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.

Rockstars, preachers or craftsmen. Time to choose.

My father was a joiner, serving his apprenticeship in the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast. He took a simple pride in his work, going on to develop his skills in a number of construction firms across the city. I don’t believe he would have labelled himself a “craftsman” and I am confident that, while knowing no project he worked on would be complete without his contribution, he had a balanced sense of where that contribution sat in the greater scheme of things. We are fortunate to still have a couple of pieces of furniture that Dad made over the years as labours-of-love. They are simple, usable items.

Intense introspective

When I first read Jon Tan’s recent blog post it resonated hugely. His thoughtful appreciation of our industry is a heartening summary of how quickly things have changed and improved. On reflection, and without any disrespect to Jon – should so much soul-searching be triggered by what amounts to a moment of awkwardness at a social occasion? Should it matter what others’ perception of us is?

The drive towards a craft-based approach to design for the web continues to gain momentum, something worth fostering. Craft implies care, thoroughness. If we are to be craftsmen, we also need to accept that dedicated craftsmanship is often carried out in relative anonymity. Our contributions, if they are effective, will go unnoticed by most. Intuitive usability implies a lack of conscious effort on the part of the end user which, in turn, suggests a lack of acknowledgement on the part of the user.

My Dad ended his working life as a Clerk of Works. You may not be familiar with that role. I don’t believe Dad would have minded and would quite happily have explained his job to anyone. As our profession matures and we struggle with perceptions and interpretations of what we do, we should prepare for nothing but a muted response from those outside the industry or elsewhere in the design community.

We do great things, but they are not made any greater or lesser by how others perceive them.

You’re either with us or you’re against us

During his years in trade, Dad came into contact with engineers, architects and tradesmen of all kinds. He took an interest in them and how they contributed to projects. It informed his own work. To the best of my knowledge he never took it upon himself to accuse others of not being genuine joiners. As in all professions, he knew there are two types of practitioners: those who are effective, and those who are not.

I have written before of being proud to work in a profession that places effective practice over showboating. However there has been a trend of late for loud, showy pronouncements suggesting what designers are or are not, depending on their approach. The defense is always that these statements are designed to “provoke debate” or similar. I really wonder. Because sometimes, just sometimes, the intention appears to be to create divisions in our field where there are none; to create a ‘them and us’ based on approach and technique, rather than effectiveness of output.

A situation where a relatively small number of (I should state – exceptional) professionals, with the biggest platforms, who shout loudest feel empowered to define what we should or should not be is one that I’ll call unhelpful. Producing great work sets the best possible example to
others in the profession. Sharing of the process gives something back to the community. Does proselytising really add any more value?

Future proof

We want to attract the best possible calibre of people into our industry. A clear sense of ourselves and what we contribute as UI and UX designers is crucial to that effort. Promotion of best practice, which is always changing, is a positive. There are suitable ways and means to do this. I suggest that haranguing those with a different perspective is not one of them.

Reading much of our internal debate of late, I cannot help but hear Dad’s voice and what he said to me in so many situations over the years:

“Just get on with it, son”.

I commend this sentiment to the industry.