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Perception and Balancing Idealism with Pragmatism

Jeremy Keith wrote a post called “Design Perception” where he talks about feeling like “a silent majority of developers are working with ‘boring’ technologies on ‘boring’ products in ‘boring’ industries.”

It’s as if 90% of the buzz and writing in the web industry is centered around 10% of work—the new, exciting stuff. And that’s not just for developers. It’s designers too.

I feel like the majority of coverage in the design world is spent on the latest outputs from digital-first companies like AirBnB, Uber, Slack, etc.

The end result is the same. A typical developer or designer is left feeling that they—and their company—are behind the curve. It’s like they’re only seeing the Instagram version of their industry, all airbrushed and filtered, and they’re comparing that to their day-to-day work. That can’t be healthy.

Personally, I’d love to hear stories from the trenches of more representative, traditional companies.

Ok, you asked for it. As someone who works in a “boring” industry (insurance) here’s a small story.

At my company, we have a developed relationships with a handful of “strategic partners”—agencies with strong engineering and design talent that we can leverage to get our work done. These agencies are usually composed of a revolving door of talented folks who are quite lock-step with the mainstream perception of industry (some, perhaps, even involved directly in shaping it). We get access to this talent, which is a great thing!

Recently we had a project where we hashed out the specifics of a feature internally then planned to leverage our external strategic partner for design and engineering talent to carry it to completion. When the external folks came in, not fully understanding the constraints under which we designed our requirements, they attempted to “simplify” the requirements and make the overall feature “better”—I say better in quotes because it’s the kind of “better” an industry-trending article would advocate. “That pesky requirement getting in the way? Remove it. Simplify. If it doesn’t spark joy, just get rid of it.”

And you know what? Good. Great. Awesome. I love the initiative and the questioning. If this thing isn’t serving a purpose, get rid of it! And you know what? If our company was a startup without years of experience, their suggestions probably would’ve worked. What they were suggesting was, I believe, more straightforward and understandable. More “simple”.

But it was too simplistic. As a company that has been in the trenches of the insurance industry for over 15 years, we’ve accumulated a few “edge cases” over the years. The realities of our business made it difficult to see things in the simple black and white our strategic partner designers were proposing. Internally, as we wrote the requirements, we knew our solution was not going to be “simple”. Our platform is not “simple”. Neither is our business. It has sophistication and complexity that has accreted over the years to handle a wide variety of use cases demanded by the diverse requirements of our ever-changing customers.

I have no doubts that if we’d been a startup, we could’ve rolled with our partner’s “simplified” design solution and been in great shape (if you’re a startup, chances are you haven’t accumulated many constraints from the world—i.e. your customers—yet). Objectively, I think our partners’ proposed design solution really was more “simple”—not to mention aesthetically elegant. But the business requirement was not resolved by that “simple” design. The business needed more sophistication. To deliver value to the business, we had to make the UI more ugly real to life. The final UI wasn’t airbrushed. However, I believe our solution was beautiful and functional because of the simplicity with which it solved the problem, not because of the perceived visual simplicity of the solution. The longer I work in software, the more I’m coming to appreciate that distinction.

Someone reading this might think, “well you are just part of the problem. That is precisely why your industry is boring. It can’t get with the times!” And you know what? Maybe that’s true. That’s precisely why I enjoy the relationship we have with our partners. They can come in and, with their trending knowledge of the software industry, question and poke holes in our thinking. But they don’t know our business. That’s our speciality.

And you know what else? Sometimes it’s just not about enforcing my will on the world. Sometimes you have to accept the world as it is and begin working from those constraints. I think we need people who will approach problems from both sides: with a desire to change the world and a desire to accept it as is. It reminds me of something President Obama said once. He was referring to work within government, but I think it applies to software as well:

This idea of purity and you’re never compromised...and all that stuff — you should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities.

Personally, I like to try and strike that balance between idealism and pragmatism. Unfortunately, it often seems like exciting idealism makes up 90% of industry buzz while boring pragmatism makes up only 10%.