The word “design” has so many interpretations and incarnations these days that I have taken to qualifying my use of the term. I call myself an “Alexandrian designer.”
Likely, nobody else uses this term, because I made it up myself to better describe what I do. I’m not out to denigrate any of the other variants of design, as they all have their important place in the panoply of craft needed to make great products, but I want to emphasize the particular contribution of the kind of design that I and other well-tempered interaction designers do.
I define Alexandrian design as design that solves a problem imposed by the outside world. The Alexandrian designer does not have the luxury of redefining the problem to suit their own taste, desires, or aesthetic vision. The Alexandrian designer synthesizes a fit for a given context.
That last sentence uses terms — synthesize, context, fit — taken from Christopher Alexander’s “Notes on the Synthesis of Form,” originally published in 1964. It is from the author’s name that I derive the “Alexandrian” modifier. Alexander is a professor of architecture at the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley. You may be familiar with his work as the theoretical basis for design patterns, a meme widely used in agile programming circles.
I expect that most interaction designers (or user experience designers; I use the terms interchangeably) working in the digital world today are also Alexandrian designers, in that they address problems presented by their users — or their client’s users — and solve them in the best interests of those users. The designer’s personal taste and style play little role in the task.
However, many developers, managers, and other practitioners in the digital product world — along with many users of digital products — imagine that the designer is an artist, albeit one with technical skills. Using “Alexandrian” allows me to make a clear distinction between the role of personal expression versus the role of problem solving in the design we do.
I’m fond of pointing out that most of the most successful websites in history, Amazon, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, are remarkably, shall we say, attractively-challenged. Their presentation is anything but stylishly beautiful. In the meantime, many lush and visually attractive ecommerce sites have sunk without a trace. While beauty is a good thing to have, it is not the same thing as getting the user smoothly and effectively to their desired end-state.
The four sites I named in the preceding paragraph are actually pretty nice looking these days, but ten years ago their ugliness was palpable, almost a point of pride.
When you are an artistic designer, you look inside yourself for inspiration and vision. When you are an Alexandrian designer, you look at your users. You interview and observe many different users to find their common motivations and desired end-states, and then you create digital behavior that gets them as smoothly as possible to those end-states while satisfying their motivations. Everything you do is in service to the user, and your taste and opinion counts for little.
You can read more about field studies, the observational part of Alexandrian design, here.