Is This Really What Designers Do?

Advice from The Sherwins for July 2018

Cleaning Up After the Party


Hello Sherwins—

I'm on a small design team at a software company, and we’re responsible for the overall user experience of their products. I took the job because I dig their products, and it's my first "big" job as a designer. But honestly, the work isn’t what I expected. I’ve been here about six months, and all I’ve done is fix issues that come from customer service. Now I’m going part of a new team that has to retire one product and merge it into another. I don’t think this job is what I signed up for. When am I going to get to the designing part? How many other designers are dealing with situations like mine?

X in New Jersey


Hi X,

Almost every other designer we know. None of them thought that this was the job they signed up for. But they should have known.

Design, at its heart, is about framing human experience. And, to put it bluntly, humans die. Just like everything else. Sure, it’s likely that with a little more experience at the company, you’ll get to start “designing” more, but design (whether it’s UI, UX, CX) has to cover the entire life of the product, cradle to grave. And the design industry is really bad at this. Consequently, designers are really bad at this. We think it’s not our job. Or we’d rather it not be.

We’d love to say that there’s an industry that’s good at this, but it’s hard to even do end-of-life for people right. We don’t like talking about death, preparing others for death, or thinking about our own deaths unless it’s imminent. Why would we be better at thinking about products? After all, one of the great Reasons Why We Build Stuff is to have a shot at creating something that will endure beyond our last breath, that this thing will etch our name into the stones of history.

Is that thing a mobile game? A hospital billing system? A satellite or a voting machine? From the frivolous to the essential, the answer is probably not. Very little of what humanity has ever built remains. And while that’s sad in its own right—and we could get into the loss of history as a loss of humanity, but that’s another column—it’s helpful to consider that a lot of what’s not around anymore is because we don’t need it. Those things have been replaced or have become obsolete, many times for the better.

We update things to improve them. You can’t support all of those versions of your products forever, so it’s only a matter of time until the oldest version dies. You don’t have the people, the bandwidth, or the money to keep it around anymore.

And despite all of this knowledge—that all day long, we’re making stuff that isn’t going to last—we do not plan for it. We build beautiful services for our millions of users, and we ask them to spend hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars on our gadgets. Then, when some stakeholder decides to sunset a feature, we consistently mess it up.

“I want to create things, not bury them,” a student once told us. We didn’t have the heart to tell him, “Welcome to the job.”

But perhaps we should have. Retiring, sunsetting, the death of a product—however you want to phrase it—takes up more and more of the workday for designers. Even if the product isn’t ending, we are versioning them to death, updating the life out of older instances.

There are thousands of blog posts out there about how to communicate with your users that you’re fixing/killing off/changing your product. How to work through their rage and disappointment. All of that is covered. But we have some questions for you to reflect on, that they don’t cover.

At what point does a team start talking about the end of their product? Is it when they decide that something needs to go? When their competitor aqua-hires the design team? Or do they do it at the very beginning, when they discover that their little idea could become real?

At your company, did they think about how this soon to be retired product fit into people’s lives when they first built it? About what other things they would be doing that could change how they use your service? About when it would be convenient to update? About what it would grow into after two years of life? After five? Did the company talk about how your lives as designers, developers, engineers, how your work, even your desks and conference rooms, would change as your product grew?

We want our products to be successful. And many of them are. But even the most successful products have death in their DNA. We think about the health of a company in launches: New feature, new product, new product line, new supply chain. We have lots of meetings about New. We have lots of meetings about the next generation. We do not have meetings that imagine a world without our older products, without our original version. We do not have meetings where we celebrate the life of things that are now gone. We do not have meetings about death.

Users aside, customers aside, how do we support each other as builders and makers through this cycle? How do we see improvement and refinement for what they are: the balance between keeping and discarding. We create as a response to loss, but loss gives us the space to create. It’s a strange relationship that shadows everything that the design industry is about.

And sure, there are people out there making stupid stuff just to make a ton of cash. Their things are just dying faster. Worse, they’re killing their creations without a thought for what comes afterward. It’s just cash. And at the end, their designers go home with pockets full of it. But their eyes aren’t on the future, they’re on the ground.

A designer who only wants to make, and not clean up afterward, is a poor designer. A designer who takes up space with their own stuff and can’t imagine how to make room for others, that’s a designer without vision.

We’re not saying that you have to put up with a job you don’t like, X. But we are saying that the world is building more and more things with shorter and shorter lifespans, and that we don’t make the time to think about hanging up the old because we’re too busy coveting the new. And when that lack of reflection catches up with us, the natural processes of maintenance and death feel like chores. They feel like they’re in the way of what we really want.

You became a designer to solve problems, to fix things, to make life better. But all of that involves cleaning up. It means planning to stop, and celebrating the end of a hard day’s work. And it means mourning. We all need to be honest about what the work entails. Not what it should entail, but what it must. Our associations and design schools and companies, everyone that sits in this industry of framing human experience: no one is exempt.

Innovation and experimentation lead to death, which is what leads to life. We cannot build without making space. We test what is possible to ensure what will survive. Our products will grow and change and to think otherwise is to spit at the universe. That grief and joy cannot be separated, and that it’s everyone’s responsibility to care for them both in equal measure.

Perhaps that’s the issue, X, that it’s not balanced at your company. You only see the endings, the chore, the tedium of closing tickets. Find the designer who’s making new things, the one who dreams and builds and yet never knows what happens to their work, who never gets to see if it was successful, who only has a stock price and a paycheck to show that their effort changed someone’s life.

Sitting between the two of you, that’s design. That’s the job.

All best,
The Sherwins

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Send questions to questions (at) askthesherwins (daht) com. All questions become the property of Ask The Sherwins, LLC and may be edited. Our advice shouldn't be construed as a replacement for the appropriate legal or professional counsel. This advice will be replaced on August 1, 2018.