Learning is a nonstop process. Since graduating from Michigan three years ago, I have learned as much as I did in school. These are some lessons that were the most revealing and useful to me.
Design has to complement business and technology
I used to think a product can succeed solely based on its design. Any decent idea, with a good user interface will result in a successful product. In other words, I had a hammer and every problem looked liked a nail to me.
Don Norman argued that technology has to advance first for innovative breakthroughs. Design research is needed for identifying incremental improvements to existing solutions. But with just design alone we can’t go very far. His message signaled me to get out of my tribal mentality. And realize that design alone is not sufficient for success. It is important to understand the value that technology is bringing to the product. Even as someone who likes to code, this was revealing.
Good business strategy is the third ingredient in successful products. I admire a lot of products that are not commercial successes. Palm pre had some amazing design details that iOS and Android took many years to implement. But it didn’t have the right business strategy and technology. Design has to work with the business strategy. If the business strategy is to increase the sales within the existing customer base, then a completely revamped interface would not work well. I need to understand how the product I’m working on will generate revenue, directly or indirectly.
Everyone doesn’t know design
During grad school, I was surrounded by deadlines, wannabe designers, sticky notes, and MacBooks (in that order). It didn’t occur to me that one day I will work with people who don’t know design. When I started working, I was looking for opportunities to use phrases like contextual inquiry, fitts law, short term memory in my sentences. I think people were polite when they ignored me when I tried too hard.
There is definitely an increasing appreciation for design and usability in the industry. But non-designers don’t speak the design lingo; and I don’t think they have to. It would be useful, but I can’t assume it. This realization changed how I communicate with people. When I start working with someone for the first time, I explain my process in simple terms. While presenting solutions, I explain it from the user’s perspective, instead of a designer’s perspective. Just like physicians who explain how our body works and what went wrong to help the patient understand the situation.
All problems are not equally important
Our lives get more complicated as we grow up. As kids we don’t have todo lists and projects. At some point we start organizing our lives. A similar evolution happened in my approach to problem solving.
I used to focus my energy equally on every aspect of a project. It is so easy to get stuck at designing the signup page. It is an interesting problem, but it is not valuable. Now I get the lay of the land, identify the value of each step and allocate my energy proportionally. Or I try to do this. But prioritization is a skill that takes a lot of practice and I just got started. As I learn to pick my battles, may the odds be ever in my favor.
Fundamentals of design are timeless
Technology has been evolving rapidly. Last year’s technology is already obsolete. I tended to think technology problems are unique to our times. When I was a developer this assumption was correct. Often the issues are specific to the programming tool. As a designer I continued this mindset, getting my information mostly from RSS feeds, Twitter, latest products. I was interested in only the latest and greatest design soutions, thinking, process, etc.
Subconsciously I was trying to follow the current trends in my design solutions. As a result, I would not be able to explain all my design choices. Fortunately, I also read some good books, in addition to online content. As I followed the trail of references from books I liked, I developed a better understanding of the basics of design. Cognitive Psychology especially has given me lot of reliable concepts.
I still catch-up with the latest developments and get inspired by them. But I’m more aware of my design decisions and reasons behind them. Here are the influential books I have read recently that are at least a decade old.
- The Humane Interface taught me about the perils of software mode, designing for short term and long term memory.
- Designing Visual Interfaces, 1994, presents user interface design as a communication problem.
- Semiology of Graphics, originally published in 1967. I’m still reading the book. The theory in the book has given me a very reliable structure to analyze data and map it to a visualization method. Can’t recommed this book enough.
- The Mythical Man Month. This book is about software development. I promise you that most of the examples in the book will be familiar to anyone who has gone through a software release cycle.