Why One Direction Wins

Part of what designers are really good at, what makes them valuable, is their proficiency with examining many options. By understanding a range of possibilities, one is better equipped to choose the best option available. So, it seems counter-intuitive to say that we’re just going to show you one conceptual direction for the thing you’re paying us to design. Of all the choices out there – you’ll only see one. And it will address the goals for the project. Or not. A highly iterative process wins

Extract the most value from your design partner

Let me explain… The key distinction to this approach comes in the understanding about who’s doing the choosing. You hire a designer to help you give shape to something. Maybe it’s your website, or your logo. Maybe it’s your entire product. But you hire that person based on their ability to explore options to curate that exploration. You assume they know best about why one typeface is better than another. Or why you’d choose blue instead of orange. If your designer is not making those decisions, then you probably are. Which means you’re doing the work that they are being paid to do. But let’s assume that you’ve got some design chops. You’ve been around the block and know a good-looking font when you see one. Or, hey, maybe you’re just the kind of person who likes choices. We all like choices, right? So, if I show you two designs and ask you to pick one, your first response is almost always, “a little of one, and a little of the other.” which is not the point of having two options. What we present should be strong enough from a conceptual point-of-view that you can’t mix-n-match without the quality suffering. Furthermore, if, at the start of the visual design process, the direction is so ill defined that multiple visual directions are needed, then I would argue we have started visual design too early.

What if I don‘t love it?

But what if that one direction you see isn’t right? There are, of course, situations where we show one direction and it’s completely wrong. The beauty of this approach is that we now have some very specific, concrete feedback to improve from. We can ask questions like, “so, you don’t like it – tell me more about how the font affects the way you feel? What about the color? If we made it green (something we’d considered) would that help?” This is better than us showing you the blue version and the green version. It’s better to take that risk and use the client’s budget to refine the concept than to burn resources on a direction that won’t get used. By limiting the number of directions to one, and using the project budget to provide more iteration, coupled closely with conversation, we can build a shared understanding about what we’re trying to accomplish and make better decisions in the future.

What teaching students taught me about clients

I just finished my second year of instruction at the University of Washington, teaching mobile experience design to Juniors in the Visual Communications program and the process continues to teach me about what good design asks of those involved with its processcommunication is key in design

Your work is not self-evident. Explain what you’ve done and how it addresses the project goals.

Students have an inclination to present work by describing the visible elements of the project, something Mike Monteiro calls “the real estate tour.” It’s boring to have someone prattle on about things you can easily see. What’s less clear is why something was designed the way it was. The process for making design decisions can be a very internal one, but it’s important to communicate that process to your teacher – or your client. Make sure they understand the thought process behind the real estate.

Set clear goals and make sure they are communicated

As a practicing professional I’m used to making assumptions about what my team knows – they’ve got years of experience in the field so it’s logical they have informed perspectives about requirements and process. That’s not the case with students, or with the designers you’ve hired. When you are engaging in a process it’s important to be clear about what you’re hoping to achieve and why it’s important to your business.

Make Shit Up

Designers get hired to solve intangible problems. It’s our job to bring clarity and form to abstract and ill-defined problems. In order to do this, we often have to make assumptions in order to validate our solution. This is a skill that takes a long time to cultivate and those who are new to the design world struggle with this. There’s a lack of confidence in just making shit up and going with it. A robust design process will help everyone understand why it’s important to do this and how to keep things moving.

Designers want work they can show in their portfolio

The the end of the day what design students want, is work they can include in their portfolio – work that impresses potential employers. This is true most designers – they want to do work for their clients that is renowned and admired. By giving them freedom to explore and create you’ll all end up being happier with the finished work.

Iterative work is difficult to wrap your head around

Iteration produces the best results. It’s proven time and time again. But iterative work is difficult to evaluate in structured environments. It’s important for both clients and designers to understand what part of the problem you’re addressing with the current effort and when you’ll be addressing the other parts.

Designers, like everyone else, are motivated by deadlines

The quality of work I see from students before the final weeks of the class is typically unimpressive. But, what happens between then and the due date for the final work to be turned in is magical. This is true for your design team as well. It’s not to say that it’s unreasonable to expect to see progress throughout an engagement, but it’s important to have confidence in your team to come through for you in the end. If it’s not something you feel confident about, it’s time to have a conversation with your designer.

When to hire a website design studio

Knowing when to hire a design team is one of those things that can appear to be a simple decision, made during a meeting (“Well, we need to get on that – let’s put a team together, STAT!”) but in reality it can be a complex decision process that has very real consequences on your business. This process becomes even more complex as more and more companies begin to build their own internal design team. With a team in place there’s an inclination to say that they can handle whatever design needs might arise. Maybe this is true – but not likely. There are just a few key rules to keep in mind that will help guide you in the decision to pick up the phone or not. Man discovering reasons to hire a design agency Generally speaking, you should hire an outside firm when:

You need more capacity.

Having a team of in-house designers in place is a valuable resource. Often, in-house teams can execute on ideas and projects quickly because they have the background and context needed to design whatever is comes up. But in-house designers are bound to the same twenty-four hour days as the rest of us and can only tackle so much at one time. This applies doubly so for teams who don’t have a strong producer or PM trafficking work to them. When it’s a free-for-all with the whole company, designers can easily get bombarded and fall behind – just like the rest of us. If you are finding that your in-house team doesn’t have the time to take on the work in a timely way, it might be time to call in the reserves. Design studios are particularly good at picking-up in times of need and can often throw more resources at a problem than in-house teams because they are used to working on a variety of project sizes and team structures. Be sure you’re communicating with your in-house team about this – what’s being requested, who’s going to be helping out, and what expectations are being placed on the in-house team as a result of this. Most design groups play well with others so it’s reasonable to expect that that the teams can collaborate with one another. The most important thing is to be sure you’re communicating about roles and responsibilities. Nobody likes to redo work and it gets costly so if your in-house creative director has specific views on exactly which shade of aqua-blue should be used for headlines, the whole team should be made aware of that.

You need specialization

In house design teams are often very skilled generalists. Especially when design isn’t the core business activity (e.g. you don’t sell products because of their design) it’s often the case that a design group needs to be able to work on the website, layout a brochure, and design a booth for the upcoming tradeshow. This works fine until you need someone who can design the a highly-optimized checkout system for your website, or who can design a native iOS app to feature your products. When your in-house team is not focused on an area of specialization, it’s smart to bring in an expert. This will often result in a more efficient and higher quality outcome. Studios and agencies often have these specialists on-hand, or have resources to bring them in when it makes sense. Again, the same rules listed above apply – make sure everyone know what their roles and responsibilities are and what the review chain looks like.

You need outside perspective.

Finally (and probably the design firm’s favorite one) – there are times when your in-house team is just too close to the problem. Maybe they are drinking the Kool-Aide too much, maybe they feel their internal culture won’t let them think broadly enough – but whatever the reason, sometimes an outsiders perspective can help jar something loose and make for better work. I’ve seen this first hand where simply coming in as an outsider gave me permission to ask some questions that if I were an in-house designer, I wouldn’t be allowed to ask. They might have seemed too stupid, or challenged the current thinking too blatantly, but as a vendor it was easy to say, “Why are you doing it that way? It seems like it’s a lot of work for both you and your customer…” Getting outside perspective on a problem does require that you, as the client, are willing to hear the designer out. Good designers are very skilled at gathering inputs, forming a conclusion and stating that conclusion. Good clients are skilled at providing those inputs and hearing those conclusions. If you’re hiring an outside firm for this purpose, be sure you’re ready to get what you’re asking for. Obviously, there are any number of special circumstances that necessitate hiring an outside firm to help your company out, but these rough-guidelines should help you identify if your situation qualifies at a basic level. The role of design in business is in a state of great change and defining how it fits into your business is something that every company is struggling with these days. Look to your designers to help identify when it’s time to call on a design partner – sometimes, but not always, it’s the best call you can make.

A guide to better copy writing for your website

First off, we’re excited about your involvement in writing the copy for your website. To help you be as successful as you can, we thought we’d share a few key things that we’ve observed over the years–some general guidelines for writing and editing copy that should help you create better content for your site.
Microphone, but just one of them

Use a single person’s voice:

If at all possible, have one person write all the copy for your site. This might mean having various members write copy and then choosing one person to rewrite others’ copy. This is important because it creates a unified voice and makes for a more consistent user experience.
Person sleeping to give an idea some time before publishing

Set up a good process

If you can avoid it, don’t publish the same day you write. Give yourself a least a day to let it rest. Then review and edit before it goes live.
Large hand holding a pencil under decorations

Have a clear goal

Before you start to write, simply jot down what you want to achieve with the copy you’re about to write.
Nerd using buzzwords and jargon but it just doesn't make sense

Avoid Jargon

We all do it – using those twenty-five cent words that make us sound like experts. If there’s a more simple way to say it, then say it that way. Instead of “deploying a communication platform” maybe try “using online chat”.
Two parallel lines flying into the sky

Be consistent

If you refer to your site’s visitors as “users” instead of “customers” then be sure you always refer to them the same way.
DCUX crossed out because it's an acronym

Avoid abbreviations and acronyms

They may be shorter, but they aren’t necessarily more clear. Some exceptions where it’s okay to use them are dates, times, places, numbers, common technical terms, and formats (CD, DVD, JPG, etc).
Bar graph showing how someone is making it rain by using better calls to action

Better Calls-to-action

For calls-to-action start with a verb and keep it under five words. Instead of labeling a button with “More Info About Our Products and Services” try “Discover our Products & Services”, or even better, “Learn more”.
Two links in a chain together as one

For linked text, include descriptive info in the list.

Instead of saying “To learn more about our suite of business intelligence products, click here.” try, “We offer a full suite of business intelligence products.” – It’s better for SEO and is easier to scan.
Cartoon smiley face that is waving to you

Be friendly

The web can be a tricky place for users to navigate. They make mistakes and get confused. Treat you visitors with a friendly tone at all times.
Profile view of a fancy poodle dog

Think about context and content

Does what you’re saying correspond to other pieces of content on the page? If you’re adding text right next to a screenshot, that text better have something to do with the screenshot.
Letter 'T' overlapping the corner of a box

Keep your headlines short and active

Use short, active phrases or sentences for headlines. Instead of “We’re working to build a vibrant community” try “We’re building vibrant community.”
Open book with a pair of glasses over it

Proofread.

Simply put, we’d be negligent if we didn’t say this. Check for typos as well as inaccurate word use (they’re/there/their) which software isn’t great at checking for.
Bullet point list

Think short copy with lists:

In general, approach the copy for your site as if nobody is going to read it. With this in mind, you’ll write less and make it more succinct which is a good thing. Also, consider using lists as much as you can without sacrificing readability. Chunking information out like this helps visitors easily scan content to find the information they are looking for.
Typewriter

Consider some tools.

Hemmingway is a great (free) web app that gives you instant feedback on the quality of your writing. Check out Product Hunts Tools for Writers collection for more ideas.