We all know how fanatical Apple was about design. And how they were able to differentiate themselves through design. The simplicity, the intuitive interface and the beauty of the interaction! And that was also how they were able to beat the hell out of so many of their competitors - Nokia, Blackberry, Motorola, Palm - in the typical David vs Goliath-ish battle: always led-by-design. And still continues to do so. And yet, Steve Jobs made it a point to emphasize that Design isn’t just about the look and feel of a product; it’s also about the engineering underneath, about the plumbing and of all the individual components that make a product. Bullseye.
Design is the soul of an Engineering endeavour. Real Engineers are the ones who give always enough emphasis to Design. That’s how you separate wheat from chaff, boys from men. All Engineering problems ought to be tackled through Design. Connecting the Problem Domain with the Solution Domain. It’s so fundamental to Problem Solving that it’s hard to emphasize enough. Without Design, it’s difficult to get into Solutioning. And impossible to get optimum results. And yet, so often, one sees novice Engineers, literally rush into implementation just like a child takes to a new game title.

Arrgh, the haste! And then, they make a spectacle of themselves to get utterly bamboozled and fathomless, soon to get into reworking and reworking till they get the design right. So, 4 steps forwards and 3 steps back meaning just 1 step ahead. Wouldn’t it be good, if they then, only took only 2 steps ahead, but sure 2 steps? And in the right direction. That’s why Design is so super important. Take time, go slow, make the design, go smooth and hence go fast. Slow because of Design. Better because of Design. Cut the humongous rework. Implementation is so much faster if you get the Design right. And you avoid all the unnecessary friction as well.

Engineers often underestimate the time that it takes to make a good Design. In the days of instant gratification and amp’ed-up response times, who wants to understand the Problem well enough? Nobody wants to take time to lay down constraints, figure out dependencies and evaluate multiple options. Take the easiest route out. Google it out and hit the first one that comes by. In these days when Bosses and Customers are breathing down your neck for hyper-speed, it’s easy to succumb to the first thing that comes along and move on. But Design is an Art of the Craft in one sense. And a good work of Art takes time. It is thoughtfully made, moving back and forth between aspects, considering longer term and shorter term perspectives and concerns of the Stakeholders.

How do real Engineers solve Engineering problems? They first work hard to define the problem well enough. Asking the right questions. Well begun is half done. Solving the right problem. Get the constraints out. Derive the Root Cause. And only then go for the Solution Options. And as a rule: Multiple Solution Options. That forces one to evaluate and cull alternatives. Consider and discard. Filter and Select. This is the heart of Design, where one is exploring Solution Options and making a Selection. Then, one tests it out or goes back to the drawing board. Of course, it’s an iterative process. Review with feedback. And where is Design? Design is everywhere here! In the Definition, in the Analysis, in the Solutioning and in the Selection. Unless one looks at all of these in totality macro or micro, one can never design well.

Remember, we’re not just talking about some Design Patterns or just Class Design. We’re looking at Design as an Engineering endeavour. Applicable everywhere there is Engineering. Design can mean Architecture design of Components & Structures, of course, but also, design of Classes and Entities. Algos & Logic. Database Design as well as Data Model Design. Even Test Cases need to be designed and so does Test Data. Each and every inch of the lifecycle needs Design. And unless you do so in your Product Engineering, yours will not shine. That is for sure.

So, can Design be learnt at all or is it pure genius? Of course, there is natural talent, but I have seen many Engineers learn as well. The smart way is to make it all visual. Get it out on whiteboards, Post-It notes, charts, Swimlanes, Data Models. Use abundant colors & representations. The more the Visual, the better the Design. Also, get Stakeholders involved, early on. Get them clued in to your Design. Ask them questions - Where, Who, Why, When, How? Get their perspective & feedback. Think about associated areas, not only islands. Think Dependencies and Integrations. Use the full time that you’ve been allocated for Design. Don’t rush to implementation. And always have more than one option. That is one way of forced Design. Some Engineers also practice Designing as a fun exercise for some well-known product out there.

There’s just one word of caution here. Design is synthesis from analysis. And it is easy to get into the trap of Over-Design. Early on in my career, I had the good fortune to be part of a Design exercise for a new high-visibility, strategic product. The three of us just went berserk with design ideas & constructs. And we were lost in the sheer beauty of the process, designing aspects of the product - some of which would be useful only in the second or the third generation of the product. This went on for a few days, until one fine Friday afternoon, our Boss walked in and demanded the Design exercise to be concluded by Monday. Period. And that crash-landed our over-design flight hastily on to the ground. So be sure to avoid that!

But otherwise, Design is fun. It’s a hallmark of a good engineering pedigree. And intensely satisfying, once you’ve learnt to do it right. All great products that I know of, have been built through the sheer power of good Design.
What do you say, do you agree?

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