Design is a concept that’s often (ironically) muddled, especially in the technical world. What makes you spend seconds on one website but get lost clicking around on another? What makes you swipe right on certain apps and delete others to save storage space on your phone?
It’s a topic J. Cornelius has spent his career pondering. As the founder and president of the Atlanta Web Design Group, a 3,000+ member association of web designers, developers, and marketers, a former ATDC mentor, and the founder of Nine Labs, a design, branding, and development agency, Cornelius has helped hone the design and brand of InterContinental Hotels, the City of Atlanta, and more. Now, he’s putting his passion for biz building to work for others by offering startups an Experts On Demand service, geared for small and early-stage businesses to access the Nine Labs team’s expertise on without the commitment of a full-time employee or an agency on retainer.
To prove why you even need to think about design in the first place, Cornelius sat down with Hype to give us a taste of technical design. Settle in to learn as he explains the basic principles of good design, the difference between UX and UI (yes, there is one!), and how bad design can end up costing you a lot more than just an unattractive app interface.
Why bother with design thinking? What does a good design lend to your product?
Most people think design is about how something looks, but it’s so much more. Ultimately, design is a process that solves problems. How something looks and works — good or bad — is a result of that process.
Before we go further, “design thinking” is just the latest buzzword people are using to make the process sound sexy for startups and VCs. It’s really just asking smart questions about what people need and then creating it with those people in mind. A “good design” is the result of having the user’s goals in mind and following a good process to make something that helps them get there. It’s essentially the difference between something people love to use and something they don’t care about.
What are the core principles of technical design?
We always ask these three questions: Is is useful, is it useable, and is it desirable?
Useful can describe a lot of things, like a can opener or a dating app. Sure, it can solve a problem, but that’s not anywhere near enough to be successful. The web is littered with useful apps that nobody uses because they didn’t think about the next step, usability. When something is usable and helps people accomplish a task (opening a can or finding a date), then you start to have a viable product.
But that’s still not enough. Go search the app store for literally any type of app and you’ll find things that might be usable, but they aren’t interesting or exciting. That’s where desirability comes in. If you help someone get something done, and make it fun or interesting, you have a much better chance of success.
We hear the terms “User Experience” (UX) and “User Interface” (UI) a lot. What is the difference between UX and UI, and why do you need to think about both?
They are related, but very different things. UI is the thing you see and interact with. It’s like the steering wheel in your car or the pictures and buttons you push or swipe in an app. It helps create the experience, but is just one factor.
UX is the overall feeling you get from using something. You grab the steering wheel to drive a car, but how you feel while you’re driving is the experience. Getting into a wreck is also an experience, and one you experience through the interface. Taking it back to an app, being frustrated when a button doesn’t do what you expect is part of the experience, like the car wreck. Good UX design should help people avoid those wrecks by thinking about how things will be used and creating something that works the way they expect it to.
How do you begin to identify what makes your product unique and translate that to the user experience design?
You don’t set a goal to be unique and then try to make your app different just for sake of being different. There are lots of established patterns that can help make apps easier to use right from the start. For example, Tinder brought swiping into the mainstream. You swipe right for a match. What do you think would happen if you made your app swipe left for a match just to be unique? Disaster.
It’s much better to think about what task or goal your user is trying to accomplish, then find creative ways to help them do it. Maybe that’s using artificial intelligence or machine learning to anticipate what they want before they want it, but maybe it’s as simple as making it easier for them to find what they’re looking for in the first place.
Reducing friction for people is a powerful way to make something they enjoy using. An example might be how Apple Maps now let’s you book a Uber or Lyft from the same screen where you get directions. No more copying the location from Maps into Lyft. They reduced what was kind of a pain into one tap on the screen.
How does design differ when thinking about a website versus an app versus a physical product?
Obviously you have constraints like the device the user has, how big the screen is, are they on wifi or cellular, etc. If it’s a physical product you have a whole other set of issues like size, weight, materials, color. It goes on and on.
Ultimately the process is the same. You have to understand those constraints and make decisions that work within them. That’s the design process.
How do you use simple design to translate a complex product or service to the general public?
That’s a billion-dollar question. Literally. One of the hardest things to do is make something simple for a lot of people. Part of the success of smartphones is due to the original iPhone introducing simple ways for people to interact with it. All you had was tap, scroll, and sometimes zoom. No fancy gestures or complex stuff to remember. A lot of it is continually asking yourself and your team, “Is this the simplest possible way it can work?” If the answer is no then you have more work to do, and sometimes that can get really expensive. The only way to avoid getting stuck is to rely on the expertise of people who’ve solved lots of different kinds of problems.
How do you ensure aesthetics don’t trump functionality? How do you find that balance?
Frank Lloyd Wright famously said “Form follows function.” While that’s true, for many of the things we’re creating today, it’s more nuanced than that. The look and feel, as people like to call it, is essential to creating a feeling of quality and trustworthiness. An app or product has to look good and work well. That said, making something work is always more important. People can endure a lackluster look and feel if the app helps them get things done.
Just look at Craigslist. It won’t win a beauty pageant, but there’s a reason no startup has been able to disrupt them. It’s easy to use and helps people get things done. A lot of Craiglist’s success is the network effect of the quantity of users, but if it really wasn’t functional people would stop using it and adopt something else. Lots of companies have tried and failed. That tells you something.
How can you continue to evolve and mature your design as your product and company matures?
You have to adopt an attitude of humility and continual improvement. You have to constantly listen for what people need and what they’re trying to accomplish. Listen to your customers. They’ll tell you everything you need to know. You do have to be careful, though, and listen to what they’re not telling you. Read between the lines and look for macro trends.
Ultimately, design is about solving problems. Choose a problem to solve and fall in love with it. Falling in love with one solution — especially the first one you think of — is a road to failure, so you have to be willing to adapt. Take advantage of the expertise of people who have lots of experience making things like the thing you’re trying to make. Get talented designers to help you. Make the investment in a good design process and you’re much more likely to build something people want to use.
And if you think good design is expensive, you should see how much bad design costs. There was a study that showed companies who embrace good design process outperform their competitors by up to 200 percent. That’s massive!
Learn more about how you can access Nine Labs Experts on Demand service here.
This post is in partnership with Nine Labs.