Is design really just decoration?

By: Mark Kaplan

Historically, design has been an afterthought, the philosophy behind it being, “Build something, then we’ll employ design afterwards to improve its appeal.” That being said, as Mike Monteiro describes in You’re My Favorite Client, bringing in designers once a product has been built is “akin to baking a cake, and then hiring a baker to make it taste good.”

In today’s competitive marketplace, solid user experience design is a key advantage—you can’t succeed without it. Products can no longer succeed simply because they work—there are too many other products competing for your users’ attention. Users want to be impressed, and starting with exceptional UX design is a necessity to achieve that.

##Visual design refinement can be left for later.

Involving design brings up another common misconception that begs the question, “What is exactly is included in design?” If we narrowly define design as color, typography, pattern, and layout, then it is understandable how that might be left for later.

There are a few instances when it does make sense to begin a project with visual design—particularly for branding and marketing campaigns. If you’re tasked with designing a digital experience for disinfectant wipes, you could use a design sprint to create and test visuals-and-copy concepts. You might come out with two concepts: one around “a mother’s instinct to care for her family” and the other “the inconvenience of taking a sick day.”

Without a strong visual component, it would tough to communicate these emotional concepts to potential consumers to gauge their response. One or more additional sprints could be used to flesh out the features and functionality of a campaign and application that leverage the concept that emerged from that initial sprint.

However, in most of the projects we encounter, we’re not designing visual branding elements in isolation. Rather we’re working out complex experiences for products and services, along with the visual identity, the sum total of which become the brand. In these, it does not make sense to lead with visual design. In order to design and create an effective, well-done user experience, one must establish who the users are, what the goals are for the product, and validate the product’s workflows.

##What’s there beyond visual design?

A designer can barely cross the road without considering the systems and forces in place that are behind a variety of scenarios. While one potential solution for a poorly-designed crosswalk is creating a better-looking sign, most of the work behind that decision will be strategically thinking about the systems behind the crosswalk and relevant interactions.

Many parts of our design-first approach to business problems at DockYard could go by different names. Here are some examples that are crucial to its process despite not being initially associated with design:

###Product strategy As designers, we ask lots of questions about why and how a product will serve its users, while at the same time achieving business goals of the product owner.

###Research Research at the early stages of a project can prevent expensive mistakes later down the line. Questions we ask could include:

  • “Does your audience actually want the product?”
  • “What does the audience think the product does?”
  • “Does your audience exist? Is there a viable market for this product?”

###Planning Once we start building, we discuss what should be built first and how production can be implemented in manageable chunks, with testing and check-ups in between. We examine if there are certain parts of the product or service and any differences between them.

###Testing Having real users perform a specific task on a real product or a prototype is the only way to discover whether it actually works in the way which you expect. Moreover, user research allows you to potentially uncover and fix glitches early. User tests are more valid and the data is more authentic if an outside party helps run the tests in an impartial manner.

###Setting up goals & measures Finally, we operationally define success and how to measure that success. By setting a baseline early on, you have a standard to which to compare later performance.

Planning, testing, and research are all parts of design. When applied early, these exercises are magnified in terms of effectiveness. Afterwards, during the product development stage, we’ll have some basis for making each of the hundreds decisions that go into your product.