Designing for Designers: Creating Systems vs. Goals

Today, technology is embedded in nearly every industry. More and more professionals are spending their time in front of screens, using digital models to design new physical products or improve processes. 

Teachers craft curricula on Adobe Captivate, architects are masters at AutoCAD, and civil engineers design new road networks with civil design software. Even dentists and orthodontists are digital designers, using aligner design software to speed up their treatment planning processes and 3D-printing to create clear aligners in the office. 

As designers of user-centered digital experiences, our challenge is often to design an experience in a way that guides the user quickly and logically to the next predetermined step. This makes sense for most goal-oriented consumer experiences such as paying a bill, booking a reservation, or ordering an item online. Well designed B2B applications even nudge users to complete their desired tasks with step-by-step flows and clear calls to action. 

But these rigid frameworks, while “frictionless,” often limit creativity. They are tightly controlled experiences that allow the user to select from a slim menu of predetermined options prescribed by the company funding the experience. 

When designing for the “designer” — the architect, teacher, orthodontist, or any other specialist using digital design software to create something new — we need to shift our approach. Our goal should no longer be to move the user seamlessly from A to Z but rather to instill them with confidence that they can experiment with A, B, and C to define what Z should be. 

Recently, Method was brought in to help an orthodontic tech company improve the user experience and interface of their clear aligner design software. After field research with orthodontists and clinical assistants, our team realized that the software we were hoping to improve was much more similar to Photoshop or Figma than it was to a typical enterprise or consumer product.

Orthodontists see themselves as “smile designers” who must be able to create complex treatment plans personalized to each patient’s unique needs. These specialists need to balance clinical needs with cosmetic desires, ultimately delivering a smile the patient is happy with — and a treatment plan that they will stick to. 

For example, they may choose to adjust a patient’s staggered front teeth first, even if not clinically necessary, in order to show the patient immediate cosmetic results and give them the motivation to keep wearing their aligners as the rest of the teeth adjust. These are the kind of nuanced design decisions that can only be made by an expert, and a human. 

Finding the right balance of flexibility and guidance is key to designing a design software that appeals to these expert humans. If the experience is an empty sandbox, lacking organization or communication, some may play around but many will abandon it, frustrated with the amount of (unpaid) time “wasted” on trying to understand how to interact with the program. If the experience is too prescriptive, our designer-as-user will feel boxed in, bored, and frustrated by the program’s lack of belief in their abilities. 

When designing for designers, we must define a consistent yet flexible interaction model that educates users on the available tools and their functions, yet stops short of prescribing the way to use them. For the aligner design software, this meant reorganizing the tools into “move,” “measure” and “view” categories, distinguishing iconography, and creating a clear label and tooltip system that explained the core functionality of each tool. 

These consistent patterns aimed to create and reinforce expectations. They reassured users that they were equipped with all the right tools and knew how to use them, providing just enough guardrails to facilitate creativity but not command a standardized process. 

As technological advancements disrupt every industry from construction to orthodontia, many rote digital processes are becoming automated, leaving us humans to do the creative design work. Designing software for these “designers” will require a shift from the conventional goal-focused approach to one that defines a coherent system of tools without prescribing the outcome. 

You can think of it as the LEGO approach versus the IKEA approach. In typical consumer UX flows, our goal as designers — like IKEA’s — is to guide the consumer through the simplest process possible toward a standardized goal. When designing for designers, however, we need to think of the product more like a box of LEGOs: What is the simplest system we can design that allows users to channel their own expertise and creativity? 

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