1. Does Your Design Solve Problems, Or Add Features?

    Ten years ago, when I was just starting out in design, the drive was to create the most attractive, flashy design for a website. Customers expected it, and designers encouraged it. The result was slow loading, complex websites that were overly expensive and which consistently under-delivered.

    After a few years of this, I got myself on the right path — towards standards based design — and away from the print-design mentality that drove the early web.

    It wasn’t a quick process and it took quite a bit of cajoling and pleading to get both my company and our customers to come around to this mindset.

    I’d say the #1 reason that leadership in companies — like mine — resisted standards and the mindset that came with it, was because it broke them out of their comfort zones. Standards based design was viewed as a frivolity. Why change our entire process; spend time re-learning how to build a website when tables worked just fine? The client isn’t complaining after-all!

    Many might look back on these questions with incredulity, not realizing that at one time, people like Jeffery Zeldman were looked upon as annoyances by web design companies everywhere. His brand of standards was a thorn in the side of many creative agencies, especially when their “web designer / or coder” became a passionate recruit.

    These in-house designers are the reason that standards are as widely accepted today. Sure, people like Zeldman deserve the credit for their pioneering work — but it’s the every-day designers who fought for the right to use standards in their work that made their solitary voices into a cacophony.

    Changing the Mindset

    Even after we started using web-standards based development practices in-house, it still was several years before I began to fully understand the power of this technique.

    At first, it was all about making elegant designs, with good clean code. Sure, this is great, but in truth, it was just the same old problem, with a better code base under the surface.

    The truth is that it took years of mistakes; years of trial and error and hundreds of website design projects in order to get my mind pointed in the right direction. It takes maturity and experience to fully understand the importance of directing a project to solve the problems of a customers website and not allowing simple aesthetics to dictate the design.

    Applying it to Your Process

    There is no set of rules that define this mindset. It is something that every designer should cultivate and learn through careful practice. That being said, I’ve tried to outline some bullet points that highlight important items that I’ve learned regarding this technique over the years.

    • From the start, ask the right questionsStop asking your client “what websites do you like the look of” instead, ask them, “what problems do you have with your website”? Your project questionnaire should focus on the usability and “business” of your client and their customers, not on their thoughts of the color or layout of their website.
    • 80/20 – The more planning, detail and thought you can put into the planning and research of a project the more “dead-on” the final product will be.
    • Maintain control – Many clients will try to rush the project, by asking that you design the visual aspects of their website before the UX, copywriting and planning of a project are fully complete. Nine times out of ten, I find that this causes more problems than any benefit of a rushed milestone affords.
    • Educate your client – Often, when a client asks about our process, I simply state that our process focuses on solving the problems of their website — so that they can focus on working with their customers. Beyond this, I provide examples, further information and resources for them to read. If you get push-back from the prospective client on this, then you might want to think twice before going ahead. It shows that the client may not respect your craft and is looking for a tool, not a partner.
    • Stay on target – Throughout the design process, as you add and tweak an element in your design, you and your client should be asking yourself, does this help solve a problem? I find that most of the benefits of this technique are obvious… when you design to solve a client’s problems, the resulting website performs better, converting more visitors to leads. In addition to having happy clients, your internal design and development process will be more harmonious and true to the spirit of web standards development.

    What is the focus of your process? I’d love to hear your thoughts, I consider this to be an open dialogue!