NOTE: This article was inspired by a conversation I had with Rowan Merewood, Senior Developer Advocate on Chrome, for our Google Chrome Developers YouTube series “Designer vs. Developer”. You can also listen to a longer version of the conversation by downloading or subscribing to our podcast on Spotify, iTunes or Google Play Music.
We have been exploring some of the pain points web designers faced in the industry and did a small research project to understand better what challenges designers and developers face. This project was broken down into three activities, two roundtable discussion with new graduates, conversations with designers on social media and looking at existing buckets of research from discussions with professionals as part of the British Design Council’s Design Economy report.
TL;DR: You can jump direct to the bottom of this article to see what we learned.
Roundtable conversations at the Royal Society of Arts
The RSA run the oldest design competition in the world, aimed at giving students the opportunity to design a live brief set by the industry. I was invited to meet with the 2018 winners for roundtable discussions. It was a free-flowing conversation where we discussed the challenges they feel they faced.
“Should I learn to code or how to animate interfaces in After Effects?”
Common themes were about focusing skill sets. These designers are starting out in their careers so they want guidance on what would be the best things to learn. This is a tough question to answer because it requires us to predict the next 5 to 10 years. When I was a student, web browsers barely existed.
Focus on skills
- Designers are unsure if they should spend their times learning to code or learning how to animate UI.
- They’re not sure what the next steps of personal development should be.
- They feel there is a gap for conference talks aimed at them. Most conferences are expensive.
There is an interest in design systems because these seem to be the new approach to style and brand guidance. The challenge is not knowing where to start. Design systems require knowledge from many people and disciplines, whereas most design students work in isolation.
Designers I spoke to seemed agnostic about platforms. To them, it didn’t make a difference whether they were working on native or web.
Social media dialogue
I did a callout on Twitter and LinkedIn, asking “What do you find challenging when designing websites? What is your number one pain point?”. I broke the answers down into categories as well.
A lot of issues in the agency world involve getting clients to understand the value and process of design.
- Businesses expecting complex designs = slow loading on mobile devices
- Changing requirements
- Unrealistic expectations/timelines
This came up in pretty much every conversation I had with all three groups; we are a tool led industry and this can be pretty daunting to newcomers and those who take a career break. Getting back into the fold is very hard because things change rapidly.
- ‘I don’t know what I’m doing because I’ve allowed myself to get left behind…’ Pain point: that I can’t use Macromedia Fireworks
- ‘Browser compatibility but with CSS frameworks, this is not a problem anymore @getbootstrap @bulmacss @ZURBfoundation’
This has been the bane of designers since the very beginning but was surprised to see this come up as much as it did, even though there is a high base level of support for CSS features, baring IE. Designing once and using everywhere is still hard to reach ambition.
- ‘The necessity of supporting IE’
- ‘Browser compatibility, an ocean of poorly designed libraries’
- ‘There are huge walls for beginners and quite a lot of noise to experts.’
“There’s still a perception of browser incompatibility, which doesn’t always reflects reality. Only around 3% of users globally are on IE, just over 5% in the UK — and this is much lower for many sites. Developers and businesses need to prioritize based on cost/benefit.”
Sam Dutton, Developer Advocate, Chrome
Platform and responsive design
From research one of my colleagues found when we looked at Android: responsive design came up as a big pain point. This also took me by surprise as we have been doing responsive design for over ten years now, but designers still struggle with it.
- ‘Chrome for Apple and Chrome for Android work differently’
- ‘No common solution.’
- ‘iOS is like Safari Lite. We don’t benefit from all the awesomeness of Chrome for Android.’
- ‘I feel I have a good grasp on responsive design, but I still struggle with extremely large screens.’
Demonstrating the value of UX
Similar to the agency issues and showing the value of UX in teams, designers are still fighting for that seat at the table, which explains why there are so many chairs in Design Museums, as the old joke goes.
- ‘Educating users on UX and UI.’
- ‘Originality and finding a simple solution to UX’
- ‘Lean UX and Agile are practices commonly used by larger organizations’
- ‘Qualitative research and testing is also something that many of my clients (commerce, finance, insurance) are new to.’
Exploring existing stories and research
There is a great conversation with Jeremy Osborn, Jeffrey Zeldman, Aaron Gustafson, Web Design is Hard, which I highly recommend watching. I also looked at research conducted by the British Design Council, The Design Economy 2018. I have been an advisor on some of their research programs regarding design skills, so it was great to see this published.
Design remains 78% male, yet women make up 63% of students studying creative arts and design at university.
Web is complex
- Web design is complex or feels harder now than it used to be.
- Overwhelming for newcomers and old-timers.
- Browser differences
- We are not sure how to evaluate tools, which frameworks or web technologies to learn.
- Too much focus on effects.
- We teach and learn tools and not principles or approach to design.
- Everything requires learning before you can make it.
- Designers feel more like a customer and less like a designer when they hand things off to developers.
- Have to unlearn old hacks.
- Unknowable scope
One point Jeffrey Zeldman makes in the video linked to above, at about 12-minute mark, is about getting back into graphic design after leaving it for a while is relatively easy, but if you leave the world of coding websites for six months or more, you can get lost. This makes it very hard for the old timers who have been working in web design from the beginning.
Things we have learned
Tooling is complicated, we are a tooling focused industry, and they change so much. I have used maybe rough eight different tools, from Photoshop to Sketch. That’s before we add prototyping tools to the mix. This may be something we just have to accept. After all, type standards only really started to settle in the 90s, and typography is a 500-year-old discipline.
Designers are still finding it difficult to prove the importance of the process. I think this is something that we have to take on board: to learn how to educate and not just expect everyone to trust us by default. That takes time — perhaps using scenario-based design or design workshops like a design sprint would help. Getting non-designers to observe users while using a prototype they created is one of the best experiences I have seen in this field.
Cross-browser support is lacking crucial features. Designers need to understand developer tooling, to better scope out what is possible. I think using paired programming or the design process described above can help.
Responsive design is still challenging. I think this is in part due to the tools we use; I would love Chrome Design Tools that would help turn the browser into a creative tool. This space is where I think the next evolutionary step for site and web app creation is at. Mozilla is doing some fantastic work in this space, with their layout and shapes tooling.
All in all the challenges that we face seem to be all the age-old ones. Process, tools, and respect.
Special thanks to all of you who responded, the RSA, Design Council and Jeremy Osborn. Also special thanks to Sam Dutton who has helped me edit these articles for the series.
You can learn more about UX design at Web Fundamentals.