Practise like an expert, don’t communicate like one.

Peer networking in the design community is thankfully not the rarity it used to be. Where there were onceinfrequent events based around an occasional high-brow lecture or overly self-conscious ‘networking opportunity’ (ugh), thanks to any number of driven and enthusiastic individuals we now have conferences, unconventions, informal meet-ups and increasingly relevant and compelling talks.

Industry peers aside though, our professional communications take place with a number of other key groups: colleagues, clients and end users. It’s worth considering how we handle these conversations.

A couple of years back the excellent UX Bookclub Belfast covered ‘How to Use Your Eyes’ by James Elkins. Each chapter delivered a brief but compelling insight into the expertise of others. By deconstructing (amongst other things) a culvert, an oil painting and the Periodic Table, the book revealed hidden mechanics and meanings, inspiring admiration for those whose contributions you might not otherwise consider.

Had there been a chapter devoted to the makeup of a graphic user interface or how a web browser renders HTML, no doubt most in the web design industry could have articulated something to inspire  similar, admiring reactions from readers outside our sphere of activity. Indeed, expertise is (or should be) the minimum price of entry into the increasingly crowded Service Industry Club. A key question to consider then, is: how do we convey our knowledge to those we most need to engage with?

It just works

Almost everything we interact with or consume is the product of others’ technical mastery; their input is largely invisible, allowing us to go about our day without having to consider theories, systems or production processes. We care about these things, only in the sense that they just work without insight on our part.

The same goes for most experts we come into contact with. Be it a doctor or a car mechanic, we appreciate it when these people frame problems and solutions in the simplest possible simple terms, revealing more detail only when we request it.

Dumbing up

In UX design, and I’d suggest pretty much every other design discipline, expertise should manifest itself in simplicity. Or to rephrase that, the science we incorporate into what we produce should be invisible to a non-expert; and we should be able to communicate our expertise while remaining intelligible to the listener.

Too often we trip over ourselves to prove our competence rather than communicate it effectively. In many ways our ability blinds us. We should not berate the client for, as designers are so fond of saying, “not getting it”. Others do not see as we do. We are the ones who have the responsibility of making sure clients “get it”… whatever “it” may be.

So perhaps the truest test of our competence is how simply we can share it. When we discuss a project’s challenges and potential solutions with a client, make it simple to understand. Communicate like a true expert.

Words fail us.

A recent exchange on Twitter, started by this tweet from Andy McMillan, brought attention to the use of self-deprecating terms by designers that may contribute to an overall lack of respect for – or awareness of – the discipline of web design. Andy also questioned what the responsibility of the design community should be in overcoming misconceptions.

I believe our industry dialogue has shortcomings that go beyond self insulting slang. How we choose to discuss our work amongst ourselves and how we communicate outwardly is directly linked to the fundamental credibility of our industry. And yet modern design discourse cannot manage to get much past “cool!” or “awesome!”.

Reading a blog post by a practitioner of say, the legal industry which began “Being a solicitor totally kicks butt!!” might reasonably lead you to think that something so crass reflects badly on the writer and, if it was a widely read site or journal, on the profession itself. But a recent design-related blog post I came across began precisely that way (substitute “designer” for “solicitor”). Names withheld to protect the innocent.

Our deficiency in apposite language is not always so overt. We have all seen design agency homepages that proudly pronounce something along the lines of: “We design cool web stuff for awesome clients”. Reading this you simply have to wonder – who is the target audience Vocabulary in the design world has become a series of memes. Phrases like “We’re passionate about creating awesome online experiences” suggest everything and nothing.

Try Googling the phrase “We’re passionate about design” and look at the number of results returned, or let me do it for you. Apologies if you find yourself in there. I don’t doubt for a second that each of those companies and individuals truly believe in what they are saying. However, if they also believed that making this statement created some kind of differentiator in the marketplace, they were clearly and painfully wrong.

Professional design bodies around the world, such as the very vibrant GDC in Canada or AIGA in the US, work extremely hard to bring credibility to the design profession by lobbying business and industry on the benefits of design supplied by accredited, licensed professionals. We rail against the idea of organisations producing substandard design work in-house, or roll our eyes when we hear that the boss’s nephew produced the company’s website because he had a copy of Dreamweaver.

And yet too many designers and design agencies insist on prioritising credibility with their peers over professional communication by adopting a witless “aren’t we cool?” approach to how they discuss and present their work. Do we really believe that clients are attracted to us by lambasting them with how “cool” or “awesome” we are?

The arrival of The Manual may represent a watershed, and the publication has very clearly set out its stall in terms of what it hopes to achieve. Similarly, New Adventures in Web Design has fired up debate of a nature that simply had not existed before. We should applaud these earnest efforts to usher in a new era of industry communication and hope they bear fruit. Further to that, the rest of us should make a contribution and start introducing maturity to the – at times – adolescent lexicon of design discourse, be it in our industry publications, on our blogs… even on Twitter. Or is that asking too much?

When we can communicate as accomplished and eloquent professionals, between ourselves as well as beyond our industry, then perhaps the boss’s nephew won’t get so much work.

Laws of Simplicity

The recently rejuvenated UX Bookclub Belfast, brought to us by the good people at Front, had “Laws of Simplicty” by John Maeda as its September selection.

I wish this had been written when I was a student or graduate designer. I come from a generation of designers where the goal was generally to embellish, embellish, embellish, and that was evident in the the wave of websites which emerged when designers finally decided to engage with the web in the last couple of years of the nineties. This should certainly be a must-read for all design students. Here are a few of my random thoughts and quotes from the book:

The first edition came out in 2006; throughout the book Maeda makes repeated reference to the iPod as a paradigm of simplicity principles. I would love to know if this reverence extends to the iPhone which is – to me – a hugely complex device, one which seems to base its appeal almost exclusively on aspirational aspects, albeit its functionality is split into a large number of smaller, simpler modules.

“Good design relies to some extent on the ability to instill a sense of instant familiarity” – this is very true when one thinks of patterns in UX design, and yet some designers are ashamed of conforming to conventions. Doing ‘what everyone else is doing’ is generally perceived to be a bad thing, and yet it makes a vital contribution to usability.

“Ambience is the proverbial ‘secret sauce’” – very true in web design. Sometimes you can feel like you have very little room to make your mark in a ‘typical’ web project, whether the constraints be financial, or dictated by brand guidelines etc. Many small victories can be achieved through tiney details which contribute to the overall ambience.

“Synthesizing the ambient experience of simplicity requires attention to everything that seemingly does not matter”. Daaammmn. Favourite line in the book by far! I may not get a tattoo of it, but it deserves framing at the very least.

Maeda makes the point that “simple = cheap” to his mother (and others). I would suggest that simple = cheat to some; that somehow simplicity is less design. Sadly a viewpoint that is too often adopted by short-sighted clients!

“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding to the meaningful” – and here we have a key differentiator between simplicity and minimalism, which tends to be about reduction at all costs, something I’ve commented on before.

Overall, great book. The last couple of pages suggest to me that simplicity does not just appeal to us as designers, but as humans. For instance, I don’t believe that anyone wakes up in the morning and thinks: “Hmm. I think I need to make my life more complex today.” More exciting perhaps, or more fulfilling, but we will naturally be drawn to simplicity as a goal. And yet, I know I continue to fill my life with “stuff”, be it gadgets that I will never unlock the full potential of, books and magazines I may never read, which do nothing but add to the complexity of my life. Maeda lets us know that simplicity is a choice.

Without over-simplifying what Maeda offers, the book forces us to reconsider what is truly helpful, emphasising that more does not necessarily mean better.