The foundations of design excellence

What are the key ingredients of outstanding design? A practical, goal-oriented view.

Last update: September 2013. 

What are the most important principles to follow, in order to produce great designs, from both a practical and ideological level? So far, I came up with this list, based on my experience and the experiences of the most talented designers I came across:

1. Master the theory. A good designer needs to know very well both the theory and the practical implications of disciplines such as visual design, cognitive psychology, interaction design, information architecture, typography, ergonomics. You must also know how web technologies work. The nature of design can easily give the illusion that everybody could be a designer, the truth is that being a good designer requires a lot of knowledge and a lot of effort.

2. Create a list of activity-centered requirements and test any design solution against each of them (see my related post Are personas really useful?).

3. Prototype the solutions you wish to implement before you create them. Your product will be the interface itself, fully interactive and documented, rather than a static, black and white idea of how it could work.

4. Test with real users throughout the design and development lifecycle, following an iterative process.

5. Design with excellence: design is not just about problem solving, design is an art, it’s about producing excellence, and generating ideas that connect with our needs and make us feel engaged. With this mindset, the designer can thoughtful and empathetic mindset towards the end users. Quoting Matthew Butterick from his great provocative talk The bomb in the garden: “Solving prob­lems is the low­est form of design. Because de­sign wants more from us. It wants our hu­man­i­ty. It wants our op­ti­mism. It wants our hon­esty. It wants our ideas for what a bet­ter world looks like.”

Now some considerations:

Activity-centered requirements: what I mean here is something very close to scenarios, but actually the extended and wordy description used in the case of scenarios is not always required and achievable, so I am using a different wording. Activity-centered requirementsare rarely used as a designed tool the way they should be. While personas are very popular, and practically not very useful for a number of reasons, scenarios as activity-centered criteria for the evaluation of the design solution are undoubtedly underestimated. Organizations often have business priorities that keep them far from the real needs of the end users and the way tasks are expected to be achieved in a specific context of use. The result is design solutions that fail to target key features that people would find useful or do not allow to achieve tasks the way they should be achieved in a real situation.

Testing has become a common practice, but having seen many usability testing sessions being performed by different companies, I noticed how far these session can be from a real user experience scenario, and therefore, how misleading usability testing can sometimes be.

Design excellence: there’s a very interesting book on how design should be thoughtful and empathetic, it’s called The shape of design (by Frank Chimero). On a more practical level, I’d recommend my post on Why interaction design should not replace visual communication, based on Bret Victor’s examples.