Demystifying the Concept of Design
To an entrepreneur who comes out of a business or technology background, design can seem like a mysterious X factor — something added to provide polish to the core service. We’ve found that people on the client side, no matter what the stage of their company or nature of the industry can sometimes treat “design” like a word of power. And designers for their part often play into the mystique, allowing themselves to be called “creatives” and failing to accurately advocate for or represent their role in the process.
Design is merely the set of decisions you either make or set aside when you create your product. You cannot not design. Good design will contribute to your product being understandable, credible and valuable. “Bad” design leads to the opposite and often results from not making conscious decisions or of leaving those decisions up to people who did not have the necessary skills. However, no amount of polish or prettification can save an application without clear value to the user. And more design or more obvious design isn’t necessarily better design.
The first and perhaps only inviolable rule of design is that everything flows from the goal. Design without a goal isn’t even art. It’s just nonsensical self-indulgence. If you don’t have a clear goal, you can’t design because you will lack a rubric against which to evaluate potential decisions. Your goal at any particular time should determine your design priorities.
How much “design” do you really need?
Not every product requires the same type or level of design decision-making. Up until very recently, an enterprise software product could be quite successful based on feature set alone, without anything resembling good user experience design. This was because the people making the purchase decisions were not the end users. So, there was no reason to invest in a particularly pleasing or differentiating interface design. In recent years, a set of circumstances most often labeled the “consumerization of IT” has led to higher expectations.
To consider design effectively, entrepreneurs need to realize that design is much more than merely a color palette and a set of typefaces. Craigslist was wildly successful and truly deserving of the adjective “disruptive” yet didn’t really have much of either typography or color. The system did incorporate some very conscious choices in the matter of business rules, and in terms of what to leave out. Rivals came and went with the intention of competing on “design”, which generally meant heavier or more vividly hued interfaces that felt slower and presented no actual advantage to the user over the core utility.
Pinterest has a very strong design language which is immediately recognizable and has become a trendsetter across the web. The visual system that allows the website to frame virtually ad hoc collection of images is a core part of the website’s distinct appeal and value.
Make these choices with intention, not neglect
The set of choices that comprise interactive product or service design can include:
- Product name
- Underlying model
- Structure and navigation system
- Interface copy and labels
- Interactive behaviors
- Information hierarchy
and yes, logo, palette and layout.
So, when do you bring in a professional? As soon as those choices materially impact your success. How much do you invest? In proportion to the business value you need to derive.
If you are entering a crowded market, brand differentiation and user experience can matter a great deal. Mint.com invested in a great name, URL and visual interface because they required a tremendous amount of credibility to obtain new users’ bank passwords. Twitter, in the course of inventing something weird and new first came up with a voweless name and a hideous sweaty logo, kept the interface dead simple and rapidly evolved it. Twitter’s predecessor, Odeo had a lovely polished design and no reason to exist. There is no single answer to how and when your company should invest in making conscious decisions rather than experimenting.
Originally published at blogs.wsj.com on February 21, 2014.