What Is This Thing Called Design?


Sometimes you need to explain what design is to people who don’t understand it, but need to. This is the situation I found myself in this week: I’ve been collaborating on a project with some incredibly smart people outside of the company who have a passing understanding of what UX/UI design is, but who need to get a better sense of its particulars, of what it is and what it isn’t, of who does it and how it’s done, and how it’s similar to and different from other flavors of design. After trying to explain it orally and inarticulately, it became obvious that it would be more productive to try and explain in written form.

Lucky me, I had a bout of insomnia at 4:00a this morning. So I got out of bed and, in roughly an hour, hammered out a kind of primer on UX/UI design, which I’m publishing below. It’s a very unformed, rambly screed that I won’t pretend is at all definitive or even fully accurate. In fact it’s still basically a first draft; I literally typed it out in bullet point form, as shown below, a trick I used in order to absolve myself of the responsibility of writing a fully articulated essay. It proved useful to those colleagues of mine and so I thought it might prove useful to readers here, too. Let me know what you think.

A Primer on UX/UI Design

  • Virtually any time you use software—an app on your phone or your laptop, a website, a check in kiosk at the airport—you are actually interacting with an interface created by a designer. In effect, the designer shapes the technology into something understandable, useful and, ideally, delightful to the user.
  • At the simplest level, the designer does this by laying out, or visually organizing what you see. She decides where the buttons and text go on a screen, what other elements like photos, illustrations and/or graphics belong on that screen, and what happens when the user clicks, taps or otherwise interacts with parts of the screen. This is the interface.
  • The interface is where UX/UI design most clearly intersects with “traditional” graphic design, because it is in the layout of the interface that the UX/UI designer uses many of the same elements and tools as designers who create books, posters, packaging etc. Specifically, both kinds of designers employ typefaces, graphics, photos and/or illustrations; make deliberate color selections; think extensively about the composition of the elements they are placing on their canvas; integrate or even design from scratch logos and brand systems. There is significantly overlap here and many professionals practice both, but UX/UI design and graphic design are not exactly the same.
  • When the UX/UI designer “decides what happens,” she is determining both the behavior (i.e., whether a button changes color, shape, shifts in place or otherwise responds to the user’s input) and the flow (i.e., what screen the user goes to, or what new parts of the interface are presented to the user).
  • Taken together, the interface, the behavior and the flow form the user experience. This is a gross simplification, but it’s a reasonable way of understanding that term.
  • These terms aren’t absolute; one of the most frustrating things about our profession is that there are few fixed terms for our tools, methods and work product.
  • To perform her duties, a designer almost always has to work closely with engineers and product managers, people who are responsible for building the actually technology for the app, website, etc.
  • In decades past, how a designer worked with engineers was much more rudimentary, even perfunctory. Oftentimes engineers would effectively determine the majority of the interface, behavior and flow, and would allow the designer only to embellish what had already been established, e.g., changing fonts or colors, making slight modifications to the layout or behavior, and rarely allowing the designer to change the flow. The result of course was very poorly designed and frustrating to use software.
  • Professionals often refer to this minimal role as “window dressing” or “prettifying”; the implication being that it is a circumscribed version of the full scope of what a designer’s job should be. Oftentimes, this way of working is pejoratively referred to as “visual design” or “graphic design,” and there are some designers who are wholly disinterested in this aspect of the job altogether; they believe that design is really about the behavior and flow of an experience. Of course there are other designers who believe that the visual design is just as important as the behavior and flow of an experience. To put it succinctly, there are many gradations between the two beliefs. Our belief is that every point on the spectrum is valid.
  • When digital technology was relatively young and its value was novel, “window dressing” was generally acceptable, because users accepted that they had to submit to poorly designed interfaces in order to harness the power offered by technology. This is how we got many of the terrible interfaces that marked the first generation of desktop software.
  • As digital technology matured and became more capable, and as it at the same time became more widespread and commonplace—first with the web and then later with mobile apps—the bar for UX/UI design was progressively raised. Site by site and app by app, consumers were exposed to more and more good design, and they soon came to expect every digital product to meet a minimum bar of design quality, even if they are still not able to articulate what good design is.
  • Today, the commonly understood definition of good design among professionals has generally moved far beyond design as a superficial layer on top of technology. Designers tend to think more holistically about the problems they work on now.
  • This often means that a designer doesn’t just apply her skills to a solution, but also to defining the right problem. Good design means asking the right questions, questions that are in alignment with both the business goals of the company she is working for and with what the intended users of that company’s app or website want to accomplish when they’re using it.
  • The act of researching a given problem is commonly understood to be part of the design process now. Research can mean interviewing and/or observing users, examining data on existing usage patterns, interrogating the motives of the company and/or the engineering team and more. It can also mean “testing” a design solution for its usability or acceptability to users. Research is now a common and critical part of good design practice.
  • Design professionals have also come to embrace the highly iterative nature of designing for digital products. This stands in contrast to traditional graphic design where, because of the fixed nature of the medium, it was relatively difficult (if not impossible) to make changes to a design solution. In digital media, design solutions are easily altered, and as a result they are often thought of as being in perpetual evolution. This is why apps and websites are constantly being redesigned, not just in major, easily identifiable overhauls, but also in countless subtler methods. Designers now embrace the ethos of iteration as a part of the design process are commonly involved in continually perfecting their work product.
  • This more expansive definition of design has led modern practitioners to define design as more than just the visual. Every “touchpoint” where a user or customer interacts with a company’s products or services is seen as an opportunity to apply the principles of good design, from the emails they get to the technical support they receive to even the quality of offline, in-person interactions with the brand. The end result is no longer just a “good looking” or “user friendly” interface; the goal is now to create a satisfying if not delightful overall experience for users.
  • As we move into immersive media like augmented reality and virtual reality, design professionals are continuing to apply this broader view of design. Voice interfaces, for instance, are now a logical extension of UX/UI design even though they the longstanding visual elements of interfaces are largely absent.
  • This trend of design becoming defined more and more expansively will continue. On the one hand, it will mean more opportunity for more designers, but on the other hand it will also mean more and more people will be undertaking design—not just designers. Design is a process, and while designers will always be in the lead with regard to how it is practiced, just as with engineering, that process has become so important to the success of businesses and organizations that it will become necessary for those who aren’t designers to take part in it. Whether they’re marketers, strategists, writers or engineers, it is very likely that within the next decade, design as a process, as a way of thinking, will become a part of many more people’s jobs.

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