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.

Naïve 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.

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.

Upgraded. Deflated.

What a let-down :(
Sure signs that I’m getting older, number 37 in a series: software upgrades no longer excite me.

Photoshop has helped to mould the design industry we know today. I’ve been around long enough to remember life before Photoshop, and it seems like a very long time ago. Designers coming into the industry in recent years have known nothing else and, like me, they have no viable alternative. We’re stuck with the application as an industry standard for better or for worse. It has even become a verb, a confirmation that it dominates its market; think Hoover, Xerox etc.

But its ability to surprise diminishes with each successive version. The video demonstrating CS5’s new Smart Fill feature conveniently created a buzz in the lead up to the launch of the CS5 suite, drawing gasps of amazement from designers worldwide. As ever with these things the reality was not quite as amazing in practice and the need for it in day-to-day projects is minimal.

Software marketing promises a false dawn. Design challenges remain design challenges; no amount of new features will replace or enhance the ability to interpret client requirements. Improvement and change comes only with experience.

If upgraded software makes you more productive, then it’s worth the price of admission. However, if it makes you a better designer, you’re doing it wrong.

The long wait for Boards of Canada

The BOC brothers

It’s around ten years since I first noticed the name “Boards of Canada” creeping in to designers’ discussion forums (ahh discussion forums, what a quaint idea). It seemed that BoC was the soundtrack of choice for any designer worth their salt in the heady days of the dot com boom.

I had dabbled with electronica before, but BoC opened my eyes and ears to a whole new world of avant garde IDM. Strange thing to say now, as BoC are so often seen as almost mainstream.

There has been very little since, with the exception perhaps of Proem and Ulrich Schnauss, that has made such an impression on me, left me feeling that I was listening to something new, fresh and unfettered. The vocal samples, the eerie atmospherics evoking vague childhood memories, all combined with the duo’s mischievous marketing giving them the aura more of a cult than a musical act, made listening to their music a mesmerising experience.

Within 18 months of discovering them, ‘Geogaddi‘ was released. I remember clearly wandering around Paris as part of a professional trip with IDI Ireland, listening to Geogaddi on a cassette Walkman, taking in its strange aural landscapes in the equally strange (to me) environment of the French capital.

But something went wrong. ‘The Campfire Headphase‘ took 3.5 years to emerge after Geogaddi. Apart from an EP in June 2006, BoC fans have now been waiting over 5 years for new material to arrive from Hexagon Sun. Not quite latter day Pink Floyd standards, but a huge period of anyone’s life.

I’m sure Marcus and Eoin are happily making a living from their work, but music consumption has moved on significantly in those 5 years. There was a time when I would have bought new BoC material without hesitation. Nowadays, I may just sample what is on offer before parting with hard-earned cash to buy it.

With artists such as Horizon Fire so ably scratching the itch of BoC fans (and for free), and Proem maintaining such a regular schedule of high quality output, I’m at the point where I almost don’t care whether anything appears from BoC again.

I don’t know how BoC see themselves now, but that must surely be the worst possible news for any musician who releases music commerically.