A less precise art

There have been a number of natural ebbs and flows in the history of online UI design, times when designers may have felt that full control was coming back to us only to see it move away again.

Shock of the new

Moving to the web from print in the late nineties was like a slap in the face. “You mean… I can’t control what’s going on here? There are different browsers that do what???” etc. Designing for the web was imperfect, approximate and maddeningly unpredictable. Or, from a print designer’s perspective, “hell”.

Workarounds

But we moved on and gradually clawed back some degree of control. Tables became the designer’s saviour; by chopping graphics and wringing every last drop of functionality from tables, we were able to lay out content how we wanted it. Bloated markup, unorthodox layouts and clunky designs were the result, but they were a means to an end: control over the design.

Denial

Emerging W3C standards and increasingly ubiquitous CSS put the spotlight on the folly of reliance on tables, and the boundaries were moving once again. As a designer in these circumstances you either accept or go mad, stuck with the misguided delusion that YOUR vision is more important than any constraints.

Comfort zones

Graphic designers prior to this generation had been used to constancy. If a new printing technique emerged, or new paper stock came out it would likely be integrated into the process with little or no impact on working practices or design approach for that matter.

Change = good

But this is exactly why UI design for the web can be so exhilarating. Rarely do such new possibilities and challenges to learn and re-learn emerge with such regularity in other mediums. Online, regular developments in markup or software enable us to conquer new challenges in completely new ways.

No going back

Responsive design ensures that websites will appear elegantly on web-enabled devices, regardless of the viewport size; progressive enhancement means that the more advanced the browser environment, the better rendered the design will be. Neither of these principles however results in (or attempts to achieve) full, pixel-perfect control on-screen. And that is where the game has changed irrevocably for designers in the space of a decade.

Conclusion

Ours is an imperfect art, with countless variables and as-yet unknown methods of consumption; one in which we need to surrender to the medium, not master it. For many, many designers I believe that would be too uncomfortable to live with. For those now entering the industry now however it has another name: normality.

Responsive design: don’t stifle debate with dogma

The responsive design debate was set in motion around a year ago, but seems to have reached something of a crescendo of late. Some commentary borders on the totalitarian, others’ input is philosophical, while some contributions attempt to navigate a practical way forward. Fact is, there is a veritable scramble to coin the phrases that will become tomorrow’s industry-standard vocabulary.

Designers are just plain excited about responsive design, and it’s easy to see why. We have arrived at one of those industry-defining moments which precipitates huge leaps forward in practice – think HTML 3.2 & 4, CSS2. You can perhaps forgive the piousness of some commentators. As new practices bed in, you can always rely on designers to get sanctimonious about how inadequate our practices were up until a day or so ago.

Get up, stand up

Exciting as it is, there is also a huge challenge for designers to step up, not something we have always distinguished ourselves by. As the mass-market web came into being, designers (by and large) stood idly by waiting for someone to make it easy for them, instead of just getting in there, learning some basic markup and meaningfully engaging with a new communications medium.

A shared future

Things couldn’t be more different today; a new generation of designers are falling over each other to experiment, test, share and move the practice of online UI design forward into a new era. This time the catalyst is not a new markup specification, but advances in hardware: a critical mass in use of web-enabled devices has been reached. The rules of the game have changed. Mobile access is no longer an afterthought, or a box to tick, it has parity with desktop and laptop access.

Papa don’t preach

The volume of the debate is rising, but those preaching too loudly or broadcasting their opinions on who is or isn’t doing it ‘right’ are demeaning themselves, and missing the point. We are all in this together. Our internal industry dialogue will continue and something will emerge from all this, almost certainly not in the form of a single proposal or approach. Thought leaders will get us in the general vicinity, but best practice emerges from the efforts of many, and continues to evolve, as we evolve both as designers and as a community.

The new reality

Subscribing to new thinking is one thing, but deploying it on a relevant, commercial project is another. I’ll readily admit to being right at the start of the transition and pursuing a trail-and-error approach; much preferable to breathlessly following anyone who screams they have ‘the answer’. Plus, attempting to stay ahead of the curve on this issue looks like the path to madness when even the originator of the term ‘responsive design’ has identified somewhat inevitable grey areas.

In conclusion

This is as fresh a challenge as we could hope for in our industry, and these are exciting times. The least helpful contributions to a discussion tend to be the most vociferous, but we’re off and running, on the road to best practice and the community will win. Let’s enjoy the ride and look forward to what emerges on the other side.

Sometimes wireframes won’t work

Wireframes are a pillar of best practice in any interface process, but what happens when they get in the way?

What happens when say, the client has no interest in them, or doesn’t feel empowered to take decisions based on what they see, what then? Should a principled designer hold firm until the client sees the ‘error’ of their ways… or alternatively, do we graciously step down from our pedestal and move on, acknowledging that adherence to an idealistic idea of best practice can occasionally get in the way of progress?

A quick reality check: clients know their business best, and will care most about that. They are not hugely concerned with what constitutes best practice for designers; they simply want effective results. In at least one recent project, wireframes became either a barrier to progress or a literal waste of time, completely failing to elicit the responses and decisions they were designed to achieve. And yet the “client education” card is played all too often by elements of the design community as the fix-all solution to allow us to work the way we would like.

Having have long since accepted that designers are not artists, and rightly so, we should accept also that we are not surgeons, or nuclear engineers. Call it ‘agile’ if it makes you feel better, but the fact is that our processes should be mature enough to accommodate a degree of compromise, and still produce effective outputs.

If wireframes can lead to a more effective end solution, then their benefits will be apparent to all and their use a formality. If not, then maybe, just maybe, they are not appropriate or required.

Investment in design services is a huge leap of faith for so many clients. While the ROI on considered and well-executed design might be a given to those of us in the industry, it remains a significant outlay for clients who already have budgets stretched to breaking point by many other aspects of their project. Heard through that filter, the sound of a designer labouring the benefits of wireframing might easily sound like “that’s just how we do things around here, although of course you wouldn’t know this stuff, being a client and all that”.

From experience, winning confidence is the most effective path to what we sometimes rather demeaningly term client education – and has far more value than that. Ditch the designer vocabulary and pretensions and earn the trust of your client. Once achieved, rather than having made your client feel slightly patronised, any project is guaranteed to run more smoothly.

Wireframes or no wireframes.

Redefining the homepage

There was a time in the history of web design when the homepage would receive almost all of the designer’s attention.

Na├»ve though it may sound now, it was as if the homepage was the site’s only chance to win over the user. After all, homepages won web design awards, homepages were featured on portfolios, and homepages alone bore the weight of expectation for the project. An inordinate amount of time was spent creating homepages that were self-indulgent and self-serving. I know. I was there, and I was as guilty as anyone.

Clients are understandably keen to have something which objectifies their aspirations for the project; the homepage is usually presented by the designers as the key evidence that the design process is on track. Sign-off for the homepage can be protracted, but when achieved it quite often represents the client’s approval for the overall design direction.

But there is a definition of the homepage that made the penny drop for me. It’s plain, it’s simple and it is self-explanatory:

The homepage is the first step of a user journey.

It is a launch-pad for any one of a number of user journeys, depending on the users being catered for. Not a destination in itself. If the homepage successfully serves its purpose as the first step on the journey for your key users, then it is successful. If not, then no amount of embellishment, enhancement or deft application of branding is going to make a difference.

It can not be the designer’s goal to produce a ‘killer’ homepage. That is the realm of designers who see their contribution as more important than the goals of the users they are trying to serve. The homepage is not an end in itself, it is a beginning.

So what do you want to empower the user to do? Where do you need to take them? Make sure the answer is on the homepage.

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.