Our work here at ZURB is primarily visual: besides creating website designs and logos, we also brainstorm on whiteboards, sketch out ideas on paper, and create lo-fi prototypes out of cardboard.
As any designer will tell you, the visual nature of that work can be both a blessing and a curse. As a designer, it's great fun to see your work go live, and get users' reactions to the work you've done. But that also means dealing with opinions from all sorts of backgrounds: anyone can (and will) tell you their thoughts on everything from color to the name of your product.
What to Ignore
The ideas behind the iPhone, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube weren't obviously wonderful when they were first announced: in 2007, Steve Ballmer confidently declared
that the iPhone would never gain significant market share (as of early 2010, the iPhone comprised 28%
of the U.S. smartphone market, trailing only the BlackBerry, while Windows Mobile dropped to third place.)
True innovation is near-impossible if you're just iterating on what people already know. Or, as Henry Ford famously put it, "if I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse."
The founding team's investment and inspiration in the initial idea is crucial. You need to to be your own audience and critic. That's why we created Notable
: they're products we wanted to use as designers, and that investment drives our vision for those products as we move forward.
Principal Firefox designer Alex Faaborg discussed this style of design in his soapbox here at ZURB
last February: the "strong visionary" approach has been used most notably in recent years by Apple.
When to Listen
Soliciting user opinions may not generate the Next Big Idea, but their input is crucial in turning a great idea into awesome reality. The best idea in the world is no good if people can't use what you create.
One of the most important areas to focus on in user testing is identifying pain points. If users get so frustrated that they leave your site, not only have you lost a user, but you're likely to lose out on more as they share their opinions online.
Friendster actually predated Facebook in the social network wars, with much of the same functionality. But the site was so atrociously slow that people just gave up on using it. Similarly, Google Video preceded YouTube, and Creative's line of mp3 players pre-dated the iPod. An idea isn't enough: execution is key.
Say you've launched your product and established a user base. What next? You don't want to stagnate - responding to a changing marketplace and innovating at a moment's notice is one of the great advantages of a small startup.
You'll want to add new features, and it's tempting to try to make each and every one of your users happy. But adopting the "kitchen sink" approach is a sure route to mediocrity - try to be everything to everyone, and you'll never be great to anybody.
Adopt an "opt-in" approach, not opt-out. Start with the bare minimum feature set for your product, and then require every additional element on the page to have a compelling justification for its existence. Consider Google's famously sparse homepage, with a hard limit of 28 words. LukeW promotes a similar idea in his "mobile first"
approach: identifying and prioritizing the core features of your app forces you to focus on what makes your product great, and prevents bloat.
So ultimately, creating a great design is a delicate balance between what the stakeholders want, what the users need, and your own vision for the product. It's definitely difficult, and sometimes there's no clear answer, but if making an awesome product were easy, everyone would do it, right?