By design


What does design mean to you?

As the quote suggests, it isn’t uncommon to think of design as related to how things look and feel (and this is of course an important element) but there is much more to design than form or appearance.

This is a brief introduction to some posts which will expand on this subject; to share some things that I have learned, some places to learn more, and to discuss why  design matters.

When I first started this site, one of the first blogs I wrote was related to design. That blog, titled ‘Designed to Test’, was a result of observing the many debates about whether testers need to have an understanding of coding.

I wanted to make a comparison between these heated debates within testing communities and what, to me at least, seemed to be limited interest in, or discussion about design. A few years on, little has changed. The subject of coding still seems to inspire great passion in many testers, and the subject of design…. doesn’t.

So I hope these posts will also help explain why I think that an understanding of design principles might be as important – if not more important – to those involved in testing as an understanding of coding.

Why should I care about design?

It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that this is primarily a site related to the subjects of quality in software and technology, and software testing. So what is the connection with design?

Let’s start with quality.

If you have read my book, Changing Times, it won’t come as a surprise to hear that I make a direct connection between design work, and the quality of resulting products. In the book I cover a couple of areas of design where there is a strong focus on people; Urban Design and Human-Centred Design.

When we talk about quality, I believe we are talking about the relationship between a human being and the product or service they are using. The interaction between the two influences how the person perceives the quality of that product or service. It would follow then, that a favourable impression is more likely to result if a product has been created with a good understanding of the likely needs and desires of a person using it, and if care has been taken to help them navigate and operate it. Design principles are central to this.

In his book The Design of Everyday Things, the author and design expert Don Norman puts it like this:

Design is concerned with how things work, how they are controlled, and the nature of the interaction between people and technology. When done well, the results are brilliant, pleasurable products. When done badly, the products are unusable, leading to great frustration and irritation.

If quality exists in the relationship a person has with a product, and if design sets the tone for that relationship, then design is the bedrock of quality.

But what about testing?

The relationship between design and quality may seem clear, but perhaps the connection with testing is less so.

There is certainly common ground between the two. In the broadest sense, testers design their tests and designers test their designs. Testers and designers both need to employ critical thinking skills, both sometimes need to communicate complex technical information in simple human language, and in my view both need an  understanding of the needs and desires of the person or people the product is intended to serve.

Some of the methods used in design work can be, and are applied in testing (for example the use of mnemonics and personas), and an awareness of mental models and biases is important in both design and testing.

I would go further still. I believe that design principles can be an excellent means of identifying risks, and generating test ideas and charters. I am not only referring here to usability testing or tests of the interface between person and product; the principles of design also relate to the performance, scalability and modularity of products and systems.

If design is concerned with how something works, and if testing can help identify ways it may fail to do so, then it seems to me that an understanding of the former can only help with the latter.

So, what next?

In subsequent posts, I will explain some of the principles, methods and considerations in design, how the needs of real people are identified and addressed and how we can apply some of this knowledge in testing.

I will revisit Human-Centred Design and Urban Design but also cover some other design theory. I’ll provide references and further reading for anyone who wants to explore the subject further, and practical suggestions for turning design principles into questions, testing ideas and charters.

Design is a wonderful, rich topic. I hope these posts will open the subject up to those who haven’t explored it before, and perhaps provide some new ideas to those who have.

References and reading in this post

  1. Changing Times
  2. The Design of Everyday Things

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