Research → Experience → Interface → Prototyping
Research is where you gain detail on your users and the challenges they face. A talented researcher will uncover insight and empathy by monitoring and interviewing users. They’ll build tools (e.g. user personas) that will ground your team in a deep understanding of the problems you’re solving.
Experience covers the pattern of interactions, feedback, and information that define the way a user will engage with your product. Experience designers produce wireframes and flow charts that choreograph a user’s journey from their first impression to their mastery of the product.
Interface designers create visual components and screens that influence the look and feel of your product. They work with color & contrast, visual hierarchy, and animation to create a blend of familiar interactions with a unique visual identity.
Prototyping provides the team with interactive mockups for testing and iteration. Prototypers work in code or using specialized tools to quickly create experiences resembling the end product closely enough to test with users in context and rapidly iterate.
Most designers working on product teams will have expertise somewhere along this spectrum. In most cases they’ll also have some skills in adjacent domains, for example many experience designers have skills in interface design or user research.
This is a quick way to understand designers and design teams, their strengths, and any gaps that might exist. If you’re a small company looking to hire your first designer, then it helps to understand which set of skills you’re looking for and which candidate is the best fit. As you grow your team you can use it to balance complimentary skillsets. At Human Collective, when we’re helping a client decide where at start, we always recommend hiring from the inside out and maintaining a balance that matches their needs.
A word of caution: any useful model is a generalization, and is therefore destined to be wrong around the edges. That said, I’ve found this to be incredibly useful when explaining design roles to non-designers.
If someone at work asks their manager “Why do we hold this weekly meeting?” or “Why does our product have this feature?” the response should never be “Why not?”
Why is it important? Maybe it’s mission-critical, maybe your competitors do it, or maybe it’s just “expected” in your industry. Processes are defined with good intentions but over time conditions change and when they do our instinct is to hold our ground.
To ask “Why not?” is to justify losing effort and gaining complexity just because there’s no good reason not to. Instead, we should ask ourselves “Why?” and remove those features, meetings, etc for which we don’t have a good answer. It ensures everything we do has a clear sense of purpose, and it creates space to do the things that our competitors don’t do and that aren’t “expected” in our industry.
As designers, sometimes we forget about our audience. We set out to build things that are trendy or technically interesting instead of powerful and meaningful. We can spend hours tweaking the aesthetic only to populate our work with meaningless placeholder content.
Brutalism has set out to challenge what’s trendy. It ignores conventional grids, opting instead for an ugly mess of layered content. It denies users of common patterns for navigation and leaves them on their own to discover how to access other pages (or not). We find these designs shocking and obscure because they challenge the part of our craft that we seem to identify most with: our trends and conventions.
Ironically, brutalist design has itself become a trend and it won’t be long before it can’t support its own satirical weight. Until then we should learn what we can from it.
Here’s what brutalism gets right:
As the modern movement emerged in fields like industrial design and architecture a designer’s most important asset was their understanding of materials and production. There’s a sense of modesty in the designs of the 60s and 70s. A sense that designers were chipping away at the usual facade to uncover something about the things they were creating.
In UI design, the methods of production (programming) have become so flexible and abstract that exposing them seems less valuable. The fact that the work is so unconstrained has caused many designers to become less engaged in implementation leaving the choice of tools and methods purely up to developers. This has triggered some exciting growth and specialization as designers search for new frames of reference (e.g. User Experience Design). That said, the lack of continuity between design and implementation is going to hurt the field as we face the limitations of new technologies.
As we move into an era of natural language interfaces we’re regularly hitting the limits of what the technology can do. Just watch someone using Siri for the first time and you’ll see this. Yet designers aren’t exploring and exposing these limitations. They aren’t pulling back the facade to find value in the patterns and materials that form these products. Instead we’ve regressed back to decoration and novelty, and we seem to be designing and marketing tools like Siri as if its limitations don’t exist.
Once again we need designers to take an interest in the materials and methods they’re designing for. It’s is the only way we’re going to uncover the value of technically limited products like natural language or predictive interfaces.
A few weeks ago I saw the Berliner Philharmoniker. The show was so full that the only available seats were in a balcony behind the orchestra and facing the conductor.
Watching from this perspective it was clear how important the conductor is to the group. It’s rare to have such an intimate view of the art of coordinating people. It made me realize that there are a lot of parallels between conductors and managers:
When a startup has plenty of funding, they take the shortest path to their vision. They get out ahead of the market to offer something new. What they build is disruptive. It’s different from what customers are asking for.
In contrast, bootstrapped startups need to sell their product right away. The resistance of customers to change has a greater impact on what they do. Many will take “the path of least resistance” by simply doing what the market asks them to until they inevitably reach their vision. The problem is that someone else will reach it first.
Companies that minimize resistance will never be responsible for a disruptive product (e.g. from horses to cars, or typewriters to PCs) because customers never ask for one. The value of a disruptive product isn’t immediately obvious, for example: Cars and PCs started off as toys for hobbyists.
The market doesn’t ask to be disrupted, but greatly rewards those who disrupt it.
In order to innovate, bootstrapped startups must recognize that customers require a nudge at times. That facing some friction with customers to bring them closer to the vision is healthy. The goal is to discover those areas where customers can be challenged and leading them through changes that quickly demonstrate the value of the vision. As customers grow to understand the vision they become just as eager to see it happen, and they place their trust in the company that revealed it to them.
By gaining the trust of customers through many small challenges, you break down resistance and find a more efficient path. By simply doing the things that customers ask for, you will never disrupt an industry. And if you race towards your vision without bringing customers with you, someone else will win their trust and loyalty first.
Every early-stage startup knows the importance of company culture. There’s no shortage of books and advice on the subject. The attitudes and motivations of early employees are amplified as the company grows. Setting the right culture from the start is critical to scaling the team successfully.
Equally important (but less known) is that this also applies to customers. Naturally, as the first few are on-boarded, the team and the product will be affected by their attitudes and motivations. When aligned with your company, the right customers will accelerate everything you do. The wrong ones will set you back.
Startups should evaluate and seek early customers with the same care they apply to early employees. You want to find valuable allies that you can trust with your product.