Journal tags: processes

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Accessibility is systemic

I keep thinking about this blog post I linked to last week by Jacob Kaplan-Moss. It’s called Quality Is Systemic:

Software quality is more the result of a system designed to produce quality, and not so much the result of individual performance. That is: a group of mediocre programmers working with a structure designed to produce quality will produce better software than a group of fantastic programmers working in a system designed with other goals.

I think he’s on to something. I also think this applies to design just as much as development. Maybe more so. In design, there’s maybe too much emphasis placed on the talent and skill of individual designers and not enough emphasis placed on creating and nurturing a healthy environment where anyone can contribute to the design process.

Jacob also ties this into hiring:

Instead of spending tons of time and effort on hiring because you believe that you can “only hire the best”, direct some of that effort towards building a system that produces great results out of a wider spectrum of individual performance.

I couldn’t agree more! It just one of the reasons why the smart long-term strategy can be to concentrate on nurturing junior designers and developers rather than head-hunting rockstars.

As an aside, if you think that the process of nurturing junior designers and developers is trickier now that we’re working remotely, I highly recommend reading Mandy’s post, Official myths:

Supporting junior staff is work. It’s work whether you’re in an office some or all of the time, and it’s work if Slack is the only office you know. Hauling staff back to the office doesn’t make supporting junior staff easier or even more likely.

Hiring highly experienced designers and developers makes total sense, at least in the short term. But I think the better long-term solution—as outlined by Jacob—is to create (and care for) a system where even inexperienced practitioners will be able to do good work by having the support and access to knowledge that they need.

I was thinking about this last week when Irina very kindly agreed to present a lunch’n’learn for Clearleft all about inclusive design.

She answered a question that had been at the front of my mind: what’s the difference between inclusive design and accessibility?

The way Irina put it, accessibility is focused on implementation. To make a website accessible, you need people with the necessary skills, knowledge and experience.

But inclusive design is about the process and the system that leads to that implementation.

To use that cliché of the double diamond, maybe inclusive design is about “building the right thing” and accessibility is about “building the thing right.”

Or to put it another way, maybe accessibility is about outputs, whereas inclusive design is about inputs. You need both, but maybe we put too much emphasis on the outputs and not enough emphasis on the inputs.

This is what made me think of Jacob’s assertion that quality is systemic.

Imagine someone who’s an expert at accessibility: they know all the details of WCAG and ARIA. Now put that person into an organisation that doesn’t prioritise accessibility. They’re going to have a hard time and they probably won’t be able to be very effective despite all their skills.

Now imagine an organisation that priorities inclusivity. Even if their staff don’t (yet) have the skills and knowledge of an accessibility expert, just having the processes and priorities in place from the start will make it easier for everyone to contribute to a more accessible experience.

It’s possible to make something accessible in the absence of a system that prioritises inclusive design but it will be hard work. Whereas making sure inclusive design is prioritised at an organisational level makes it much more likely that the outputs will be accessible.

Design ops for design systems

Leading Design was one of the best events I attended last year. To be honest, that surprised me—I wasn’t sure how relevant it would be to me, but it turned out to be the most on-the-nose conference I could’ve wished for.

Seeing as the event was all about design leadership, there was inevitably some talk of design ops. But I noticed that the term was being used in two different ways.

Sometimes a speaker would talk about design ops and mean “operations, specifically for designers.” That means all the usual office practicalities—equipment, furniture, software—that designers might need to do their jobs. For example, one of the speakers recommended having a dedicated design ops person rather than trying to juggle that yourself. That’s good advice, as long as you understand what’s meant by design ops in that context.

There’s another context of use for the phrase “design ops”, and it’s one that we use far more often at Clearleft. It’s related to design systems.

Now, “design system” is itself a term that can be ambiguous. See also “pattern library” and “style guide”. Quite a few people have had a stab at disambiguating those terms, and I think there’s general agreement—a design system is the overall big-picture “thing” that can contain a pattern library, and/or a style guide, and/or much more besides:

None of those great posts attempt to define design ops, and that’s totally fair, because they’re all attempting to define things—style guides, pattern libraries, and design systems—whereas design ops isn’t a thing, it’s a practice. But I do think that design ops follows on nicely from design systems. I think that design ops is the practice of adopting and using a design system.

There are plenty of posts out there about the challenges of getting people to use a design system, and while very few of them use the term design ops, I think that’s what all of them are about:

Clearly design systems and design ops are very closely related: you really can’t have one without the other. What I find interesting is that a lot of the challenges relating to design systems (and pattern libraries, and style guides) might be technical, whereas the challenges of design ops are almost entirely cultural.

I realise that tying design ops directly to design systems is somewhat limiting, and the truth is that design ops can encompass much more. I like Andy’s description:

Design Ops is essentially the practice of reducing operational inefficiencies in the design workflow through process and technological advancements.

Now, in theory, that can encompass any operational stuff—equipment, furniture, software—but in practice, when we’re dealing with design ops, 90% of the time it’s related to a design system. I guess I could use a whole new term (design systems ops?) but I think the term design ops works well …as long as everyone involved is clear on the kind of design ops we’re all talking about.