Jorge Manrubia

April 2, 2022

Not a designer


I love design (as in product design). It's a discipline I have tried to educate myself at, and it's what I appreciate the most in any product I use. And yet, I'm terrible at it. I have empirical evidence that it's not my thing. But I can't help having strong opinions on how things should be designed. A contradiction, you see, HELP!

I genuinely admire the products we build at Basecamp. I would pay for Basecamp and HEY, and I wholeheartedly recommend them to others. I consider them incredibly well-designed products. So, what should I do with the many opinions and ideas I have when I see something is being cooked? I often feel the temptation to speak up, but then I decide to shut up and wait, and I rarely regret it.

I think it is a common problem when you are a spectator, especially if the spectacle is something you enjoy and are familiar with. For example, I like movies, and I can have articulated opinions on screenplays or acting performances. Do I think I would add value in a discussion with a professional screenwriter or actor? I certainly don't.

Younger me was eager to discuss design with designers. Today, I establish self-imposed boundaries. Should programmers make casual design observations if they feel like it? Of course, as anyone else in the company. Now, should programmers engage in thorough design discussions with designers? I think they shouldn't, as a general rule.

One exception is adding development costs concerns as input to design decisions. I consider that one mandatory. Another is when a programmer acts as a product owner, which is not that rare in small startups creating a product they use. But in the general case, I think programmers should avoid questioning or discussing design decisions. The alternative might sound appealing in theory, but I think it's not healthy at all in practice. Discussions take a lot of energy, and energy is limited. Adding amateur input to an otherwise expert-driven activity doesn't look like a wise way to spend it.

Basecamp is starting the work on a major Basecamp 4 feature that will be huge, one that makes me particularly excited. I have only seen the shaping doc, and I already feel tempted to give feedback and make suggestions. But then, I remind myself that I'm not good at design, that a team of world-class designers is running the show and that we use a process that makes development costs a first-class citizen, from inception to shipping. So I take a breathe and go back to being a spectator waiting to be delighted.

About Jorge Manrubia

A programmer who writes about software development and many other topics. I work at 37signals.