Why to Plan for Design (and How)

My new book is about planning for everything from weddings to websites. My workshop and this post focus specifically on how to plan for design and how to explain why it matters.

I realized that why and how are inseparable.

In writing How to Plan for Design (and Why) I asked a few of the smartest folks I know how to explain the value of planning in a “move fast and break things” culture. Their thoughtful responses are presented in that article and this blog post.

Amy Espinosa says “there is no doubt in my mind that planning for design remains one of the most valuable things we can do for any project. So my response comes from the foreword to What If? by Paolo Soleri.”

In China, centuries before the common era, the so-called Lao-tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, wrote:

With a wall all around
The clay bowl is molded;
But the use of the bowl
Will depend on the part
Of the bowl that is void.

There are different kinds of voids: the useful part of an empty bowl, the vacancy of inaction waiting, the moral failure of a loser, the well-meaning dreamer, and so forth. Soleri’s unbuilt buildings are interesting lacunae because they are a legacy leading toward the ‘obvious’ as every great invention is ‘obvious’ after some genius has opened a door to its possibility.
– Harry Rand

Amy explains “what I’m saying here is that if people cannot see the inherent benefit and value of planning for design, perhaps the best way to advocate is to create a void as a way to open the door to possibility and expose the obviousness of it as something we must do to make good things.”

Marsha Haverty takes the opposite tack. Her team at Autodesk is often charged with modernizing products that have been around for decades.

To advocate for investment, we don’t start by rationalizing the things we need to do. We start with a vision of what designing and making can feel like to our users. That vision opens with a single, powerful statement that the business can rally around, with a few supporting points to make it visceral and visual. When we’ve done this well, business leaders see their own strategic intent in what we’ve presented. The discussion turns to unpacking possibilities for what strategic intent might be like from this point of view. Only then, when leadership feels it too, do we introduce the areas of investment we request. We connect research and information architecture to how they support the story we just told: a rallying cry we all now share.
– Marsha Haverty

Harry Max highlights the value of communicating benefits and planning together.

Especially for products, services, or systems that are large, expensive, or complex in terms of multi-persona interactions and dependencies, it’s essential to get stakeholders on board. What’s key is effectively communicating the benefits of the system as a whole to stakeholders. When stakeholders aren’t asked for their input, they tend to withhold enthusiastic engagement. Half-hearted support leads to poorer, sometimes even disastrous results. In extreme cases, stakeholders might engage in active sabotage and harpoon project success. In contrast, when all key stakeholders are actively involved in the process, they might not always agree or feel terrifically happy with all aspects of the project; but they are more supportive if they trust that they have been included in the process and that what matters most to them has been taken into account.
– Harry Max

Bram Wessel notes the importance of research and planning in an enterprise context.

At enterprise scale, move fast and break things can, well, break things. There is so much complexity and so many moving parts that you can’t mount an enterprise information architecture effort in the absence of research and assessment. Assessment is challenging for some organizations because it feels like a delay, but you can’t skip steps. When done properly, assessment and research expose the right work streams that can then be tackled in an agile or iterative fashion. So you need a strategic roadmap within which it’s often possible to attack projects with a ‘move fast and break things’ approach.
– Bram Wessel

Priyanka Kakar asks “When have I seen orgs invest in upfront design and research as part of product definition?” and answers “When designers truly know their product and user (speak the language of business and understand the industry, business model and competitive advantage), add value to the business and product definition through the use of design techniques, bring everyone along at every step, and are committed in words and deeds to designing for delivery and to shipping a product.

In large companies, it’s about keeping people aligned. By knowing your product and user, navigating the org chart (who drives decisions, who needs to know), being proactive by adding value early, bringing stakeholders on the journey using design methods (including research, information architecture, content strategy), and designing for delivery, you earn the right to be a part of product definition and planning.
– Priyanka Kakar

Atsushi Hasegawa argues “investing in research is investing in a good solution.”

When facing uncertainty, abductive reasoning is a powerful, necessary way to explore how to find an answer or solution. Since information architecture is not just information structure but the design of understanding, research and prototyping are essential.
– Atsushi Hasegawa

Carrie Hane writes “we’ve descended into chaos with information and devices. It’s time to slow down and make deliberate decisions about the things we design.”

Our current patterns of redesigning websites, building microsites, and publishing on every channel are unsustainable. They are expensive, disruptive, and inefficient. The solution is to start thinking about content in a broader context, outside of any interface.
– Carrie Hane

Andy Budd states “so much time and money is wasted by rushing to a solution without fully understanding the problem, and at the same time, I see companies throwing away large amounts of money on elegantly crafted works of fiction that fall down in the face of an ever changing market.”

Planning suffers from the Goldilocks problem. Finding just the right place between too little and too much is an art form, and knowing how much planning is the right amount only comes with experience.
– Andy Budd

Catharine Robertson uses backcasting for planning digital transformations.

Backcasting helps when you can articulate the future state but not the steps to get there. It’s especially useful when collaborating with executive stakeholders with bold ideas. You start with the vision and  work backwards, planning each step required to achieve the intent. When I do it with executives, I often jog their thinking by saying ‘And what must be true for this other thing to be true?’ I also identify risks and craft mitigation plans. Since backcasting is collaborative, it creates a shared understanding of the scope. This gets everyone on the same page with respect to strategy and tactics.
– Catharine Robertson

Karen McGrane emphasizes the durability of well-planned information infrastructure.

I tell clients that investment in content modeling, taxonomy, and metadata frameworks should last 5-10 years, much longer than the typical churn of front-end web development which often only lasts 18 months. Yes, doing the content strategy and IA work doesn’t give obvious, immediate, tangible outcomes like, say, a new homepage, but it’s work that doesn’t get thrown away. Many organizations have struggled through the pain of a ‘content migration’ and those are the teams that are most receptive to this message. I explain that doing the planning work now makes it possible to iterate on the design/front-end more quickly in the future, rather than having to fix EVERYTHING to update the website. A great example comes from my clients at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I worked with them in 2013 on a redesign of the website and a replatforming to Drupal. Typical drawn out pain of developing content models, taxonomy, editing existing content, and getting the new site launched. Last year they did a complete rebranding of the hospital (the kind where you take signage off multiple buildings). They reported that the web redesign went incredibly smoothly because the content and IA work held up. They were able to focus on rebranding and improving the front-end, rather than having to start from scratch with content and structure.
– Karen McGrane

Jim Kalbach also addresses concerns over cost by invoking longevity.

The negative reaction to upfront design research and planning stems from the assumption it’s disposable. It often isn’t. On the contrary, mapping an individual’s experience is foundational and stable over time. It can guide strategic decisions for years to come. So don’t think of planning as volatile; think of it as an investment.
– Jim Kalbach

Kyle Soucy notes “even lean and guerrilla user research methods need planning to be executed well. No one wants research to be a bottleneck, and it truly doesn’t need to be, but we still must devote time to do it right. In an Agile environment, ideally, we work a sprint or two ahead of development to ensure we have time for research.

When user research is not given ample time for planning and execution, compromises are made that will absolutely have an effect on the data. With the right planning, there is no reason why there shouldn’t be enough time to conduct user research.
– Kyle Soucy

Bob Royce says “Getting buy-in from leadership on big changes can be challenging. They want to know what the result will ‘look like.’ This drives teams towards visual representations too early at the risk of being locked into sub par paths. We recently helped a customer who faced this challenge to build a model of what the new digital place would ‘be like’ thereby satisfying leadership’s desire to understand what was coming.” Bob also puts planning problems into historical context.

Incremental, iterative development processes, such as the Rational Unified Process (RUP) by IBM, were launched in the 1990’s to solve a real problem: by the time a project was completed using waterfall, requirements had changed so there was no longer a good fit. The Agile Manifesto added integrated, cross-functional teams and started the trend toward ‘just enough’ documentation. All good things compared to what they replaced. But this only addressed surface issues. Through the lens of pace layers, they focused on solving for the ever-increasing speed with which the outer layers of the business ecosystem were changing. But, as the architect Eliel Saarinen notes, ‘Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context –  a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.’ I was involved in software development projects in the late 90’s that used RUP and then Agile, and at that point at least, we were careful to do this. Early work focused on modeling big picture contexts which provided scaffolding for the sprints that followed.
– Bob Royce

Liz Danzico advises “there is no finding time, only making time. Don’t wait for time to appear before taking action.” And she shares delightful reflections.

We’re taught from a young age to ‘save for a rainy day.’ We’re advised on saving, and later investing, and have institutions and services to support us in doing so. But we are not taught to ‘bank time,’ to plan for things we don’t yet know. How might we start to ‘save time for a rainy day?’ I’m interested in how we can plan for the unknown. Might we guess at what we will need and build buffers into our days, our weeks, our years for serendipity? If I had a dream side project, it would be this: to work with someone on a calendar that turns our conceptual model of calendaring on its head. Instead of a calendar that fills up with colorful little boxes every time you add a meeting (or have one added by others), this calendar shows what is actually happening: every meeting added is time lost. Minutes and hours taken from your days and weeks. I dream of a calendar that shows less rather than more.
– Liz Danzico

Megan Schwarz issues a challenge to designers who aspire to shape change.

In many organizations, designers struggle to gain support for anything beyond prototyping and testing. If we hope to do more strategic work, we must grow as change leaders.  Getting people to agree to the value of a particular design methodology is the easy part. Motivating people to adapt existing behaviors to make room for a new way of working is the challenge.
– Megan Schwarz

Jorge Arango invokes the consequences of not taking time to understand the whole.

Move fast and break things seems reasonable until the thing you break is society itself. In other words, ignoring the systemic effects of the thing you’re designing can lead you to inadvertently compromising the ecosystem that makes your thing possible.
– Jorge Arango

To learn more, see How to Plan for Design (and Why) and these sources.

You might also like Planning for Everything and its bibliography. Happy Planning!