consulting. And even more deleting of copy. Thoughtful edited copy is not a place to compromise. It matters.

  4. You and devs are on the same team
    We all have to make compromises, though. Sometimes on features, sometimes aesthetics, user experience and possibly even utility. You have to weigh these compromises on the impact it will have on your users and the velocity at which you and your team is making iteration loops.

    Many times working in-house, I’d fight tooth and nail for some gradient or button. When I learned more about how and why implementation happened as they do, I became empathetic to the dev’s priorities. Reframing a project to think about you and devs on the same team, working towards the same goal, makes the relationship between the two parties be a partnership rather than a battle.

  5. Stay focused
    “One project at a time,” is what I tell my start-up friends I’m doing.

    “What?!” It doesn’t even process and I can hardly understand it myself sometimes. Just one project at a time and time to think through the details and edge cases.

    But when I think back, the work I did when I was focused was much better. Hackweeks and big ship-dates are great examples for how that worked well. Meetings, emails and cognitive load gets reduced giving more time to actually do good work.

    My pair and I have been using Action Method to manage and organize our design tasks. It only allows us to put 5 tasks in our focus area at a time. We’ve tried to squeeze in a sixth and seventh but it’s thankfully relentless and we stay on task.

    Prioritize what needs to get done, do things in that order and do one thing at a time. Easier said than done but when successful pays in dividends.

I’ve been at at Pivotal Labs for a few months, so keep your oranges peeled for Part 3. In a few months, I’ll follow up on these thoughts and share new findings.

About the Author


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