Posts About Progressive Design
Posts About Progressive Design
When we talk to product managers and product designers, there is one question that we hear over and over again. 'How do you get your team to agree on what to build next?' Most people will agree that ideas are cheap, and the people on your team have lots of them. How then do you know which to pursue, and how do you keep the team engaged, when not everyone's ideas will be selected?
First, let's take a step back. We're firm believers that anyone can design and anyone can be a designer. There is no mystical superpower or genetic predisposition that gives someone the ability to do design. We don't believe that only designers or those at the top should be making decisions and passing them down to the rest of the team. Rather design is everyone's responsibility, and Progressive Design makes it easy for everyone to be involved.
A critical part of Progressive Design is the Design Feedback Loop. It's a simple process that encapsulates the 4 core components of what a product designer does to influence teams and move products forward. Using this process to structure debate around our designs builds and sustains momentum, as well as helps us to design better and faster.
Create, show, react, shape
Before we get into the 4 steps of structured debate, let's state some assumptions about your team and product design so that we're all clear on the context of what we're talking about here.
You work with other people
Even if you are a company of one, we assume you are at least building a product that will be consumed by others (probably yourself included). Product Design is about creating something to be used by people, and if you're not designing with people in mind, then structured debate does not apply to you (and we're not even sure what it is exactly that you are doing).
These other people know things you don't
Your team is composed of people that know things you don't know, and you value them for this. Your customers may not know what they want, but they know (even if they can't communicate it) what will make them happy, what they will buy, and what they will reject.
You influence your product's impact
You may be the product manager, the CTO, a front end developer, an icon designer, a growth hacker, or a customer advocate, it really does not matter. What matters is that the work you do directly influences how your product changes the people that use it.
You care about creating something of value
If you're just looking to satisfy your manager or get points with the CEO for design that pops and sizzles then you can stop reading. To create value you also need to be (or are capable of being) a good listener. If you're not able to listen to your team or your customers, then these practices are a waste of time.
Great, we've got that all that taken care of, let's get into the good stuff.
Step one: Create
This may seem obvious but you (whoever you are) need to create something to be able to talk about it with your team. This may be a sketch of the interface or a coded proof of concept. It may be a visual mockup in photoshop, or copy for the site. Research even counts so long as you've synthesized it with the needs of the product and it has more depth than clippings from Fast Company.
Here are two things that do not fall into the create category and derail debate:
- An unprioritized list of things for other people to do
- Long speeches about the importance of doing a thing
These are things for sure, but in the context of product design they don't count in the create step.
Creating things is essential to creating momentum. Creation shows effort and investment. People know when you are half assing it and real effort inspires effort. The best way to get a conversation started in a constructive direction is to start with the work, the things you created and take it from there.
Creation creates clarity. Words are a poor substitute for many mediums (namely visual ones). Words also tend to be highly contextual to a specific conversation or person, and quickly lose their potency. When you lack clarity you'll likely end up debating the wrong thing, wasting time, and creating frustration for everyone.
Lastly if there is no creation, there is no product and there is no change. It's the most important thing that needs to be done if any result is expected. Ideas are cheap. Creation is the heart of design, and everyone should be doing it.
Step two: Show
You did something? That's great! Now you need to show it. Remember in grade school your math teacher always telling you to show your work? Well maybe you hated it then, but in design the work you show is more important than the answer. Don't be afraid to show early, and show often.
Remember all those smart people and customers you're working with, the only way you can take advantage of what they know is by showing your work. As a good product manager, encouraging the people on your team to show their work is your chief concern. Not because you are an authoritarian top down manager, but because you know that creation in a vacuum is toxic. It's not about you approving or disapproving of the work, it's about facilitating the showing of the work so that everyone on the team is contributing their expertise to the result.
Ed Catmull of Pixar talks about getting people to show their creative work everyday, how painful this is at first, and how critical it is to their creative process. It's more effort to show the work early, and it's not comfortable to show something before it's complete. But the benefit is that when you are done with the work, you are done. You already showed it to other people, and you already incorporated their feedback. No big reveal, no surprises or anxiety at the end.
Showing what you created is how you ask the question that you are going to debate. It's your opportunity to frame the problem. Think about a simple question like 'Is your coffee perfect?'. It primes the respondent to ponder the perfection of the coffee. Now ask 'Is your coffee too bitter', and you're making the person think about the bitterness, something they may never have considered. This is a simple example, but one that shows how the presentation (how you show the work) frames the debate you are structuring. Absence of framing gives every participant free reign to take the debate in whatever direction they like.
Step three: React
The direct result of showing your work is getting a reaction, and this of course is where most conversations take a turn down Random Feedback Street and then head straight down Complete Waste of Time Avenue. The key to getting the right kind of feedback to make the debate constructive is how you set it up with the work you created and showed to the group.
During a conversation, the team will have many reactions to the work you show. The model here is to mentally process these simply as reactions to the work. There is a natural inclination to try and work through the feedback right away and solve the problem. This only works for the most trivial decisions and fails for larger more nuanced problems.
Avoid the temptation to solve the problem right then and there. New ideas are fantastic and start flowing when you show new and interesting work. Make note of them and riff on them, but don't get stuck trying to solve a tough problem by coming up with more ideas and immediately evaluating them. It's easy to get into a 'lost keys' state of mind where you're racking your brain for a solution when none is immediately present. It's better to record the reactions and move on to the next problem. Nothing kills the energy of meeting like waiting for someone to find their 'lost keys'.
There are a couple different types of reactions that you may get:
- Positive reactions: You've done a good job, they liked what you did. Pay attention to the chord that you hit, is that what you were going for?
- Negative reactions: Your worst fear, they didn't like your work. Before you throw it all in the garbage ask yourself why. Did you show the work with the right context? Is there a better way you can present the work? Negative can be a good thing, it's validation that you're creating something interesting enough for someone to say 'No'.
- Neutrality: The worst of all outcomes. You showed something so lame or obvious that the viewers could not even be bothered to mildly dislike it. If you are not getting any reactions from the things you are creating then create something more interesting.
Reactions are an important way to learn something about the work you did and gain insights. You can fiddle with the pixels of your creation all day, but without fresh insights, it's not going to change much.
Step four: Shape
You created something, you showed it to someone and they reacted. Now what? Now you get to decide what happens next. This is where actual decision making and responsibility combine to allow the designer to make decisions and move the project forward.
Shaping happens outside the larger group, and has a single person with the final authority for making decisions. But there is a catch. This decision maker may have complete dictatorial power, but they are also responsible for showing these decisions to the larger team again and defending them. Ultimately they can shape the reactions in the following ways:
- Ignoring reactions: Don't think the person knew what they were talking about? Don't think it's the right thing to do? It is well within your rights to ignore a reaction, so long as it's a choice. Sometimes facing a hard truth can be difficult and we ignore it, this is not productive. For everything that we choose to ignore, we need to have a reason, and that reason needs to be communicated back to the person that gave the reaction.
- Incorporating reactions: Taking and implementing an idea wholesale is the easiest thing to do. Sometimes the feedback is deeply insightful and this makes sense. Otherwise ask yourself if this is the right way to go.
- Synthesizing reactions: What does the reaction mean? What does it mean in the context of the larger goals of the project? Most good reactions fall into this category. Insights that are not prescriptive, but change you perspective (if ever so slightly) and influence the next thing you create.
And then you do it all again
Here is the trick, there are not four steps to be done once, or even once per project. The way you get better at product design is by repeating these steps as quickly and as often as you can.
You can think about improving as a product designer by improving how you can optimize these four steps. How can you break up the work you create to show it more often, while still having something interesting to show? How can you effectively show the work to get reactions that will help you shape the work and then create more work? There are the questions we ask ourselves everyday, and almost everything that we write about has to do with these four practices.
Maybe you went through this and found it all to be pretty obvious, great, that's how it should feel. Maybe this just feels like a Communications 101 playbook on how to work in a group. Well guess what, that's kinda what product design is, and that does not make it any easier. Remember how difficult it was to work in a three person group on a simple essay? Long nights of getting next to nothing done and having to tolerate smelly apartments and terrible music. Now try working on a running product with dozens of teammates, tens of thousands of active customers, and millions of potential people you could be selling to. This stuff is really hard.
What we hope, is that by giving you a mental model for thinking about how groups come to decisions you can be more successful. We live this stuff everyday and build it into everything that we do.
Notable and product design
We built Notable to help us live these steps and do them more effectively. When we create a feature in Notable, we think about how it fits into create, show, react and shape. From day one we believed that people should not create in Notable. The medium was too constrained. People should feel free to create anywhere (from napkins to photoshop) and be able to upload what they created into annotations, or create clickable prototypes, or even upload coded prototypes.
React was the core of Annotations, where you can leave notes directly on the work someone else did. We've been showing our work to clients for 17 years, and all of that thinking was baked into Influence, where you can easily create a story around the work you are showing and put it in the context of a process. Shape is an area that largely done outside Notable, but this is something that we want to explore.
More to share
This post was just about what the practices are. They are a mental model for thinking about what exactly we do as product designers. We've got much more to share about the methods we use to create and show our creations and how to react and shape reactions from others into better creations. We've learned a lot and are constantly learning more. We're looking forward to continuing to share what we learn and learn from others too. Thoughts?
Since our humble beginnings in 1998, we've considered our customers and employees integral parts of our success as a company. No matter their job title or role, we consider all of them designers. They've helped us build an amazing company and consistently focused us on designing great products and services. Our recent ZURB Wired is a fantastic example of teams coming together to design amazing results.
In our fourth principle of Progressive Design, Everyone is a Designer, we explain why everyone can do this. When we interact with clients, students in our classes, or others, we work hard to get them to understand how to contribute feedback on visual ideas, to build off those ideas, and then to own them and carry them on into their everyday practices. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing a former client voluntarily explore five ideas to gather feedback instead of just building the first one!
What is design?
Design methods have exploded over the last two decades with the growth of the web, concepts like experience maps and user stories are gaining traction in organizations. And companies will continue to embrace more design methodologies because design conscious companies continue to outperform the market. Since more companies are embracing design, we need to ask, what is design?
We believe everyone at ZURB has the capacity to add value to the practice of design. We understand that the narrow definition of design, akin to window dressing, must be forgotten to truly create an impact in organizations. John Hockenberry concludes we're all designers and describes good design is supplying and acting with intent. Don Norman elaborates, "The best kind of design isn't necessarily an object, a space, or a structure: it's a process- dynamic and adaptable." Further he states:
We are all designers -- because we must be. We live our lives, encounter success and failure, sadness and joy. We structure own worlds to support ourselves throughout life. Some occasions, people, places, and things come to have special meanings, special emotional feelings. These are our bonds, to ourselves, to our past, and to the future. When something gives pleasure, when it becomes a part of our lives, and when the way we interact with it helps define our place in society and in the world, then we have love. Design is part of this equation, but personal interaction is the key.
People are at the core of design. Successful design isn't an artifact, it's the interconnection of the people who use the products and services everyday with the team who influences the outcome. In a world of connected products and services, teams must continuously influence outcomes. Everyone is a designer. In fact, everyone must design if teams are to create successful products and services that can adapt to daily change. Change is happening so quickly that teams must rely on all members to make solid design decisions in rapid succession.
Design practitioners must lead the way
If everyone is a designer, then the role of a design practitioner must evolve in an organization. There's a greater purpose at hand and teams need designers to unlock this design potential by stepping up to lead. It's unfamiliar territory for most designers, but if they can empathize and foster the design talent within their team, they won't necessarily need to drive a heavy corporate management agenda (many designers fear driving business decisions). They really need to facilitate design collaboration.
Designers should focus on shaping outcomes. Jared Spool states, "The designer imagines an outcome and puts forth activities to make that outcome real." Don Norman suggests the role of a practitioner has a specific place in the design process to make products that are attractive, work well, and make us fall in love with at first sight. In Progressive Design, we build off both these ideas by expanding on the idea that designers must be user-centered and concern themselves with outcomes. However, we take this a step further by suggesting that they must also influence stakeholders, who are both users and executives, to achieve better outcomes.
The emerging role of a designer aligns with Rohini Vibha's view on product management, "You're not managing a product. You're managing the problem it solves." This view is supported by a lot more designers who take an active role in shaping the product. At Skillshare, the design team is equipped with skills like a deep understanding of business, operations, and analytics ' they've been able to create more impactful products at a higher velocity.
A title won't solve the design problem
Professional designers may be intimidated knowing their success is dependent on a team with contributors that also have design skills. Companies propagate this fear by failing to help designers extend their reach or gain comfort in a facilitation role. Design titles only reinforce this divide.
Companies continue to hire UX designers, but they haven't done much to figure out how to build design centric teams. The role of a UX designer isn't going to solve an organization's product or design leadership problems. We believe many organizations have made a huge mistake. They have siloed user experience design as a role, with the hope of plugging holes with individuals. Organizations that figure out that designing great products is the responsibility of everyone have a huge advantage over their competition.
We've been quite vocal with our ideas, sometimes creating division with our proclamations, that user experience design doesn't exist. Seven years later perhaps we're splitting hairs over a term, though it's clear that designers and companies are still hungry for clarity. In theory, the concept of UX is good, but most organizations set up UX departments with people who don't have the support skills to execute the desired end result or means to solve most of the design problem with their own labor. For example, designers that code pages can create momentum with an idea much faster.
In the end, what's important is not what titles are used, but rather building organizations around the skills needed to build successful products. Great product teams break down silos and engage everyone to participate in creating better experiences for users.
Design requires greater collaboration
We need to rethink how our teams work together. It's not surprising that design practitioners don't always have the desire to work in teams ' they've been burned too many times or simply don't have the training to collaborate effectively. Based on my experience, there simply aren't enough resources, classes or mentors that help designers learn important teamwork skills. In our work at ZURB, structured debate helps design teams build momentum together through iteration. We try to keep the process manageable and teach designers how to facilitate conversations with their teammates.
"Collaboration means bringing different minds and skillsets together in a way that doesn't make assumptions about what someone is or isn't good at,"says Rosie Manning. By removing titles and individual insecurities within a team, we create a culture that enables people to collaborate more effectively and step into the role of a designer. This is incredibly important to facilitate collaboration and enable uninhibited working. Instead of thinking of team members, like engineers and marketers, as project participants they become key component of the success of the design work by working as designers.
The best designers understand how to inspire people to contribute feedback on visual ideas, to build off those ideas themselves, and then to own them and carry them on into their own practices. The discipline of design is complex and has wide applications ' but it's that expansiveness that allows great product teams to make amazing things happen for people. It's both a noun and a verb, and can't be looked at as simply a result or a process. Product design does require creating tangible results, though, and those people who can influence the final result with good old- fashioned elbow grease will get an upper hand in shaping the vision of a product. Everyone on a team can influence the design outcome through collaboration.
A method for design collaboration
Over the last century designers have tried all kinds of interesting ways to drive a design process forward. Some of it is really good, but most of it gets in the way of creating momentum with a team. In many cases teams try to overlap a user-centered approach with a production oriented mindset. The result is a flood of design documents meant to push a design process forward. Many of these documents, however, prevent collaboration and create a divide between those 'who design' and those 'who make decisions'.
In Progressive Design, The Design Feedback Loop is an opportunity for designers to pull people into the design process. A repeatable, consistent approach to drive design feedback can inspire critical thinking collaborators to become more comfortable sharing their ideas. Designers shouldn't push these team members aside, but instead, figure out how to make their contributions more significant and meaningful. Everyone should feel like an important design contributor ' a designer.
Creating momentum with a team requires iteration to work through failure, and our failures aren't preserved in these documents. Instead of focusing on documents, we need to make people on the team the central focus of our work. Here's how we pull our team into the design process:
- Prototyping and building things ' not documenting or "strategizing"
- Rapid iteration ' working through the problems with tangible prototypes
- Building strong teaching cultures ' successful products requires design literacy
- Project inspired, not project managed ' great products happen in-spite of project managers or program managers
- Loose contracts or specs ' design thinking requires flexibility
Even with great design process, it's also important to realize that teams don't always work. Teamwork is hard to do and we often have to make compromises. Design teams need to work hard to create collaboration across cross-functional groups and executives. Getting executives on board can also be challenging. Apple uses a technique called the the Pony Meeting. Most importantly, teams need constraints that create a shared boundary. Shared constraints help create unity.
The solution, he described, is to take the best ideas from the paired design meetings and present those to leadership, who might just decide that some of those ideas are, in fact, their longed-for ponies. In this way, the ponies morph into deliverables. And the C-suite, who are quite reasonable in wanting to know what designers are up to, and absolutely entitled to want to have a say in what's going on, are involved and included. And that helps to ensure that there are no nasty mistakes down the line.
Tools shouldn't be barriers to participation
Design tools shouldn't block team members from participating in the design process. Design practices are visual problem-solving tools accessible to everyone who can pick up a pen to express an idea, highlight a great idea, or mark up anything with constructive feedback.
Gutenberg and his printing press started a revolution in the 15th century by making the production of publications much easier. In the same time it took a monk to transcribe a bible, a printer could make hundreds of copies. It's important to note, however, that even with the invention of the printing press, the cost of roughly three year's wages for an average clerk made it prohibitive for most people to purchase a publication, let alone create their own publication. The divide between creator and consumer was huge.
Even up to the last 30 years, the tools available to designers were cost prohibitive for most and required advanced skills to use. Personal computers and advanced software created many barriers that professional designers found solace in ' this divide created a defensible gap between those who create and consume. But over the last decade the tools available to people who want to reach a worldwide audience have continuously become cost effective and abundant. Designers are even clamoring for simpler software that allow them to produce without the overhead that was once considered a benefit.
We now have half the world's population connected via a phone with tools that allow publishers the ability to connect instantly at a fraction of the cost of the original printing press. The cost is nearing zero.
Design is no longer the domain of designers
If design is the rendering of intent, then feedback helps us understand if we hit the goal. Feedback can come from anywhere. Now that systems like Facebook are so ubiquitous, designers who build these systems are continuously bringing in feedback that is based directly on users who add content to the system. Taking it a step further, the personalization and customization of these systems make the consumer a designer that morphs the interface in real-time, often times based on their own unknown behaviors.
Customers and users can become an integral part of the design process, often times co-creating as bits fly through the internet. For example, Amazon deploys to a production server every 11.6 seconds. To put this in perspective, if the average visit time on Amazon is over 11 minutes, the site will have changed 57 times in that users visit ' and that doesn't even include the learned preferences that Amazon is applying in real-time!
When product teams open themselves up to feedback, amazing discoveries can be made by extending the circle of influence in the design feedback loop. Slack embraced this customer centric approach in the early development of its product and it's paid off immensely. Potential customers become integral to the building process and designers get more opportunity to connect the dots.
Everyone is a designer AND should design
We all design in our daily lives and this is a great place to build empathy for customers and drive design collaboration with teammates. Design centric companies create more value ' so increasing design literacy across the organization is important to bring design methodologies to the forefront of product development. Not only must we embrace and invite people into our design process, we must lead our team, customers or organization by design to create more competitive and compelling products.
The cost and ease of use of design tools make it more practical to bring design methods into everyone's workflow. Engineers and marketers especially have the capacity to use these tools. Teams that build connected products and services can no longer separate the real-time analytics collected from the customized and personalized experiences they create ' the users are integral in the design process. Users help design the product, whether through proxy or directly contributing to the system.
It's an amazing time to be a designer.
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998
Last year we set out to challenge what people believed to be Design Thinking. Since then we committed ourselves to defining a design methodology that pulled from our two decades of design knowledge. We realized that the lessons and methods we discovered since our beginnings in 1998 would make it easier for millions of designers to take advantage of our insights and help their design teams create more value in their organizations. We found that in Progressive Design.
We've defined two principles of Progressive Design- Design for Influence and Lead by Design. In this blog post, we define our third principle, Iteration Builds Momentum. Design is a balance of doing, presenting, collecting feedback and collaborating with teams to push ideas forward. Great design happens when we build momentum with rapid design iterations.
Failure helps us get into a flow
Industrialized, rigid production processes aim to remove failure to create a consistent result. But this ultimately harms a designer's development and stifles creativity. The best design happens when we harness the power of failure to propel us forward. Far from being the enemy, learning to overcome failure is what fuels great design. It pushes us to solve HUGE problems, but it must be regulated.
Psychologically, increasing amounts of failure can crush people. Instead of taking on huge failures all at once, we break them into smaller, digestible chunks. Let's call that iteration. Teams can further help individuals overcome their own saboteurs as it relates to failure with structured debate. This regulates the pressure from growing too strong, keeping it at a healthy level. By keeping failures small and building up confidence by overcoming them as both individuals and teams, we create unstoppable momentum and get into a flow.
Don't do the big reveal
Steve Jobs was a masterful showman. With each successful product release, he made every company CEO jealous by ingraining the idea of "...and one more thing." The problem with this thinking, however, is that the surprise and delight of an Apple product release is not the same thing as magically arriving at that solution. When we see Apple doing the big reveal, this is a marketing technique, not a process to design a great product. We mistake the presentation approach with the design process to get to that idea. It's a psychological trick.
Designing for 'one best answer' isn't how great design happens. This design trapping is based on the idea of causal reasoning, "To the extent that we can predict the future, we can control it." states Saras Sarasvathy. Design agencies have perpetuated this concept for a century by removing the messy failures from the client engagement, and in doing so, obscure an important component of doing great work. The lack of a shared understanding of failure, and the pressure that comes with it, prevents teams from truly creating momentum together.
The big reveal leads companies to believe that with the use of a designer, they can arrive at a perfect solution through skills, reasoning and a plan. Most often this is not the case. In actuality, Steve Jobs pushed a highly iterative approach that sweated the details by consistently and constantly using a process of reduction to get to the essence of an idea with his team. Michael Lopp, senior engineering manager at Apple, described this as 10 to 3 to 1 as a process to get to one strong answer.
Get started with a volume of ideas
So if there isn't a single perfect answer, how do teams get started finding the best design answers? Start exploring ideas. Lot's of them. Producing in volume works because we can't predict what the final answer is going to be- we're creating a new reality by exploring the boundaries of an idea. Bill Hewlett said HP needed to make 100 small bets on products to identify six that could be breakthroughs. Sir James Dyson spent 15 years creating 5,126 failures to land on one that worked!
In fact, by producing in volume, the results can be fascinating. In one classroom experiment, a teacher challenged two sides of his class. Half of the class was tasked with creating 50 pounds of pots to get an A. The other half was tasked with creating a single, awesome specimen. The results showed that the half of the class that created in volume actually produced better pots. Students that produced in volume, and focused less on the craft, made incremental adjustments based on continuous learning.
Students that made adjustments based on their learnings let go of the assumption that there would be one perfect pot. There are many pathways to success through the process of effectual reasoning, which challenges the assumption that there is a perfect answer. Studies show that entrepreneurs have been using these techniques for a long time. The most successful entrepreneurs use this technique to filter through the volume of ideas to create momentum. They're able to do this because they know 'who they are', 'what they know' and 'whom they know'.
Momentum is created through small wins. It's a mindset
Creating in volume is necessary for iteration, but getting started can be the biggest challenge. Momentum requires an impetus. In design, we start creating by applying design methods. In sketching, that's finding a pen and paper. In code, it's jumpstarting the process by scaffolding with Foundation. We start by quickly removing barriers so the real work can begin.
So where does one start to find momentum in a design process? Sports is a great place to pull from- psychological momentum is defined as a state of mind where an individual or teams feel like things are going unstoppably their way. Success breeds success. Chris Myers further explains, "The impact is so strong, studies have shown that football coaches frequently change their overall behavior and adopt a more aggressive strategy after a single successful play early in the game."
Successful coaches are willing to accept small failures to gain this momentum. Relating this back to entrepreneurs and effectual reasoning, great coaches understand how to make these bets based on their skill limitations and team abilities. Coaches capitalize on small wins to create a favorable environment knowing that they can't completely control the outcome. This in turn creates a greater sense positivism within their teams and produces better results. Science backs this up through a concept called the As If Principle.
Structured debates through a repeatable process
If momentum requires small wins, creating an endless volume of ideas, however, won't dictate success. It's a start. Building momentum requires structure to keep creating product success. Again, the sports analogy is great for highlighting how to build a strong product team. Lebron James, the world's number one basketball player, started this past season with a losing team that eventually made it to the NBA finals. He described winning as a process:
We have to understand what it takes to win. It's going to be a long process, man. There's been a lot of losing basketball around here for a few years. So a lot of guys that are going to help us win ultimately haven't played a lot of meaningful basketball games in our league. When we get to that point when every possession matters , no possessions off -- we got to share the ball, we got to move the ball, we got to be a team and be unselfish -- we'll be a better team.
Teams must learn to create small wins through consistent collaboration and practice- it's a process. Creating great ideas through design collaboration isn't just about brainstorming. Nor is momentum created by designers just sitting around coming up with ideas (this is a fallacy based on the lone genius myth). It's structured debate with a team. And as Lebron points out, every possession matters.
Structured debate helps teams move a creative process forward and creative debates can happen in lots of different ways. Pixar uses the idea of Plusing where ideas are considered gifts, not something to close down. Feedback sessions are an opportunity to make your partner and team look good. Randy Nelson suggests that we shouldn't judge ideas- it's an opportunity for the creator to say, "here's where I am starting, " and the critiquer to add, "yes, and." What's important here is consistency and a culture that supports the approach.
Charlan Nemeth's research, on the other hand, suggests that the rule "not to criticize" another's ideas is distracting and actually has the unintended consequence of thwarting creative ideas. But rather than randomly critiquing a sketch or shooting down an idea, the general rule is that you may only criticize an idea if you also add a constructive suggestion. Daniel Gogek further expands on this approach:
Science backs up the idea that structured debate is far superior to simply brainstorming. A study led by UC Berkeley professor Charlan Nemeth found that when a team used structured debate, it significantly outperformed a team instructed to merely 'brainstorm.' Nemeth concluded that "debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them." What might be even more significant is that after the teams disbanded, the team that used structured debate continued to generate further ideas. It seems that the experience of a constructive debate lingers, and people continue to come up with new ideas.
In Progressive Design, we've come up with a system that produces amazing results. We've synthesized the best practices through 1000's of design projects into The Design Feedback Loop which facilitates a simple and repeatable design process. Momentum requires a consistent feeding of ideas and feedback. Without learning, we get stuck in one place. By using the The Design Feedback Loop through the entire design process, teams can gain understanding of the problem through consistent practice to uncover better ideas. This iteration reveals opportunities and problems using both convergent and divergent thinking.
Failing fast helps us move forward
In theory, working through a repeatable process should consistently produce better results through practice. And indeed, it does. But creating great products also requires constantly dealing with changing circumstances- markets are dynamic, which means teams must continually challenge their assumptions. Challenging these assumptions feels risky and can reveal that teams might not have all the answers. But when we are willing to overcome these potential failures, growth and momentum happen.
Fail fast, one of our values at ZURB, provides everyone an opportunity to learn through failure. It also allows us the opportunity to keep moving forward when we perceive something to be a failure. Are we really trying to fail? No. We're making it acceptable to fail- it's a mental technique to help us push forward. John Maeda captured this recently in a tweet, "Fail fast" and "embrace failure" miss the fact that failing isn't the goal. "Recover fast" and "learn from failure" matter way more.
In design, failure itself isn't really the problem, it's getting over the mental impact. Richard Branson equates overcoming failure with addressing fear, "I've always found that the first step in overcoming fear is figuring out exactly what you're afraid of. In your case, I wonder: Is your anxiety a reflection of doubts about your business plan? Or is it rooted in your experience with your previous venture?" It's not as easy as just moving forward from failure, we need to recognize the wounds failure inflicts. Failure makes our goals seem tougher, our abilities seem weaker, damages our motivation, makes us risk averse, limits our creativity and eventually just makes us feel helpless. It's no wonder momentum is so hard to achieve.
But let's take this concept further- it's not just overcoming failure, it's embracing failure. "Achieving resilience in the face of failure, perseverance in the face of adversity is a central part of any ultimate success, and part of our own evolution, " says Agustin Fuentes Ph.D. Design teams must embrace the uncertainty of failure to truly create great products. They must push their companies to embrace Antifragility. Nassim Taleb states in his book Antifragile, "Firms become very weak during long periods of steady prosperity devoid of setbacks, and hidden vulnerabilities accumulate silently under the surface, so delaying crises is not a very good idea." Further, we must seek out failure, "When some systems are stuck in a dangerous impasse, randomness and only randomness can unlock them and set them free'by a mechanism called stochastic resonance, adding random noise to the background makes you hear the sounds (say music) with more accuracy."
What coping mechanisms do we have to help design teams embrace failure? Perhaps it's focusing less on the actual failure, and helping teams work more like entrepreneurs. In my experiences at ZURB, many employees believe my decision making is sometimes delusional- but I don't stress because many of these feelings are based on embracing failure as a way to fuel us forward. As it turns out, it's a thing. Saras Sarasvathy points out that we can only expect to move forward through small risk taking, something she defines as "affordable losses." She discovered seasoned entrepreneurs will tend to determine in advance what they are willing to lose, rather than calculating expected gains. Her paper explains how effectual reasoning emphasizes affordable loss.
Deliver better results by timeboxing
If embracing failure helps us drive a design process forward, timeboxing helps us keep our bets small so that our failures don't overwhelm us. Decisions are made faster by reviewing design work, even if the work is not polished. At ZURB, timeboxing helps us deliver better results by constraining our time and focusing on a goal in each phase of The Design Feedback Loop. This happens in small intervals over a few days. Timing depends on the scope of the design task.
Each small, defined design task provides an opportunity to build momentum by helping the team react to the lessons learned. Small iteration cycles give teams an opportunity to work through small failures and wins. Timeboxing helps us create focus and keeps the team constantly aware of the next deadline so each decision pushes us towards a goal.
Peter Sims determined it's better to make a bunch of small bets through his research of some of the most successful companies. Companies have figured out different ways to apply this concept to their design teams. Google uses a technique of design sprints to arrive at solutions in a fixed week. By making the expansion and closure of ideas happen together, Apple is able to create a type of timebox through a process of paired design meetings.
A design process in motion stays in motion
Getting a design effort started requires doing! And in large volume. We must not worry early on about getting to single, great answer. Instead, teams must optimize for small wins to help catapult themselves forward in the design process. Through a structured process of giving and receiving feedback, we can find the wins necessary to fuel our momentum and keep our design teams on the right pathway.
The Design Feedback Loop in Progressive Design helps us structure the creative debate. A solid design process can help us build momentum, but we also shouldn't overthink the process- instead focus on keeping momentum by overcoming obstacles and failure that stop iteration from happening. When we accept failure as a part of the design process, we truly put our team in a place to learn. Iteration is an endless endeavor in a design organization, but as part of a design process, we must learn to timebox to complete our work.
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998
It's always thrilling to find others who share our passion for design and aren't afraid to take risks. We've worked relentlessly since 1998 to establish ourselves as leaders in the industry and are constantly looking for new ways to improve and take design further. Our Foundation family of open source frameworks has helped push the web forward, University has trained thousands of designers around the globe, 300 of the most innovative companies in the world have partnered with us to build better websites, products and services through our Studios business, and our design platform Notable has helped our team and others create better products. In order to maintain this level of quality and innovation, we're always on the lookout for new inspiration which is why we were so eager to dive into The Next Web's bold new redesign.
Through several conversations and a Notable annotated set of screens, we asked Co-Founder and CEO Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten and Lead Designer Alexander Griffioen some tough questions about why they made specific decisions, what kind of data was influencing their design and how the new design was helping them achieve their goals.
Bringing the Homepage Back from the Dead
Ironically, the thing that makes sites like The Next Web so much fun to read, constantly fresh content, is also one of their biggest problems. With new content coming in on a regular basis, sometimes by the hour, great articles were getting pushed off the front page and away from the eyes of readers.
We wanted to show more posts on the front page and have the option to move things around a bit and keep posts promoted for hours or even days. - Boris
For many publishers, the homepage is dead as most traffic goes directly to articles from social sharing and other sources. The team at TNW viewed this problem as an opportunity, the perfect place to try some new ideas and address some longstanding issues.
We feel having a single news stream with all content pouring in chronologically no longer makes sense. Tech has become too ubiquitous for a single stream to be relevant to everyone, so we split our front page news stream up into categories. - Alex
One of the first parts of the redesign that Boris and Alex started sketching out was the cover, an area that is so dynamic in traditional print but ironically stagnant on the web.
We found it striking that somehow newspaper publishers can completely overhaul their front pages every single day, yet us tech-savvy new media guys seem to be stuck with a single template. When Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $ 19 billion, didn't that merit a full-page announcement for at least a couple of hours? We wanted that freedom. - Alex
Boris, an ideas man, dreamed out loud of 'a Minority Report-esque interface that the editor-in-chief would resize and rearrange stories as they develop.' This novel idea inspired Alex and an elegant and versatile solution was born, the cover editor. Consisting of 6 pre-designed layouts, the cover editor gives editors the freedom to pick a layout that works best for the current news offering and fill the slots by dropping posts from the editor right into the cover.
The cover/hero section doesn't necessarily display our latest content. It could be stuff that we feel deserves more 'frontpage time' than it would otherwise get. - Alex
The New Navigation Situation
The Next Web is more than just a tech blog, they've got a wide range of other offerings that need to be easily accessible yet clearly differentiated to the user. The solution? A well labeled dropdown under the TNW logo.
In addition to that main navigation component, all of The Next Web's articles are now divided into 9 categories, the naming of which are guided by two simple criteria:
- The name has to be short, yet leave no doubt as to what type of content to expect there.
- Each section should have no or minimal overlap with the other sections
Nav is always a contentious subject, and this was no different for the The Next Web team.
This selection was actually months in the making and is probably the most updated Google Spreadsheet in the project. - Alex
Content is King
Ditching the content stream synonymous with the blog format, The Next Web divides their articles by subject and places them in neat rows they call 'shelves.'
Boris came up with the bookshelf metaphor; a horizontal list of latest stories. The irregular heights of the cards, akin to actual books on bookshelf, make for a 'pleasantly messy' UI. - Alex
Changes have also been made to the content in posts themselves. Instead of purely longform articles with the conventional title, image and body of text, posts can now consist of videos, galleries, columns, deals, quotes, etc., all represented with a distinct design that helps identify their nature.
Other design changes include a slick new sharing feature that automatically reduces the URL length and improved related article suggestions, but Alex is especially proud of of the updates in typography.
A typeface, to me, is like a voice narrating your content. The typeface determines whether the same words sound deep and masculine like George Clooney, or witty and quirky like Michael Cera. - Alex
Alex looked high and low for the perfect typeface, but the inspiration came from the strangest place. While riding past a Dutch employment agency, Alex spotted this window and fell in love. He snapped this pic and sent it to Boris immediately.
Serendipitously, the typeface is ARS Maquette by ARS Type, a one-man foundry situated a few streets away from TNW HQ.
I'm pleased to say our content now sounds like Bill Murray; witty, charming, and not without a sense of humor. - Alex
This passion for typography is shared among the team. Boris told us this hilarious story about a disagreement he had with the team about font size.
I remember I pushed hard for bigger font size on one part of the site, and after much heated debate I decided a certain font size really had to be 18pt and not 16pt. Alex hated it so much he talked to Laura and they made the changes as I wanted them but then every day from that moment on decreased that font size with 0.1pt. It was so subtle I didn't notice, but after 20 days it was at 16pt and we ended up launching the new site with that. They only recently told me about that and I thought it was hilarious and also very cool they really fought for what they thought was the better solution. - Boris
Ads That Can Be Confused With Art
A major challenge for any site collecting ad revenue are the size, location and behavior of ads. It's no secret that click through rates are dropping as people develop 'ad blindness' and use of adblockers rises every year. But more prominent or flashy ads take away from the user experience and can irritate users. There needed to be a way to increase the effectiveness of ads without being obnoxious. Boris was determined to figure out a solution that benefited everyone.
I challenged the team to think about an ad solution that was so cool that some readers would forget about the article they wanted to read because they were distracted by the beauty and interaction with the ad. If they would go so far as to even tweet about the ad we would've reached that goal. - Boris
With that challenge issued and the goals coming clearly into focus, Alex and his team jumped into action. The solution is one of the coolest parts of the the redesign, a bold concept they call 'Canvas Ads.' These gorgeous images typically incorporate bold photography and occupy the whole background of the article. Many slide the article to the right to give the ad full attention. Each canvas ad has 4 triggers that bring back the content for users, giving it an interactive feel. An interesting detail are the social sharing buttons directly on the ad itself. We know what you're probably thinking, 'Share buttons on an ad!?!' But according to Boris and Alex, it's working. The trick is the ingenious way the ads are selected. The ads don't always display commercial ads; about half contain art and portfolios from artists The Next Web team chooses. There are a few reasons behind this:
This has three advantages: the first advantage is for those artists we promote. They see their traffic grow and suddenly reach millions of readers around the world. The second advantage is for our readers. They see beautiful art works instead of ads. The third advantage is that it encourages our advertisers to produce really good looking ads. They compete with artwork so their ads better be works of art as well. - Boris
So the ads look nice and all, but are they performing? We pressed Alex for some numbers.
The results of the first series of canvas ads are well beyond everyone's expectations. Whereas the industry average CTR for display ads (i.e. rectangles, leaderboards) is around 0.2%, our canvas ads are doing between 4% and 8%. Our best performing ad so far had a 15% CTR. - Alex
Shaping the Future
All said and done, the redesign took about 8 months. No change was made lightly, as the team debated over even the smallest details like the number of milliseconds for the transition of canvas ads. The redesign is bold and in many ways bucks conventions, forging a new path for online media. This thinking, to leave no stone unturned and not be limited by status quo was intentional.
Once you decide you are free to do what you want you can challenge everything and things like 'but that's just how it's done' provoke only laughter. We constantly challenge ourselves and our industry to forget the old rules and really think about the best solution for everyone. It can be daunting and scary to not being able to rely on the past, but it also means you get to shape the future. - Boris
A bold design backed by solid data, The Next Web redesign does a great job of balancing business needs with a solid user experience and puts content front and center. We want to thank Boris and Alex for taking the time to chat with us about their redesign and all of the insights they provided.
Six years ago we embarked on our first defined mission with a general sense of direction and cautious optimism. It was ambitious and pushed us to where we are today- an amazing design company that turned the idea of a consultancy upside down. We had the foresight to understand that solving digital design problems required more than just delivering some assets. Nothing about the mission was easy, but we did it. As a leader I was committed to making it happen for ZURB.
Today we're publishing our new mission. It's equally ambitious, but backed by the knowhow of seventeen years of design experience and the momentum of millions of designers around the world. We're excited to share our vision and hope that you can support us as we aim to provide the world with new and effective ways of solving design problems. The process of aligning everyone on the team around a set of statements that define our business wasn't an easy task. Quite frankly, it took numerous restarts to get things to stick.
Change the Way People Design Connected Products and Services
Our business purpose started with the idea of helping people design for people. It was easy to remember, but lacked the clarity our team wanted. This really was the spark that helped us get things moving to define the next phase of our business. It took about a year with commitment from our leaders and a desire to put a stake in the ground. As a team we dug deep and challenged our assumptions, and through a process of continuous iteration, we were able to define our mission and purpose statements! I'm so proud of our company.
We're a fun and intense group at ZURB, so our ambitions to change the way people design connected products and services shouldn't surprise many of our customers. We're dedicated to pushing the web forward, through frameworks like Foundation, training and design lessons, our design collaboration platform Notable and through our one-on-one Studios interactions with clients. When we pulled back to view our offerings, it was clear that everything we do is about inspiring people and teams to approach design problems in a different way.
This year we introduced a few of the ideas that capture this new design worldview- helping designers lead by design, finding ways to make design thinking practical for teams, and returning us to a place where we trust our design intuition. We call this Progressive Design and we're excited to share this with the world. It's captured in our mission:
Teach fifty million people how to effectively use progressive design to create better products & services through our consulting, training and software.
We believe Progressive Design will change the way designers and teams use design to create value for their users and business. We've put over a year into our thinking and can't wait to invite people into the conversation.
Finding Our Way
It's great having solid business goals. It's even more important to shape the way our team thinks about their role in this journey. We're a learning company that's based on a pod system, which means we give a lot of ownership directly to employees to solve problems. These core tenets at ZURB form the foundation of our success. We believe in our employees, and we want their success.
We've learned that finding a common purpose requires helping employees create pathways that align with the business. We've put a significant amount of time into defining these pieces. Without them, moving forward can feel downright scary and overwhelming. We want all employees to know that they're supported in this effort to change the way people design. This is the stuff that gets you all warm and fuzzy to start a day. It also creates friction that can make your head literally smoke. This isn't easy for ZURB or the employee, but we wouldn't have it any other way!
Together, We'll Make This Happen
Most businesses align their employees to products- at ZURB we put a heavy emphasis on team development to cross pollinate our ideas and skills. That means each team has a set of tenets they live by to create value for their teammates and the business. These are commitments to make ZURB stronger.
Teams also provide pathways in which ZURB can support individual career paths. Over the last year we've embarked on a new and exciting way to lead employees on a personal mission. Teams play a huge role in this effort and we're smitten with excitement to see our employees shine in this new system. Teams are the backbone of ZURB and we're committed to shaping the learning our employees get through this powerful organizational structure.
To the Future and Beyond
The next five to seven years will undoubtedly provide challenges we can't even envision yet. But with a strong purpose and vision for changing the way we think about design, we're confident we'll prosper as a team through all the changes that will come. With a solid direction, core values that help us find our center and a team committed to our goals, I can't see anything other than success. It's inspiring!
As a leader I'm filled with joy knowing the team worked hard to find common ground. Our leads created these ideas and our extended team shaped them. We're happy to share our vision and hope that you can help us on our mission.
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998
There is a lot of excitement about the Internet of Things and electronics being smart. Actually the excitement right now is just around electronic devices being able to communicate with each other at all, never mind the smart part. If you can attach a Raspberry Pi to it, people will and probably already have. We recently saw a toaster oven that can send you a text when your toast is ready.
That's cool and all, but toast text messages are not nearly as interesting as a home of electronics that are designed to work together and solve people problems. Imagine your refrigerator communicating with your phone to let you know what ingredients you're out of when you're at the grocery store, or a washing machine that alerts your smartwatch that your clothes are done so you can move them into the dryer so they don't sit wet all day. That will be the difference between just an Internet of Things, and the magical world of tomorrow we're all waiting for.
This type of seamless connectivity, connectivity for a purpose that solves real problems, is what we set out to achieve with the new Notable, our product design platform.
Designing a Winning Product for Winning at Product Design
Over the last six years we've built a number of products, each designed to solve a problem or pain point that we hit when practicing product design. Notable was originally created to help us create product audits. Verify was built to quickly validate design decisions through gettting ideas in front of real people. Solidify was designed to create clickable prototypes with the goal of quick iterations, not wasting time building complex prototypes or spending hours attempting this in Keynote. Influence was made to help us quickly and professionally present our design work when we were manually posting everything as static HTML.
We love each of these products and as a complete product design solution use them significantly in our own process. Not only do they help us to solve acute problems, we've found that they actually make us better product designers.
But we always knew that what we were creating was more than just individual solutions. The real impact would come from all of the apps working as a whole. For example, getting the results from a concept test and being able to click straight to the prototype and see where people are getting stuck is an entirely different experience than hearing about the test going poorly in a meeting and trying to track down the designer to get a peek at the prototype.
Twelve months ago we began work in earnest to combine all of these distinct offerings into into a single platform. Now hundreds of sketches, thousands of commits, and millions of pixels later it's complete.
The New Notable: Helping You Win From Concept to Code
Notable was the first product we created. It was about leaving notes on screens, but it was also about doing 'notable' work. Some teams build products to make a lot of money, some build products to serve a company or community need, still others build products to create marketing value. But all creators or products want people to take note of what they have done, they want their work to have value and mean something. They want to do something Notable. That is the aim of our platform, and why we took the name from our first application (Notable) and made it the name of our entire platform.
Like the Internet of Things, our goal was to do more than simply connect our products together. Our goal was to create a set of design tools that are cohesive and easy to use to connect you, your team and your work. The new Notable walks you through product design, from concept to code, helping you collaborate more easily and keeping your whole team in the flow of forward momentum.
120 Days to Public Release
We've been using the new Notable in production here at ZURB every day for the past 8 months. It's all of our tools and techniques in one powerful package, and has both sped up and improved our work. Battle tested day in and day out, we're continuing to iterate and evolve the platform up to our public launch and beyond.
The new Notable will be available to the public in 120 days. Until then, it's in private release and we're letting in a limited number of people to start using the applications now. If you're interested in getting your hands on these powerful design tools and seeing how your team can build something truly Notable, sign up for the Private Release today and let's get you started.
Brace yourself for the truth: product designers are not born with the gift of design. Many — scratch that — all design skills can be learned by any willing individual. It's a certain combination of personality traits, not the skills, that make certain people better suited for solving problems through design. Just like being a nurturer makes people likely to pursue nursing or gardening, and being a firefighter or an entrepreneur means being open to uncertainty and risk.
Can we identify with certainty what makes some designers so good at their job? We think so, yes. Because when we look at the designers we admire, these six personality traits surface: ambition, empathy, non-linear thinking, pattern recognition, meticulousness, and tenacity.
It's why designers notice bad kerning, analyze how remotes feel in their hand, and see almost non-existent flaws in furniture. They just believe they can do it better!
Ambition is a blessing and a curse. It makes a designer's mind work up solutions to problems others don't pay attention to — like a funky door handle — and it's also what makes them optimistic about the power of design.
Ambition drives designers to innovate, to seek the magical convergence of logic and creativity — a true aha moment, a simple solution to a complex problem. If a designer didn't want to solve the problem better than the next guy, he'd settle for a solution that's just OK. So he has to be ambitious and set almost unreasonable goals, believing that he'll get to an awesome answer.
Take, for instance, our responsive framework, Foundation. We didn't launch Foundation hoping to be just another framework. Our ambitions were set on making it THE most advanced framework in the world, and nothing less. With this lofty goal, we had our work cut out for us, and the sentiment still drives designers who work on it every day.
Assuming that customers will follow the intended workflow in a cold series of clicks is a missed opportunity to connect with them on a gut level. Being empathetic is a trait designers rely on to make essential user experience decisions early in the discovery phase as much as later on in user testing. They are open to human experiences because they know that their assumptions can — and will — be wrong. They have the humility to admit that they don't have all the answers. And they listen. They really listen to others' input before coming up with possible solutions to a problem.
Knowledge of psychology helps designers understand why users struggle with a product and how they can address their needs. Early on in projects, this puts us in the users' shoes and allows us to map out user journeys through the product, including what they feel at every step — the highs and the lows. For example, designers might identify why an e-shopper is likely to get excited about a product, then question their purchase intent and abandon their cart. Designers then can employ psychological motivators to keep them engaged and excited about the buy.
To continue innovating (see Ambition), designers come at problems from unexpected angles, then rationalize their way back to a sound concept. Their ideas may not make sense on the surface. But through the process of sensemaking and abductive thinking they're able to compose a storyline that gets others excited to be part of the solution.
Storytelling is a practiced skill that makes non-linear thinking powerful. Being able to capture an audience with an inspiring story is one of the most compelling tricks in a designer's hat.
They have a unique way of looking at the world, and they share their special vision through powerful stories that pluck at our heartstrings and stimulate our thinking and our emotions in ways that literally no one else can.
Forbes on What It Takes to Be Inspiring
Smart, pragmatic designers design systems for solving existing and new problems. And they start with information design — finding patterns in seemingly disparate parts of a product. They define taxonomies and content architectures, which help them be efficient in wireframing and interaction design.
To shape stories and ideas into products, designers must identify elements that make up the solution as a system of patterns, not independent pieces. It's more Lego than jigsaw. One-off solutions aren't helpful because they don't prepare teams to solve new problems that arise as the product evolves.
Designers who see patterns in interfaces they design are able to produce more work in shorter timeframes simply because they look for ways to simplify the pattern set to a minimum. An efficient designer will find ways to reuse patterns, which then speeds up development later on. For example, a product gallery page becomes the team page, a product details page becomes the CEO's bio, and so on.
Just being able to come up with answers isn't enough in design. Part of having an awesome answer is its completeness. Meticulous designers are thorough in the way they solve problems. And it runs through all applications of design skills. In prototyping, it's fleshing out complete workflows. No gaps, no holes, no missing interaction states or forgotten edge cases. In visual design, it's anticipating how one design decision affects another and plain ol' good graphic design skills — kerning and all. In code, it's practicing to write clean code and thoroughly testing it in QA.
One might think that being detail-oriented is the obvious trait in a great designer. But being thorough is part personality, part learned work ethic. Those who take great pride in their work, are likely to notice the small details — be it proper code indentation or vertical rhythm in a visual composition. But in certain cases, nitpicking prevents products from getting shipped. Great designers know that pixels can always we tweaked, and it takes restraint to know when the tweaks are just not worth it.
Designers don't always have the right answer (see Empathy). Everyone hates to be wrong. Designers don't let their failures stop them from pushing forward. When their work is torn to pieces in a client meeting, or their code falls apart on a tablet, designers must be able to pick themselves up and tackle the problem again. And again. Until it's solved.
I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.
— Thomas A. Edison
We can argue that tenacity is the most important trait for a great designer. And if they're ambitious, they'll be willing to go to great lengths and endure many trials for the chance at greatness.
The Litmus Test
When we look at the product designers who inspire us — the ones we want to work with — they embody these six traits. Their ambition drives their passion. They know when to keep pushing and when to stop. They're good at thinking through problems. They also practice the skills and methods of product design that make them damn good technicians.
Every designer has particular strengths that make them unique. Consider it a Litmus Test for a designer's success. Ultimately, for a product designer to be successful, they need to be able to utilize these traits at the right time in a system that embraces their strengths.
No, designers aren't magical creatures. They're passionate people who use their personality traits to help them practice creativity and logic and solve really tough problems through design.
The Batman comic series has one of the most passionate fandoms in history, and never was this more apparent than in the summer of 2006 when it was officially announced that Heath Ledger had been cast as the film's iconic villain, the Joker.
The internet exploded as fanboys and fangirls largely panned the decision. Vitriol spewed from forums all over the web.
This guy couldn't act his way out of a paper bag.
I am NOT seeing this movie if he's in it.
Probably the worst casting of all time.
Believe it or not, there are a few lessons designers can learn from this story that can help us stay on track and focused as we develop new products.
Big Changes Can Spark Big Reactions
Director Christopher Nolan was tasked with completely revitalizing a damaged brand, and almost every part had to be refreshed to bring it back on track. As designers we are sometimes asked to completely refresh a product, fix a broken interface or improve an interaction. Our changes may be exceptional and undeniably better solutions than what existed previously, but we have something working against us. Science has proven that people don't like change. Whether we're aware of it or not, we all have a bias for the familiar. When we see something really different or unexpected like, say, the star of "10 Things I Hate About You" being cast as one of the greatest villains of all time, we tend to be negative.
Recently we had two members of the Rdio design team, Geoff Koops and Mike Towber, over for one of our Soapbox events. In the Fall of last year, Rdio underwent a drastic redesign that included bold use of album art, typography and image blur. It caught many people by surprise. Some users expressed frustration over some of the interface changes and were quick to voice their criticism on social networks.
Strong Opinions = Users Who Care
Nolan's unexpected casting decision prompted such a strong reaction because fans have an incredibly personal connection to the Batman mythos. In the same vein, Rdio's passionate users have a deep connection with music and the way they consume it.
"We are blessed with passionate users," Geoff said half-jokingly. While we all chuckled a bit, Mike was quick to expand on Geoff's thought, "It always feels great to have people care enough to say something." They touched on something that everyone who has created anything should understand: If people have strong opinions, even negative ones, it means they care. They care enough to voice their opinion. They're engaged with your product. These are the kind of users you want to have!
Keep Calm and Carry On
After launching our product or redesign, negative feedback can make us feel threatened, causing us to panic. There's a biological reason for this, our fight or flight response kicking in.
Recent neuroscience research has shown that our brains and bodies can respond to certain interpersonal situations the same way we react to literal threats to our physical safety.— Harvard Business Review
In the face of less-than-flattering feedback, our brains tell us we're in danger. We make hasty decisions as if our lives depend on it. These knee-jerk reactions can harm us in the long run. The solution? Stay calm and try to delay your response if possible.
Be Prepared to Fight for Your Ideas
At ZURB, we're not afraid to explore crazy or outlandish ideas. When we first dive into a project, we try to explore all kinds of things, because even bad ideas can lead to great ones. Riskier ideas require more support through the process, but that risk can often pay off in big ways.
Sometimes we need to step up to the plate and defend an idea to prevent others from trampling over it. Nolan's risky decision was based off of data he had gathered and long conversations with Heath about the direction he wanted to take the character and the story in general. He defended his choice to the media and had the data to back up his decision. The Rdio team did data gathering as well, through a custom tool built to test new ideas amongst different customer categories based on their behavior.
"It was ugly," joked Mike Towber, "but we tested tons of users. It helped us." The data this tool yielded influenced and validated their designs, making it possible for them to be confident in their choices.
In the End, Good Will Prevail
"The Dark Knight" was released in North America on July 18, 2008 to nearly unanimous acclaim. Nolan's epic crime drama captivated critics and audiences alike. Much of the buzz revolved around Heath's mesmerizing performance, which immediately spurred Oscar talk. Forums everywhere espoused Nolan's 'genius' casting choice, vindicating the director.
Rdio too, is enjoying an uptick in traffic due to their innovative redesign. Music is now exactly where it should be, front and center. Users are finding it easier than ever to discover and listen to music on their own terms, the main goal of the redesign.
There's much we can learn from both Christopher Nolan and the Rdio design team:
Stay calm: Don't take things personally. Passionate users are users who care. They're connected with our product on a deep level. Stay calm during that first wave of criticism and try not make any rash decisions. We should welcome feedback of all kinds and look for ways to improve, but hasty changes will hurt more than help us in the long run.
Make decisions with data: Nolan had several deep conversations and knew he had found someone with the talent and understanding to execute his vision. The Rdio team went to great lengths to understand their wide spectrum of users, analyzing listening styles and behaviors to find out what people value most.
Be prepared to defend your choices: If we've done our homework and feel strongly about our choices, be prepared to explain them to others. Truly great ideas need advocates, especially if they're a little crazy. Some of the biggest advancements in history came because people were willing to take risks, and design is no different.
We want to thank Geoff Koops and Mike Towber of Rdio for coming down and sharing their insights at our last Soapbox event. We're incredibly excited to sit down with our next guest, Tim Van Damme of Dropbox at noon PST April 24!
In our industry of constantly pushing code and ever-changing websites and applications, "redesign" is a relatively common notion. There's always a way to improve the design somehow. So as we consider design and redesign opportunities, it's sometimes hard to resist the lure of a clean slate. And many designers don't. They fall into the vanity of putting their mark on the design.
That's where we often jump in for our Studios projects — and frankly, where we had found ourselves a couple years back. We start every project with an honest audit of the existing work. As we don our objective glasses, we look at the grand scheme of the user experience and the small details that make it up. It's a safe bet that we'll come across work clearly done by different hands while completing the product audit. Buttons are somehow the epitome of this problem. It's so common that "button consistency" has almost become a design joke.
Why is Button Consistency That Important?
The button in itself is means to an action. Its precise specs may not be that important to the success of the product, which presents designers with literally unlimited design possibilities. That's something designers, unfortunately, embrace.
Button consistency, or more accurately the lack of it, is really a symptom of a bigger organizational problem. It's usually an outcome of designers working on isolated projects, making isolated design decisions without truly considering how their choices affect the whole user experience, and most importantly not being held accountable for these siloed choices. It exposes overall lack of design leadership, influence and communication, which drive a team toward a common goal — great, reliable, and branded products.
Isolated design decisions create a fragmented experience for the customer. Trying something new may be a fun experiment for the designer — and it very well might be a very nice design choice in the situation. But, little by little, these small inconsistencies chip away at the customers' experience with your product or brand. If customers can't trust to find consistency in something as small as a button across your product, how can they trust its underlying technology or service?
As our Chief Instigator recently discussed, the button in itself holds little value — it's an artifact that can be easily changed. The real value is in the thinking that goes into a design decision and how an organization is able to uphold that decision.
Does It Actually Need a Redesign?
Consistency and interface patterns give users certainty and allow them to focus on task completion instead of hunting for the call-to-action. Imagine the sales dip Amazon could be risking by moving their "Add to Cart" button from its usual position on the right. This button's utility combined with customers' familiarity trump it's appearance. Sure, it's not the most innovative-looking button on the web, but redesigning it could really hurt the business.
Yet, designers are quick to jump on redesign opportunities — after all, it's exciting to start anew. In reality, however, a redesign isn't always the right solution to the problem. The roadblock for users may lie in the pricing of your product, which could be discovered through customer development. Or your messaging isn't compelling and could be saved by some clever copywriting. Or maybe customers feel compelled to convert, but the checkout process is too long and needs to be streamlined. Any number of changes could generate dramatic value for the business, and though they likely involve some design decisions, they rarely require a clean slate.
Brand new product designs take a long time to develop. It's a costly proposition, one that has to eventually recover its investment. So instead of jumping on the redesign train, we must first consider the smallest efforts that could produce the biggest payoff. For example, if conversion is suffering, consider the dozen small tweaks before getting into sweeping changes:
- Maybe it's just not prominent enough. What if you make the button bigger?
- Maybe contrast is the problem. We know that contrast in a call-to-action is more important than its color, so changing the button's color could do the trick.
- Maybe you're trying to be too clever in the button language, sacrificing clarity. Sometimes having a clear, simple message is more beneficial than showing personality.
- Maybe your layout is too cluttered and the button gets lost. Removing extraneous content or adding an arrow pointing to the CTA could be the answer!
There's an endless matrix of decisions that go into a successful design. And when trying to gain design influence within an organization, each decision has to be sober and measured. Starting fresh and making many changes in one sweep doesn't highlight what the problem actually was in retrospect. So the next time someone on the team questions these previous decisions and wants to take their own crack at it, there's not a single definitive point to stop them.
So the button inconsistency lives on.
What If the Redesign is Warranted?
We're not anti-redesign. We advocate for understanding if the redesign is the right approach. And sometimes it is. But we can't just jump into a redesign project without fully understanding where it's been, how it became what it is, and how our changes may affect other teams or facets of the business.
A great place to start — in almost anything that we do, actually — is asking a lot of questions. Having a solid grasp on how the previous decision was made gives you power and ammunition to fight for the design you'll propose in the future. Even small design decisions can leave a long trail of hurt feelings, resentment and resistance. It can be quite simply prevented by getting team's input and openly discussing solutions, creating a sense of collaboration and goodwill along the way.
When it's time to pull the trigger, having a plan helps. What or whom does the change affect? Who needs to know about it? How will you rally the troops to get it done?
Once the decision is made, tell the world! Being your team, of course. Announce your decision to the group, talk to people individually (again), write an email about the decision and how it gets rolled out, document it in a style guide. Make it known and explain how it creates value for the organization. Finally, every decision has an owner, or it should. Without an owner, someone to fight for it and protect it, there's nothing stopping another team member from unraveling it.
Our recent redesign on the ZURB Library — a redesign in its truest sense — had us surveying seven independent properties for interface and workflow patterns. Over several years, we've curated a great amount of content that holds a ton of value for practicing and aspiring product designers, but maintaining them had become a giant pain. Each one was developed at a different time by a different team, long before we had a vision for a unified Library. So they all had a unique look, feel and, worst of all, a separate admin tool for us to manage.
It took us many-a-spreadsheet and many months to design and develop an interface that lets us maintain and support unique content for these properties in a unified way. During this process, we also took stock of our own button consistency problem and made the decision to commit to one button style "to rule them all." We've since been rolling it out across all ZURB products. Now, it's every designer's responsibility to uphold and respect the guideline.
So, Is That New Button Really Worth It?
There is no perfect button. Let's start there. So what's a new one worth to you? How many conversations and how much time would it take to replicate that given design choice across the entire product? Does it create tangible value for the business when all said and done?
Sometimes working within fixed design constraints is a blessing. If the button decision was already made for you — great, run with it. Always assume that decisions made before you had a reason behind them, and challenging them may not be worth the effort. Solving new design problems is way more fulfilling than tweaking existing designs. At the end of the day, it's more rewarding to change the course of a product than to change a button.
It's an amazing time of change for design organizations, whether you work in a design agency or in-house team. Design is hot. But design organizations are not without their problems. In my previous post on agencies, we addressed the challenges and the upside design service firms face. Companies are repeating the same bad habits that they've learned from their design agency counterparts.
As an industry we're leaving a lot on the table as our collective stock rises in organizations. Companies' knee-jerk reaction to become design centric have left many design organizations scrambling to figure out how to put the pieces together. Designers are still mopping up implementation problems — still shaking the label of window dressers. Quite frankly, we've gotten really good at these problems and service firms have perfected the art of making money on this effort. We're designing for deliverables, not necessarily better business or customer results.
The current approach is short sighted, especially in a connected world where design work is so temporary. Companies need to re-think how they approach design when most of the work quickly becomes obsolete. If we're only left with design artifacts, most of the design thinking becomes lost. Pixels or artifacts don't effectively influence future decisions for users or organizations. Design organizations must stop designing for artifacts, as this produces only temporary results. We must instead shape the entire organization's collective understanding of the design problem to improve the next result for the people we serve.
We need to rethink the role and purpose of the design organization. We must move from creating artifacts to designing for influence.
The Design Organization Re-Envisioned
Design has changed greatly over the last decade, and in that time, companies have started to set high expectations for designers. Since our beginnings in 1998, we haven't had the collective influence another industry might provide — we've had to continuously work hard to earn respect. The direct benefit of this struggle is that we've learned, through trial and error, how to create more impact with our design work. At ZURB, we use progressive design in our design work to shape organizations and the way they think about design.
In our learning, we've come to the conclusion that companies have over-productionalized the entire design process. A lot of what is valuable in design is discovery of the problem, which allows designers to move through solutions. Along a design process, there are inflection points that shift the path or force another approach to be taken. It isn't clear until working through a design solution that something that seemed viable may not work well enough.
As designers and knowledge workers, we need to embrace a hybrid approach that creates consistent results, but enables us to think through design problems. Our design work should produce results that are consistent and repeatable, and not limited by a design-production process driven entirely by the constraints of an organization. Financial planning, office politics or organizational structures shouldn't drive the design process. We must design for continuous influence, as pixels no longer carry as much value. The pixels are only tools for influencing future outcomes as they will be replaced very quickly — the real value gets carried in the collective thinking of the organization.
To overcome these organizational hurdles, as an industry we've inserted concepts like UX to focus on users, but these efforts aren't usually in harmony with dealing with technological feasibilities and business goals, or least how most businesses try to integrate this thinking into their organization. Only when we have balanced these, can there be a sustainable focus on the people who use our products and services. We should focus on the people who use our products and services as a guiding light. As we've written before, design-centric companies outperform the market.
Facilitators of Change Through Education and Repetition
At ZURB, we design to influence users, our teams and companies. Collectively this influence drives new ideas forward. Big reveals no longer provide the influence necessary to carry stories through an organization. The artifacts of our design work don't produce lessons or help us synthesize new directions and possibilities. People do. We must recognize that people help us drive our work forward through design collaboration.
Now this is hard because people don't easily accept change, but we must aspire to shape design solutions for people. The job of designers is to shepherd a better and different future by making change palatable. The way people adapt to that future happens through our influence. We must acknowledge that people are part of this process, even though they may not fully embrace the idea of change. We must be compassionate and help guide people through our progressive design process.
If people are the core, then education is what pulls them into a design process. At ZURB, we use progressive design to create momentum and educate teams as we work through a design process. It requires that the entire team play a role in driving design decisions, as design is no longer the domain of just designers. Everyone is a designer. We must embrace and invite people into our process, whether it's our team, customers or organization. We must lead them by design.
Companies need designers to think more holistically about how their ideas affect the organizations they work in and invite teams into the process. Providing know-how helps get everyone on the same page — it's the reason we've focused on creating a learning organization at ZURB. When we inspire teams and create consistent results, we're fostering system thinking in the organization. This is a good thing and helps people in the organization use design patterns to solve problems.
Influence Outcomes Through Design Leadership
In order to continually push companies to be more design centric, we need design leaders. There's a gap though. Companies need designers to lead by design, which will help support design organizations. If we are to do that, we must understand how to manage design. To influence people in a design process, we must tell people what we are going to do, show them how it benefits people and organizations, and reiterate those benefits so that we can create momentum.
It may be obvious without stating, but sitting in front of a computer tweaking objects in photoshop makes it extremely difficult to shape outcomes through design. Goal-oriented design requires that you put people and outcomes first — it's an approach that requires giving guidance to people while iterating on design work. By continually delivering iterations that drive the organization toward a goal, designers remove uncertainty and build trust.
As designers, it is our responsibility to understand the effect of the work we put into the world. We must strive to help create a better result for the people we serve. We must capture and learn from this design thinking and understand that it is up to us to follow through on our goals. In this regard, designers are leading through influence and don't have to be limited by a position in a company.
Our influence is felt through the consistency of good work and the compassion we have for the people who interact with our work. If we embrace our organizational goals and commit ourselves to a thorough understanding of technology, we stand to help shape and lead people to amazing results.
Top-Down, Bottom-Up Strategies Create More Impact
Influencing outcomes from a design perspective doesn't necessarily mean that a top-down approach is needed. Yes, pushing a strategic agenda probably requires a management role, but the tactics used to get people on board with design decisions doesn't change. Designers still need to influence people to get ideas to stick.
Designers need to embrace a hybrid approach that utilizes the benefits of top-down and bottom-up strategies to deliver their work. Designers need more cross-functional skills to facilitate the movement of ideas across an organization — even if that means abandoning the focus on one layer of the problem, like the interface of a product. That interface will never shine without a bottom-up approach that balances a solid understanding of implementation principles with persuasion to move the product design decisions forward through an organization.
UX departments have tried to insert their design influence in organizations. But after a decade of experimentation, these groups typically fail to capture all the value for a user and the organization. That's because they're tactically positioned. This value needs to be captured at the organizational level. This is where most design agencies fall down as the work they produce might be finished at a high level, but they're not going to influence the final outcomes without shifting the thinking within an organization.
Designers Must Step Up
The role of a design organization will continue to shift over the next decade. It's going to happen out of necessity because companies have to solve ever more complex problems. Focusing only on button consistency and the output of a design process will surely stunt the growth of any design organization. And, more importantly, prevent the power of design from truly helping the entire organization. Designers must influence organizations through sound decision making and accept not only the successes, but the failures that come along with driving an organization.
Designers must step up and place these burdens on themselves to transform organizations for the benefit of people they serve. They must lead by design and take on more ownership of the business outcomes. At ZURB we've used progressive design as an opportunity for designers to drive this change — something we'll continue to share with the design community to harness all the trapped value we could produce in an organization. Designers need to influence through design and let go of our obsession with pixels.
(Thanks to Thomas Vander Wal for his insights on the post.)
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998