A Moment of Zen
Guest post by: Chris Stair, Intern
Sartre said existence precedes essence but I would argue against that in the case of good software development. I said ‘good’ because people usually do whatever their first instinct is when designing. Working with Lis has been valuable for me because I’ve been learning to suppress my need to see the final product before I’ve properly thought through the requirements and understood the essence of the project at hand.
It sounds logical, but the people I speak to for advice about ideas always want to know ‘what the finished product will look like’ before recommending suggestions on how to get there. But listen closely friends because the journey is the destination. As an IA, Lis works in the liminal zone between inspiration and execution, so the strategies she favors can be applied to projects great and small.
Requirements, requirements, requirements. It’s a mantra you should repeat to yourself before you design the next Apple or Silicon Valley. UX designers are great at designing based on user requirements, in fact it’s pretty much why UX designers exist. A cool idea that doesn’t meet an existing need is a figment of the imagination (some work, most don’t). On the flip side, an idea that meets a need is a good one, however simple and boring it might seem at first.
By separating my own personal enthusiasm from my work while designing I find that the end results tend to be simple. I find that the more I talk about ideas, the more I become enamored with them, when the ideas may not have gained value. The right decisions tend to be significantly simpler than the ideas that originated the project.
A great example of this is a site Lis worked on that will be rolled out in November or so. Great company, brilliant people: they were the first clients Lis ever had who had no trouble recognizing that her wireframes didn’t necessarily need to look like the final product. They have a beautiful website now, but they felt that something was missing. So they hired Lis to refine it. Refine it she did, all the way down to creating a typology of 3 for the various types of pages. The company sells more than 40 products, sponsors athletes around the world, espouses philanthropic ideals in everything they do (including strong environmental initiatives), and assembles all their products in-house. For them to have 3 kinds of pages, well, it seems like under kill. But it’s not, because if they had a rainforest ecosystem of pages I would never know where I was as I navigated the site. If there were five different types of pages with less information per page my decision making ability would be hampered by the need to leave each page to find the relevant information. By having long, highly integrated pages the site allows the user to access relevant information without needing to navigate elsewhere through the site.
It sounds simple, but it’s not. Separating the end product from the design process is necessary for creating something with utility. Maybe your eureka moment delivered a working product to your mind’s eye, but a pragmatic vetting process is still in order; casually interview potential users, brainstorm improvements and think about the requirements it meets before you even put the pen to paper designing it (I highly recommend putting pen to napkin or other scrap of paper in the vicinity when the moment first comes to you. I firmly believe that I could have revolutionized the world several times over if only I had written down some of my more productive thoughts… late at night… when I was 8).
So what are some tips for keeping it real before you ask your company to seriously pursue an idea?
- Ask yourself about the purpose of your project and the needs it meets.
- Ask a relevant acquaintance you know about the utility (either modify your explanation or your approach depending on their feedback).
- Leave the idea and return to it with a fresh outlook (maybe you leave it for a few minutes, maybe you leave it for a day or two, if it’s not ‘how you work’ and you fall in the second category I recommend stepping out of your comfort zone).
- Start a prototype, look at comparable products/markets, if something exists that precludes your idea you’ll need better execution. (Validate that your idea makes sense via prototype, see real-world confirmation etc.).
Placing process before product reduces redundancy in the work stream. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said, “If you don’t have the time to do it right now, when will you have the time to do it over?” Slowing down can help you prioritize which tasks you accomplish which results you get with less redundant work, not to mention less sloppy work.
In addition to improving the efficiency of your workflow, ruminating over the underlying concepts driving your product can help you create a consistent brand. This becomes especially important when dealing with web pages because users utilize the consistency of your website to orient themselves as they navigate through it. If anyone should understand the essence of your website it should be your users.
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