Real life design: an imperfect process

I think I had watched one too many design conference videos on Vimeo, or read one too many utopian blog posts on perfect design practice. And something went *click*.

For developing designers the profusion of inspiring blog posts, videos, tweets and community activity can be hugely helpful, motivating… and not a little overwhelming.

The thrust of much of the material available, authored by designers for designers, appears to be polarised between near-utopian visions of how the design process should work, how we should design and the other extreme of ‘Clients from Hell’-style rants. The conference talks by the great and the good of our industry, while inspiring us to reach, to stretch ourselves and improve our practice, also tend to paint a picture of working with dream clients who ‘get’ designers and have limitless budgets to allow designers to do what they do best.

But how many projects actually go down like that? I’m guessing less than 10% for the average designer. Much less. I’ve seen enough to know that when things all go perfectly on a project then you can check in the sky for a blue moon if not a flying pig.

The fact is that bringing a design project to a successful conclusion is very, very difficult. But to be able to stand over a project, knowing that you perservered and overcame every last hurdle put in its way is a fantastic feeling. What I have yet to find is a conference presentation that tells it like it is: that being a designer can be frustrating, maddening, to the point of making you wonder why you ever got into it. But also that working through the problems is worth the effort.

So many articles and blogposts are overly academic in their approach to the practice of design. Academic, in the sense that they are abstracted from the reality of working with clients and budgets and deadlines. It is in this light that I wanted to add a little reality to the mix. This is the first in an occasional series of articles on this blog under the category of An Imperfect Process, based on experience gained in the (surprise, surprise) middle ground of the design industry.

I adore every article on A List Apart and hang on every word written by the thought leaders in the world of design. I fully subscribe the quasi-science of UI design, and thrive on the positive messaging of the big speakers. However, there is a real world out there that we all have to work in, where projects won’t necessarily be conducive to textbook design practice. Consider these posts as postcards from that other reality – real life design.

We deal with an imperfect design process, one that integrates as much as possible of the best of design thinking, both past and present, but which deals with the realities of design in the real world.

More to follow.

The Moleskine meme

mehYou don’t have to follow too many designers on Twitter for too long before seeing Moleskines touted as the ultimate in note-taking, sketching or idea capturing.

I tried Moleskines for a whole year – even dubbed it ‘the Moleskine Experiment’™ – using a week-to-view notebook, a squared notebook for wireframe thumbnails and a blank notebook for sketches.

After a couple of weeks in use however, for me they became… just another notebook. The quality of the paper became immaterial, the ideas no better or no worse for being committed to Moleskines. I also discovered something cheaper of comparable quality – the ASDA executive notebook (reviewed here and here) that offered a similar feel, quality and, if you must, “experience” that a Moleskine offers for around a third of the price.

Moleskines are a meme amongst some designers; you’re not a real designer until you’re using them, right? Don’t get me wrong, I’m no hater. Moleskines are more than pleasant to the touch and there’s no disputing their quality. They have managed to establish themselves as the Apple of the notebook world and for that, I congratulate them.

For the record though, the Moleskine Experiment™ ended with the conclusion that notebooks shouldn’t be that expensive. To paraphrase a previous post: if a particular brand of notebook makes you more productive, buy it. If you think it makes you more creative, you’re doing this whole design thing wrong.

Changing the way we work

We’ve recently been working on a major project with a client whose main office is 100 miles away. While physical visits are not an issue, sometimes we want to build up momentum working, and ask the client for feedback on the way. To facilitate this, we’ve elected to use two online apps for different sides of the design process.

For interface design visuals we’ve been working with Onotate, built by the folks at Rumble Labs. We’ve been using the just-out-of-beta app for feedback and collaboration with up to 6 other reviewers and editors. Onotate shows interface designs in the relevant context – a web browser – and notes can be added by dragging cross-haris across the desired area of the screen.

On the other side of the process, HotGloo has been our weapon of choice for wireframing and interactive prototypes. A brilliant tool, it makes creating interactive prototypes a breeze and, like Onotate, it can accommodate feedback in the form of onscreen notes.

We’ve found a number of benefits to using these tools, which apply to both of them.

– They encourage brevity: the comment boxes are just the right size and discourage lengthy essays on particular point
– They encourage more immediate feedback: it’s simple for the reviewer to leave a comment there and then rather than have to switch to an email window and remember everything there
– They help keep debate transparent: with multiple reviewers, it’s often too easy for the real discussions to take place in multiple emails, or in some other ‘unofficial’ forum. Threads can be created there on the tool, and keeps everyone focussed.
– They save on confusion: If someone else has already made a point, another reviewer is unlikely to repeat it

We had only made moderate use of these tools before now; beyond this point though, there is a good chance that the way we work will have been permanently affected, very much for the better.