Designing is like creating a language to communicate with the users. The shape and size of letters in the wordmark, the color palette, the refinements on packaging, the phrasing of an error message, the process flow in creating a user account, or the book format – all of these are elements of this language, they are like words that build it. The language should be based on deep understanding of the users’ habits, barriers, expectations, and problems, so that they can feel safe and comfortable in their relationship with a product, service, or brand. “This is great for me”, “This makes me feel good” – these are the desired thoughts, emotions, and reactions.
A good project is built on the basis of the following questions:
This is the basic question to be asked. Getting to know the users is the starting point of any good and effective project.
If you design a sports tracking app for professional cyclists, you want them to use this app. if you write a text (like this one, for instance), you want people to read it. The same applies whenever you design jewelry, banking software, cars, or a cooking blog. You must bear in mind that the designer is not the user of a product. Nor is the client commissioning a project. The audience is someone else – and you need to know them. You need to have them in mind when designing communication. There are no universal products that could satisfy anyone. Even the most common, daily-use objects are not good for everybody. You might think that all people drive cars, drink tea, and use face cosmetics. But if you visit a drugstore, you’ll see numerous lines of specific products designed – and packed – for specific user groups, divided by gender, age, economic status, lifestyle, individual problems, and so on.
Another essential aspect of the design process is informing the users about the very fact of the product’s existence. The nature of the first contact will be different if the users see a product in a packshot photo in an online store (among hundreds of other similar objects), if they hold a box with face cream in a boutique beauty store (they might read the description, touch the refined print, and talk to a qualified salesperson), or if it is presented on social media by a popular influencer.
Empathy is the ability to imagine another person’s perspective, to understand other people’s emotions, needs, and problems, and to interpret this perspective in the context of the environment. You need to take various factors into account: where the users live and with whom, how they spend their free time, what their economic status has been and is going to be, what attitude toward work they represent, and, last but not least, when and in what circumstances they might encounter your product, service, or brand. In this case, you need to find answers to two questions:
→ Who is your audience? → In what circumstances are your users going to meet your product and how are they going to feel using it and afterward?
There is a variety of methodologies that can support designers in their research. These methods can be applied according to the project’s type, size, innovativeness, available budget as well as the size of the team or other individual preferences. The basic approach that I adopt in my work is design thinking combined with other carefully developed tools that come in handy during workshops: empathy mapping, creating user personas, objective setting, and building a customer roadmap (analyzing how your users feel or should feel before they meet a product, when they use it, and afterward). Another useful tool is working with a personalized brief: it is created in cooperation with the client, assuming that the client knows the product’s target group. If you feel well in a given subject (i.e. you have sufficient and substantial knowledge concerning a given field) and if you have adequate experience, you can also make use of intuitive interviews, which simply means asking the users about their problems, interests, needs, and expectations regarding a product.
No matter what method you choose, you need to pay attention to two things: observation and conversation. You need to learn not only to listen, but also to hear well: to make proper conclusions. Your work should result in a definition (or even multiple redefinitions) of a given problem, because you’re going to select your tools based on that exactly.
Products and services are created by people for people. This might sound a bit cliché, but in fact, this truth is often forgotten. When the product is your only goal, you’re likely to overlook the importance of cooperation. For many years now, I’ve worked with Agile teams and I’ve been an avid supporter of teal organizations because I know how successful they can be.
To build an effective and well-coordinated team, you need a motivating working environment, where everyone is respected, supported, and trusted. Trust is particularly important if you work with new technologies and in startups – with anything that is innovative, pioneering, and unexplored. Why is that? Because there are no people who can specialize in every area, who can be experts in everything that is necessary for a project. Teams are made of specialists in various disciplines, who are able to collaborate, respecting their individual know-how and diversity. The diversity of knowledge and experience is also a source of inspiration for everyone if the team is built on mutual trust. Teams that find people and interactions more important than processes and tools react to change and adapt better: they are able to search for new solutions at each stage of the project and they are simply more flexible.
A team is made of:→ A group of specialists you work with→ The client (the commissioning company), who is your partner rather than enforcer of rules→ Anyone you can consult your idea with (your life partner, colleague, neighbor – especially if they belong to the target group).
The characteristics of these groups depend on the scope and complexity of the project. Teams will be different if you design a medical app or a signboard for a local store. What you must always bear in mind, though, is that what matters most is the cooperation with people, collecting feedback, and being flexible.
I remember that when I was an IT student, one of the lecturers claimed that the future of web design lay in Macromedia Flash. Nowadays, the Flash plugin is not supported by search engines anymore. I also remember how one of my friends decided to print his album on the most expensive paper available, with all the print refinements that he could think of, because he had heard somewhere that photographs should be printed that way. What he didn’t think of was that his audience couldn’t afford such an expensive book. The whole edition has been resting in peace in his cellar up to this day. Also, it is said that all self-respective designers work only with Apple devices, eat avocado, and love beagles. Is that really so?
If trends and fashion are your only guides, if you blindly follow your role models, if you’re totally rigid and opinionated, and if you’re unable to hear the voice of your users – your projects will fail even if they look beautiful.
No matter if you choose technological solutions for your end users or tools for your own work, you need to remember that:
→ The needs of the end users should always be your guiding light when selecting tools. Look closely at how and where your product is used. Draw conclusions. React. → Tools should simplify your work. The way they’re operated must be adapted to your skills and the conditions of use. → Trendy doesn’t mean good. Even if something has great reviews on an X website, it may be non-functional for you. → Take the environmental issues into account. Be a conscious consumer and educate others.
Once you’ve answered all of the questions above, found out what and who you design for, analyzed your audience and its environment, improved the communication within the team, and selected the right tools – the most difficult part of the work is done. Now all these elements must be put together.
This stage may be referred to in various ways: idea visualization (translating thoughts into images or words), prototyping (building functional models), or creating initial designs (sketches and mockups). Its goal is to build a model that will be used for testing and gathering feedback before the final solution, product, service, or brand gets launched on the market. Prototyping is not like solving a puzzle or a mathematical equation. There is no single, definite solution. It’s more like a network of visualizations, which bring you closer or take your further away from the original question: is the language you’ve built legible to the user?
Unfortunately, the stage of verifying the idea, testing the prototype, and gathering feedback about the visualization is very often skipped in the design process, even though it is one of the most important aspects of designing. It is also one of the most difficult moments for the designer and the team, as all their work gets scrutinized. What matters here is that the initial design should be tested among the target users in their actual surroundings – in the real applications of the product. Even if the idea seems great, it may fail to meet the requirements and expectations of the users. The preliminary drafts and tests must be repeated until you get satisfactory results – only then can the final product be implemented. Another important issue is setting the objectives: defining clearly what constitutes the successfulness of the project.
Today is Saturday. Last week, I learned about the construction of fishing cutters, I studied the stages of the decomposition of boar remains, I tried to understand people who buy hot-dogs at gas stations, I analyzed the work of a cycling coach, I expanded my knowledge about the renovation of traditional Scandinavian windows, and I tasted teas from the most distant parts of the world. Since you’ve managed to get so far with me, I’ll tell you my secret: design is an adventure.