An Island Never Cries – and Never Designs

Today I have several stories. All have the same moral: we can’t do our best work in isolation. Design systems exist for a reason.

A Story of Teenage Angst

“I am a rock
I am an island
I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate”
– Simon and Garfunkel, “I am a Rock”

Baron Island is beautiful. But it's not part of a design system.As a high school student I loved this song. I felt isolated and vulnerable, as many high school students likely do. In Simon and Garfunkel’s music I heard a promise that someday I would be invincible, alone. Of course, as an adult I work in strategic design. Building design systems makes me hyperaware of the connections humans require to survive. We are not isolated creatures. We require community to bring out the best in us.

It’s easy to laugh at our former selves. My former self thought I would be happy when I could be completely alone, and not reminded of my isolation. It turns out I’m happiest when I don’t feel isolated and lonely.

A Story of Allergens

A few years ago, I wrote a series of articles for an organization promoting healthy, chemical-free living. One article involved an interview with Jay Harper, of Red Apple Lipstick. Harper described what goes into most makeup and why it irritates so many peoples’ skin. One statement in particular stuck with me. Jay explained that no chemical works in isolation. That means certain “natural” things that keep a flower healthy, might still be unhealthy – or even toxic – for a human when taken away from the rest of the flower.

Just because something is all natural does not mean it works like it does in nature. In order for it to work the way it’s intended, it needs to be part of a system.

A Story of Healthcare

I recently finished reading The Digital Doctor, by Robert Wachter. The book’s purpose is to explore how technology has changed how our healthcare system. Wachter looks at the benefits as well as unintentional consequences that we (mostly UX practitioners) will need to solve for in the future. As can be expected, a significant portion of the book speaks to EHRs. Electronic Health Records play a large role in today’s healthcare digital ecosystem – and for many hospitals, that means Epic.

In Chapter 8, “Unanticipated Consequences,” Robert goes into detail about how more than one hospital, after implementing Epic, found that their providers were less capable of handling a code or other “non-normal” situation.” The reason, it turned out, is that Epic made it much easier to pass information from a nurse practitioner to a primary care doctor to a specialist. As a result, nurses and doctors weren’t spending as much time together. By not spending as much time together, they missed out on opportunities to learn to communicate as a team, which made responding to a code or other emergency situations much more complex.

They inadvertently isolated themselves. The result? Poorer design systems.

The Moral: Design Systems are Collaborative

Henry Ford is often quoted as saying “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said¬†faster horses.” Of course if someone had developed a “faster horse” customers would have been disappointed. They would have gotten windburn from the speed, horse manure splattering up to their clothes, and a variety of other unintended consequences.

When we design a solution, we need to do more than identify the gaps. We also need to recognize the things that people like about the current solution (or workaround). We need to understand which parts of the whole work or move together. Nothing exists in isolation, and definitely not our designs. Certainly not ourselves.

We are part of a larger whole. So are our designs.

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