Designing for Clients: Thinking Beyond How It Looks

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I’ve jotted down some thoughts on design, especially for the type of work we do at Barrel. I’ll refer to them collectively as “websites” for simplicity purposes, but this can mean mobile apps, web apps, experiential interfaces and anything else that happen on digital screens. I’m going to talk about “the designer”, and in my mind this is anyone who is in the business of creating digital experiences. There are people who specialize and do parts and pieces, especially on larger scale projects, but I think the following points are worthwhile for any designer to consider:

  • The designer should always strive to make websites that look aesthetically pleasing. This is achieved through foundational understanding of how graphic elements and characteristics work together: shapes, type, images, colors, layout, opacity, spacing, and sizes. By having the basics down, the designer can hone in on challenges specific to the website.
  • The designer needs to explore the who and why in depth. Who is this website for? Why does it need to happen? Going in-depth requires careful understanding of contexts:
    • For understanding the who: examining who the people (the end users of the website) are and how they can be defined and segmented in a way that groups common behaviors and needs; when and how they are interacting with the website; what mindset they are in when they land on the website (are they looking for something?); how they got to the website (via a trusted source? search? random click?); the actions that are desired of the end users; the underlying motivation and triggers that led to the end users coming to the website; the possible flows an end user can take through the website; assumptions or conventional behaviors that end users are bringing to the site
    • For understanding the why: the business or organizational need for this website and what role this website plays in the overall marketing, product, or other organizational strategy; the desired outcomes and success metrics; what’s at stake and who is tasked with the responsibility of seeing this website through; how the website is funded
  • The designer will benefit from justifying and tying design decisions to “how it will impact the user’s behavior” rather than “how good it looks”. This means that beyond understanding the context of the end users that come to the website, the designer will need to use research and conduct tests to help aid in design decisions that address how the end user will perceive and interact with the website. This is where the lines between aesthetics and interaction become blurry because certain decisions that seem aesthetic (e.g. imagery, typography, colors, spacing, etc.) may influence users to feel a certain way and impact their behavior. The more designers can explain their designs from a position of studied facts and research, the more confident they can be about what they put forward. An example: rather than talk about how a certain palette of colors were chosen because they look and feel nice, put in the research and come up with a strong reason to back the decision that X, Y, and Z colors were chosen because studies show that such colors activate certain behaviors in users and that the colors will also help differentiate the website experience from A, B, and C competitors that are doing it in this other way.
  • Designers should have a strong grasp on the possibilities and limitations of the technology that’s available to implement their designs. This might mean independent research and tinkering around with code. It could also mean deep discussions with developers and technical architects to shed light on topics like performance, cross-platform compatibility, and database configuration. This understanding will help designers define constraints that fall in line with a website’s budget and timelines while pushing the limits of the technological approach.
  • Designers should be eager to observe end user behavior over time and come up with experiments to optimize and improve the experience. This iterative process teaches real lessons and reveals a great deal about what works and what doesn’t. Every design that designers suggest should come with a very strong recommendation that it is a hypothesis and that only evaluating the results and trying new approaches will lead to meaningful improvements. This is often hard to do in client engagements that clamor for “fresh, new, and exciting” designs, but designers should certainly try their best to make the case for such an approach.

When the above areas are considered, the designer can elevate the practice of design to be about problem-solving and human interaction. And whether the goal of the website is to tell a story to raise brand awareness, to encourage an e-commerce transaction, to enable more efficient workflows, or to generate new leads, the designer will see that making things beautiful is just the tip of the iceberg and that there is so much more to design than what looks good.

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