The designer is not here to make it look pretty
I recently turned down a well-paid agency gig. It was for a set of front-end designs for a well-known celebrity website and would probably have looked good in the portfolio. As the designer I was drafted in at the last minute to make it look pretty. Make the logo bigger and get the fonts to pop, that sort of thing.
A few years back I would have jumped on a brief like this but age and experience set alarm bells ringing. Once again, my role in the project was to give Malibu Stacy a new hat.
The site structure had been wireframed out by the account exec. There were some notable bumps in the user journey but when I suggested some improvements to the UX I was told it had already been signed off. As had the teeny-tiny light weights of fonts selected, which looked great in print but had terrible on-screen legibility. As the designer, I would undoubtedly be criticised for these poor decisions when the site went live.
Why do you need this design? Who is it for?
To design a successful product I need to know why I am designing it. I need to get to know the client’s business and its pain points. What problem is this design trying to solve? How will this be measured, tested and refined over time? Ultimately, how does this make a difference to the bottom line? Without this, it’s just a pretty picture in Photoshop. As a young and inexperienced designer I was guilty of many of these pictures.
I’ve been offered agency briefs with no mentioned of who the target audience is, “use this site as a template and the same colours as Beyonce’s site”. Someone actually said this to me. User personas are often criticised but I do think it’s important to identify key users and step through the user journey in their shoes. You need something to measure your design decisions against, otherwise it’s just down to your personal preference. Or Beyonces.
Last year, I decided to stop doing agency work because of this lack of direct contact with the client. I’ve worked for some truly lovely agencies over the years but I’ve never once met the client I am designing a website for. I’ve never had any input into the design process, other than producing the pretty pictures at the end. From the agency perspective I am the hired hand, a cog in the workflow, something to tick off the project plan. As a designer it’s a pretty soulless and unfulfilling way to pay the rent. I’ve seen big businesses pay tens of thousands for the privilege of this broken workflow and the end product has often made a little sad.
Let’s fix this broken workflow!
Get everyone involved together at the start of a project for a UX design session. If you’re engaging freelancers on the job, bring them onboard early and include them in briefing sessions. This seems a no-brainer, it will save time explaining it all again later on.
A user journey that has been considered and mapped out on paper, then prototyped and tested on real users will always result in a superior product. I’m not talking fancy usability lab stuff here. Low-fi hand-drawn mockups with post-its overlays are just as effective. Test and refine design work throughout the project, ideally on real users. Take advantage of the designer’s experience. A UI/UX designer is here to solve your problems, not to make it look pretty.