When my business partner and I started our company 10 years ago, design to us was simply ‘the art of looking good’ and this idea became the core value proposition of our business. Through the first few years the idea got traction but as the company grew we quickly learned that it wasn’t the secret to online success. Our websites functioned well and looked amazing but some of them didn’t get results for our clients and this concerned us. As we grew to understand the design process more we wanted to change our offering to better serve our clients. There was a challenge ahead of us however, and that was the perception of what digital design meant.
To get a better sense of what people thought I polled my colleagues, friends, family and business owners. Not to my surprise the result was that the majority of people believed what I believed back in 2004; design was about how something looked. It became apparent that when I said I ran a digital design company that most people didn’t really know what that meant. As a result I would frequently get the question “So, what do you actually do?” to which I would respond “I make websites.” The problem was, while my company did make websites, saying that seemed like an oversimplification of a design process that happened to result in a website or app. So, the burning question is: what does my company actually do?
It’s more than just function
The best way to describe what a digital design company does is: we’re in the business of making things that work. Another gross oversimplification? Probably, but let me describe what I mean. A product functions when it’s able to do something it was naturally intended to do. For example, a website can function by loading and displaying text and graphics when it’s visited. Something goes beyond functioning and works when it can be applied to do something that helps people reach goals and improve their lives. When something works it’s function takes a backseat to the value it creates. When something works people’s lives are simpler, more exciting, enriched, or empowered. When something works businesses can grow and be sustained because the thing that was made matters to people who buy it.
Making something that works
Empathy is the cornerstone of digital design. To make something that works, designers need to understand human behaviour. Understanding where people need help is essential to understanding how to create value for them. Through studying customer behaviour we recognize patterns and identify how to apply technology to improve their lives.
Next it’s important to understand how the product will sustain itself and continue to provide value to people over a long period of time. This is done through understanding the business and its mechanics. Resources are essential to the life and evolution of any digital product, so understanding how the business works is essential in creating a product that works.
Finally we need to understand the technological constraints to effectively make something that gets customers to their goal while at the same time sustaining a business. The application of technology will determine the viability of the ideas and provide tools for us to measure the impact of the product.
With a sound foundation of knowledge the design process has what it needs to support the construction of a quality user experience that creates value for it’s customers while being technically viable and helping a business thrive.
There are several core parts that make up digital design. Designers will strategize on how to best piece these components together to create a clear path for the customer to navigate and aid them in achieving their goals.
Copy — Something that is commonly overlooked is the copy used to communicate the core message. Much like the visual side, the written side allows the customer to understand the concepts of the value that is being provided. The style of the the writing reveals a lot about how the business wants to work with it’s customer. It can be clear and direct, clever and witty or whatever matches the business’ values.
Content — Supporting the message is done through content creation.
Content can take the form of photography, illustration, video, links and more. It’s anything that supports the message, business values and brand.
Layout — is concerned with how to best organize the design elements in a way that makes the product easiest to use. It also describes the hierarchy of information and how it’s related and connected. It outlines ideal pathways the customer will journey through to get to their goal.
Interaction — The actions taken by the customer result in movement, feedback and results displayed on their screen. Programmers need to intercept customer actions and create routes for customers to move through the product smoothly. The way the feedback and movement is displayed is unique to the business and should support the tone and mood of the art and writing.
Visual Arts — Naturally, design is concerned with aesthetics. How information looks is essential in communicating business values and brand.
It’s also a place to please the eye and differentiate the business from others. It’s a place for the tone and mood to be communicated. Whether it be professional and serious or fun and whimsical, the artwork plays into these constructs.
After piecing together a sound user experience designers will want to collect statistics on how the product performs to measure how the customer is interacting with the product.
Start Small and Incrementally Improve
Finally, to design something that works it’s important to get to a point where we can start learning about the impact the product is having. With this information new ideas can be created to help evolve the product to better serve customers. Starting small is essential to creating a successful product. It’s important to not over build the product because the goal is to get to a solution that works quickly. Customers can get tired when they are crowded with features they don’t care about and this is not what we want. The digital product should first be able to show that it is capable of creating value before it’s expanded upon. By starting small and incrementally improving the design it ensures waste is reduced and results are achieved faster.
While design is definitely concerned with making people look really really good, it’s most concerned with making people really really successful. That is what a design company sets out to do. It wants to create something that works in a way that improves people’s lives and by extension the people they touch with their business. Making things is an awesome and exciting process, and what makes it even better is when we know the result of what we do makes people enjoy their lives a little bit more.