It’s so familiar in the life of designers, that a coworker, or somebody who owns the project, to say something like, “can you explore more alternatives?”, or “can we present 3–5 alternatives, and let the boss picks one or two?”.
I am one of those designers who believe less and less in “more” and “alternatives”, instead, I believe in a focused yet continuous iteration of one problem or flow.
There are some reasons why design alternatives are bad for the design process.
“Design alternatives” are often insecure, indecisive and wasteful ways of presenting and consolidating on designs.
Consider the following scenarios:
Inability to define priorities. I want to include feature A, B and C. I don’t know which one should be incorporated first. Should I even include all of them? Heck, why don’t we just provide 5 alternatives each sporting different sets of features? Who knows the boss or client might like it?
Lack of user insight. The user might want the ability to shuffle the list of images. Or they might not. Or they might. Heck, why don’t we present 10 alternatives at how we might do this?
Design or product bias. “Well, I did this for my previous company and it worked great!” — well yeah, what about this product you’re doing now? “It certainly is cool to do a visual collage of these! The customers will love it! You know I love it!” —well yeah, are you the customer? Why do you think a visual style works better than the rest? Oh heck, we can always prototype 5 more collage alternatives. Or even worse, “I don’t like this design. Try something else.” OK, you’re the customer.
In the end, presenting multiple alternatives of a design would usually end up in:
Combination fatigue. “Can we combine this cute picture of a monkey with a big type all over it, and then add some augmented functionality in it? Oh, don’t forget that correct blue tinge on the eyes of the monkey.” Suddenly, we’re not speaking the language of the users, but more of personal taste and heavy assumptions.
Micromanagement. Designers have reasons why they do something, be it from technological, cultural or time constraints. It is wise to give them problems, but never micromanage their answers. Even more, if you’re already taking part in nudging or nitpicking the visual elements. Never do that. Depart from the problem, always.
Design by committee. This is the worst, absolute worst thing that can happen in any design or product. While democracy is good, design needs decisiveness and ownership by the designers. There are some design choices that need to be made to assure that the design has empathy to the users, more than the business goals, more than personal goals. And this is achieved by trusting the designers a bit more.
What is a good alternative? Here’s what I am proposing:
Design one thing at a time, then iterate. Depart from clarity, focus, and insight for the users, business and other goals. But mostly, it should be the users first. Create one version of one thing, then explore more at the pace of one iteration at a time.
Set the key question and answer. At the very beginning, set the key question. What am I trying to do? What is the user trying to accomplish? Then, set a few key answers, and follow that strictly.
Focus on the experience, not the visuals. Visuals can come later, and they are the domain of the designers. Focus on the experience, the flow, the information architecture, and nail them down first. Then you can talk visuals.
If things fail and you need alternatives anyway: limit to 2, and be deliberate in the reasoning why you need the alternatives. Never combine features just because you like both things. It has to come from the user’s key question and answer.
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First up, disclaimer: I had no experience in building a design team from scratch, although I had managerial experience very briefly, and not in a very large team. That said, this idea is something that needs more experimentation and validation. However, I am pretty comfortable at sharing this to you.
I always found that companies everywhere are struggling with the idea of design. They are confused as how design should be positioned and treated. Mostly, they are part of the “production” process in which it is perceived to be a very mechanical mean to achieve something, and certainly, more often than not, they were not part of the stage where a business or product gets formulated. Most of the briefs we have as designers always come from such people called “stakeholders”. They probably had meetings in the ivory tower or somewhere in the mountains and only after they have a pretty solid idea of what they want, they begin to hire designers (and engineers, project managers, product managers, and the whole team saga).
This presents us designers a very nerving situation where our problem-solving skills are limited to answering the client’s predefined needs. We don’t have the opportunity to challenge the needs, the wants and the vision of the “clients”, because, well, uh, they paid us to do this job?
In the end, people always think designers are just the same as mechanics, and even worse, drivers on a car who don’t get to decide where to go. After all, that’s how business works, right? I pay you and you do work for me as I wish!
As a designer myself, I face constant challenge everyday where most of my design work is mostly client-driven, and this thing, although fun in some regards, is highly dependent on the quality of the client and the product. Once you lose passion or face a problem in that particular environment, you are tempted to move on. Thus, many designers I know are constantly job-hopping or going freelancing. They’re on the constant search for that “perfect environment.”
Thus, I am offering a little bit of solution here, both for companies or clients and the designers themselves.
For companies or clients, I think you should provide designers a room for mistakes. Even if you have a solid product idea, expect to get challenged. Challenge is good for your product to be improved. It also shows that your designers get excited and want to contribute more than just answering briefs. Even better: present your design team with a set of problems than a set of solutions. For example:
We need to find a safe & feel-good way to pay online.
That’s completely a different perspective than if we present the designers this brief:
We believe prepaid cards are the best way to pay online. Data X shows this is how it’s done in the US. We want to try here. Can you design an app for that?
The key difference is that one is an open-ended question, and needs research and validations, the latter one is already a conclusive statement (if not to say assumption).
It’s certainly easier to make-pretty a shitty idea, and if the product fails, blame it all to the designers & engineers who “didn’t do a great job”, and continue moving on to the “team search”, than if you engage your team to continually challenge your ideas and assumptions. You’re paying them to make your product better and loved, not to do what you say.
“But, I don’t have time for a trial and error. I have investment money pouring in with a strict schedule.”
Let’s think about this for a moment. This is actually where we all fail. The whole ecosystem is broken. We need to fix it. How do we fix it? By having a decency to convince our investors to have a bit of a breathing space to formulate the best product experience. It’s your job as a stakeholder.
Better yet, a fundamentally good business is always about bootstrapping. Start small. Nobody can build PayPal overnight.
As for designers, it’s our job to continually fight and make things better in every endeavour we take. Sometimes we have to lose it out, but don’t forget that we need to think beyond mechanical work. It is about building our confidence in defining and pushing for the product design process that works and benefits the users at first.
The idea is: A well-designed product is potentially a well-destined business.
About two weeks ago I’ve had an excellent opportunity to coach discerning startups on design thinking, based on the Google’s Design Sprint methodology. The startups are part of the 1000 Digital Startups Movement in Indonesia, where Kibar, the organizing entity, aims to collaborate with the government and partners to coach startups into incubation. It was done in Bukalapak‘s headquarter in Kemang.
They feel like there’s a missing link between idea and incubation or funding, which is the coaching part.
Here are some photos from that event.
This is not a paid endorsement. It’s a journey that I’ve been through. A surprisingly good journey as a customer who bought a pair of shoes. With this pair, I also learned a great deal about good design and user experience.
Meet Skechers GOWalk for men & women. I believe they’re the most comfortable shoes of all the shoe pairs I’ve purchased in my lifetime. If there’s really a good way the metaphor “best bang for your bucks” could relate to, it would be this.
I’ve had a great deal of experience with shoes. Being an avid walker in some points in my life, I have always considered a good pair of shoes a good investment.
By “good”, I always looked at the durability and look.
Although, honestly, in my first forays into shoe shopping, I’ve always looked for the “look” first. Would it look good on me? I didn’t like thick soles. I didn’t like mocassins. I didn’t like slip-ons. I wanted to look cool. I wanted that cool, expensive brand.
But then, many brands failed me. Either they were uncomfortable in the long run, because of rigid design, stiff soles or irritating materials; or they simply have quickly gone out of fashion, or after localising their local design work, the “good design” has simply been gone. Replaced by awkward, tacky and mainstream designs that are out there everywhere. Even the more expensive brands like Campers didn’t impress me in the long run. They were making my heels painful to wear after hours of use. For a more “polished” look, I also have some slip-on or tied leather shoes. But again, these formal shoes are never for longer use. They’re either expensive or good-looking, but never comfortable in the long run.
One more thing: laces. I used to think laces were cool, until I had a baby. More often, you don’t really have time (or want to) tie your shoe laces. It’s not a difficult thing, but something I’d rather not do, especially when I’m in a rush. In the morning, when I am about to go to work, I’d rather spend a little more time with the baby than doing shoe laces. In other people’s homes, I don’t want to find a place to sit just to tie and untie my shoe laces. It’s becoming a cumbersome chore.
So, I’m in the look out for a good pair of shoes that are comfortable for longer use and more intensive walk or run, don’t have any laces, a relatively good material and a relatively good-looking shape. Design-wise, it should not be focusing on fancy, but rather on function and timelessness.
Skechers GOWalk is a wonderful invention that solves most of these problems.
Skechers GOWalk is a casual shoe product that is made of “a lightweight FitKnit mesh”, “memory foam padded heel” and “high rebound cushioning for comfort and durability”. That’s what they write here.
What those mean and how they make me feel are actually hard to describe in details.
In essence, a combination of those really fit my feet and habit well. It feels like walking on a soft, slightly bouncy mat everytime, without losing your momentum or speed. After fivehours standing or walking, you don’t feel any pain at all, unlike the other shoes which have a flatter sole design, where your heel almost instantly interacts with the floor or surface.
The best thing about it is it’s a slip-on, with flexible entry, which means you can just get your feets inside both easily without having to fix or tuck the back of the shoes. One or two slips and you’re off. No fuss.
If you feel like liberating your feet for a while at work, feel free to do so easily. Slip on anytime swiftly if somebody fetches you for a meeting. Take it off easily again if you’re in a meeting room that requires you to free your feets.
Because it’s not a sandal, you can wear it for client meetings, no problem.
It’s this flexibility and “non-intrusive-ness” that appeals to me over a long run.
So far, it’s the best one-size-fits-most shoes that I’ve purchased in my lifetime. Design-wise, it might not impress the very discerning designers or hipsters, but they do have more options if you wish.
My wife actually bought a pair first before me, and I was not convinced the first time. A doctor that we went to for my wife also wore one and he said it will be the only pair of shoes he’ll ever wear and buy. A guy on the plane asked my wife where to buy one of hers because he thought it looked very comfortable. A best friend also wears one.
I think it’s how good design should be: invisibly good. Something that removes a barrier to your life, not add to it. Something that don’t necessarily be noisy in advertising or growth-hacking, but just enough so that it gets noticed. More importantly, it inspires other people to use it, and love it.