It’s been over a year since I realized that “design” job titles are really high in demand. Everyone wants to be a designer — UX Designer, UI Designer, Interaction Designer, Product Designer, Customer Experience Designer, Motion Designer, etc. You name it. Actually no, everyone can be a designer. Many people take design courses, attend workshops, learn design tools to be a designer. Everyone wants to solve problems by designing good products. This makes me think “If everyone is a designer, how can I be a good designer?” If many people are good designers, how can I be a great designer?
I’ve been working as UX Designer, UI Designer, UX Researcher, or whatever the terms are. I go to work, design things, catch up with the latest design trend, but somehow I feel like something is missing. I’ve also worked with so many designers and they are awesome. They can deliver great designs. But that feeling is still there. So I tried to step out for a bit to think what can help me to not just have a “designer” title but actually be a real designer.
By the way, please note that I wrote this article for myself. It’s not that I know how to be a good designer (hey, I’m still a student and I’m still learning), it’s just about things for me to keep in mind what I should not forget when I design things, for me to be a better designer, which means to be a better human being. I know, it sounds super cheesy, but I believe that is what designers want to do: to help people solve their problems.
1. Learn more about human
Recently, design relates more to “problem solving” rather than “making things pretty”. It’s not unusual anymore to use Human-centered or People-centered term in design, because design focused on what people do. I personally have been learning Human-centered design since I was in school about 5 years ago, but it’s still hard to understand how people behave. In my opinion, learning about human is much more complex than learning science or math (well, I’m bad at those subjects too) because human is dynamic. So when we make something for people, we need to think beyond functionality and usability.
When people asked me “What’s your inspiration when you design?” I quickly replied “how people interact”. I don’t know why though. And yep, still abstract. But I think if we want to design for people, we should start from people: how they do, think, and interact. There’s no easy way to learn about human, but we can start by doing more observation or just talk to people.
The one facet of user experience that connects all these new types on interactions is the senses. It turns out that sensory experience is the key to human experience. — Christine W. Park & John Alderman
In their book, “Designing Across Senses”, Christine W. Park and John Alderman mentioned that everything human know, do, and say happens through senses. We enjoy music, see beautiful scenery, eat delicious foods, feel summer heat, we experience joy and empathy through our senses. We understand how the world works through our senses as well. So as a designer who design things for people, we should understand how people experience in the first place. And people experience the world through senses.
2. Go out and see the world
Have you ever thought why people are more happy in summer? Why people are having good mood when they are in the park?
I like to spend some time outside doing nothing and just watch people. It’s interesting to watch how people interact, either with others or technology. I feel like this will help me understand more about human.
When my boss asked me to design things, I often jumped on my sketch book or my laptop looking for inspiration, doing some researches, or sketching my ideas. By the end of the day, my brain was exploded because of too much thinking of assumptions. I realized that I can’t just sit and work on my laptop all day thinking how to solve people’s problem (but yeah, I do agree that we sometimes need to do more research by googling it).
As the web becomes an overlay on our physical reality and everyday objects come alive with embedded intelligence, we must evolve new ways to interact with our technology. — David Pescovitz
A good design is a design which people can easily understand, which in the other hand, relates to their everyday life. People do what they do because they interact with physical or digital information from the world. Either designing a physical product or digital product, we need to know why people behave the way they do. And we wouldn’t know if we don’t see them interact in real life.
3. Be a detective, ask questions
Every time I made projects at school, my professor always asked whole bunch of question, like “Why do you want to make it? Why is it like this? Why do you use this?” Oh my god, why why and why. Too many whys. But now I realize that we shouldn’t be ashamed to ask a lot of why. Instead, we have to.
If we can’t answer the why, then don’t do it.
When I was a kid, I always thought that the only profession that could solve a problem was a detective. Detectives are cool. They investigate in depth about a case and try to solve it, to help people. So, aren’t designers similar to detectives? Since designers are now related to problem solving, shouldn’t we also act and think like detectives?
I hate it when I design something just because I have to. I know to seek for answers takes a lot of time, and sometimes we just don’t have that much time. But believe me, asking a lot of questions in the beginning will make our design much clearer and more understandable. If we don’t understand what we’re trying to solve, then how the users will know how to use our products?
4. Break the rules if you need to
Hey, rules are made to be broken right? Just kidding. To be honest, I often have a debate in my head when I’m making a decision.
Me: “Hey, we have to make it consistent. We need to follow the guidelines.”
Also me: “Why do we have to make it consistent or the same style as the style guide?”
Me: “Because consistency will help the user understands better, duh!”
Also me: “Yeah, but it depends on the context right?”
Me: “Hmm screw it.”
I believe guidelines are made to help designers design quickly and to make it consistent. I also believe there’s a research behind the guidelines (or not?). But sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t.
How do you make a bicycle? Of course we need two wheels, two pedals, a saddle, chains, breaks, a handlebar, right? Not really. It depends on who’s going to use it. It depends on what our users’ goal is. It depends on the context.
It is ok to be inconsistent if it makes sense to have a different form or style if it brings more value to the context. It’s better to be right than consistent. — Unknown
Don’t follow guidelines if we don’t know why. Don’t design just because it’s on the guidelines.
Good design is the by-product of a proper contextual evaluation, not a whimsical creation out of context, no matter how brilliant its visual aspect may be. Brilliant design solutions have always taken into consideration the contextual consideration — Massimo Vignelli
5. Don’t just design
Until recently, I never really paid attention to the project requirements detail. On the current project that I’m working on right now, my boss gave me a folder of functional requirements, scope, contents, and all their friends that I couldn’t remember because they are too many. “I’m a designer not a product manager, I don’t need to know all these in detail.” Turned out I was wrong. So wrong. Knowing all these is actually help me understand more about the product. That way, it helps me make a decision in terms of design.
Sometimes we really need to step back and learn various things. Talking more to developers and learn how to code won’t hurt. Instead, it makes us having more understanding about technical stuff. Hanging around marketing people will help us learn more about the market and how we can tell people about our product. Meddling with product managers will benefit us from making quick decision and appreciate ideas and concepts. Lastly, my boss often says “Don’t rely on your design. No matter how great your design is, if you can’t communicate it, it’s useless.”
6. Don’t think about the user, if we don’t do it right
My colleague often says thinking about the user all the time is bullshit. It takes all of our energy to think about them, yet we can’t satisfy them. Sometimes we pretend to be our users to create empathy. And it’s not even solving the problem. We do it because everyone do it, always talk about thinking the user in mind. Meh, get over it.
I personally agree with him. I think it’s true that we can’t satisfy all of our users. We put too much time and energy to think about all small issues that our users might face. Yes, it’s a bullshit. If we don’t do it right.
Trying to please everyone is a recipe for stress, misery, lost resources and frustration. So don’t be afraid to lose people, be afraid to lose your vision — Unknown
Who is our real user? Me vs. the world and me vs. a group of people are significantly different. We’re more focus on their needs if we’re doing it for specific people that we keep in mind. Don’t worry about the rest. Their time will come.
7. Have an eye for details
A small difference can make a huge impact. Attention to detail makes for a better experience in any industry. A candy on your pillow at the hotel makes for a more enjoyable traveling experience. A fortune cookie after having a meal in a restaurant makes a more memorable dining experience. Even a scent from bakery shop can make different experience.
Take an example from Apple. They are obsessed with making great user experience. Their first iPad mimicked the look of turning an actual physical page in a book. They even made the page could curl up wherever the user put his finger on the page. It was a silly detail, but it’s important for them to create a Wow experience.
Paying attention to detail can be such a pain in the ass. Not just how can we get the idea to add more value to our product, but also to implement it can take silly number of hours. Last year I made an arcade game-inspired interactive space that allows users to explore physical gestures as controllers to break a virtual surface. The main objective of the project was to make users felt good by releasing their anger through physical interaction such as smashing and screaming. So, I needed to know whether the user was actually smashing it or just touching or pressing it. Since it would make a totally different feedbacks.
Oh boy, differentiating those interactions in development phase took me forever. First, we learned how people do those interactions, then we did the math, calculated the pressure and time, and programmed it. It was a silly long process only for a small difference. But, it was worth it. It considered an investment in creating our own unique user experience.
The difference between mediocrity and excellence is attention to detail. It can be what separates the good from the great. — Unknown
8. Don’t get too obsessed
I usually didn’t want to deliver something that’s not perfect. I could spend a really long time to do observation, research, and think about every single problem the users might have. I did’t want to give up yet if I couldn’t come up with a good solution. Because I want to make the users happy. But then I realized I sacrificed time (and my brain, of course). Not just my time, but many people’s time (and time is money): the client, the developers, product manager, etc. I got too obsessed with seeking every single problem the users might have.
Just because our product is released, doesn’t mean our job is done. — My boss
That sentence my boss told me really hit me. Until recently I only thought from a designer’s perspective. “A good designer respects each other’s time.” We always say that we need to think from user’s perspective, but why don’t we also think from developer’s perspective or from product manager’s perspective?
“It’s okay if you screw up, if your design doesn’t really work now. Our product is growing, there’s always an iteration.” Hit me twice. Yes, iteration. I realized I made everything too complicated. I felt like it was our responsibility to deliver a good product that’s problem-free.
“Get married to the problem, not your solution.” But, don’t get too obsessed with it. There’s a design cycle. Iteration helps us discover more insights about our product. When we have design cycle in mind, we won’t make it too hard on ourselves. That way, we can simplify our mind to focus on the priority. Respect the time, and also our brain.
I believe there are many more things what designer should or shouldn’t do. I also believe that we won’t stop learning to be a better designer. These are the things that just came up in my head right now, from my experience, mostly as UX designer. Anyway, feedback or comment? I’ll really appreciate it!