On doing good work

Design culture is often about the shiny object — did the project win an award, get 1,000 likes on Dribble or cause a Twitter sensation? Design feels more valuable when you’re talking about a product with 500 million users (and maybe more so when most of those users are fellow designers). At the same time, truly successful work goes through many phases of compromise (incorporating user feedback, applying design patterns, navigating technical constraints) and is rarely a pure expression of the vision in a designers’ head. And some of the most meaningful work isn’t the most visible. Work in the healthcare field, for example, may be enormously impactful to a small number of users, but is often not the kind of work that gets featured in the Apple store.

A couple of years ago, in the midst of a complicated, technical-focused project, I started to feel pretty burned out. Was I tired of design or e-commerce or my company?  After a long vacation and a lot of introspection, I saw that I had internalized this “shiny object syndrome” and it was making me feel that my work wasn’t worthwhile. I had been letting my ideas about what was important or impressive to others define my ideas of success. I had lost sight of why I do the work and what was meaningful to me. 

To fight this off, I decided to write down a checklist I could refer to during and after each project, to judge for myself what went well and what I want to improve on next time. A list like this will be different for everyone (and should evolve for each person over time), but I wanted to share this list in case it inspires others to create a similar practice.

Work I am proud of means I’m able to answer yes to most of these questions:

Design process

  • Did I take the time to fully understand the problem and people who will use this?
  • Do i understand how this product or feature fits into the larger experience of my users?
  • Did I apply craftsmanship to the details of the design?
  • Did I explore meaningful design alternatives?

Collaboration

  • Did i strengthen the position of design in my team and company by fully involving others in the design process?
  • Was I able to articulate why I make particular design decisions?

Follow-through

  • If the first release isn’t ideal, does our team have a vision of how to get to a better version?
  • Is there a plan in place to tell if this is successful or not after release? Can we measure the effect of the project?

Purpose

  • Does the product, service, or feature improve the lives of others in some way?
  • Did I learn something?

Did it work? I can’t say I never get frustrated and revert to shiny object thinking again, but I do revisit the list from time to time and make sure my work aligns with my values and my definition of success. The physical written-down object serves as a reminder of what’s really important to me as a designer. 

I’d love to hear if others have tried defining success for themselves. Send me an email, or holler at me on twitter