Taking the Guesswork Out of Design

Creativity breathes life into successful websites. However, creative ideas and solutions can sometimes seem like guesswork — and guessing is risky business. So what can designers do to show clients they’re using a solid strategy and have the best intentions?

5th May, 2009

The following exercises are a great way to start discussing and documenting aspects of design to help clients shed their fear of creativity and encourage them to join the design process.

Set clear goals

Some people feel they know why a website should exist, but struggle to create direct and measurable goals. Ambiguous goals force people to assume things, and assumptions can lead to broken expectations — which can, in turn, destroy trusting relationships. Goals such as “selling more stuff” or “getting more exposure” are vague and provide little direction.

A modified acceptance criteria exercise is the simplest and most effective tool I’ve found for setting clear and powerful goals. Agile developers use acceptance criteria to demonstrate why tasks need to happen and define how they fit into the big picture. With a few tweaks, it works perfectly for capturing design goals.

Example request:

Example goal template:

Example goals:

Notice how separating “the means,” “the reason,” and “the ends” clarifies the project owner’s goals and describes why they want them and how they intend to achieve them. Acceptance criteria for design is a great way to flush out deeper, possibly unknown, intentions that will help the designer and project owner make better decisions and dodge surprises later in the process. Revise the goals until all parties agree on them and understand them.

Bonus points: Create several goals so that you can capture secondary and tertiary goals, but don’t let it get out of hand—no single website should have more than a handful of high-level goals.

Organize the pages

People will grow fond of a website where they can accomplish their goals without having to think. Users’ mental energy should be spent on solving their problems, not figuring out how the website works.

Card sorting is a great way to organize a website. To conduct a card sort, list all the pages of your website and write their titles on index cards. Then, lay the cards out on a table and move them around until all the categories and subcategories make the most sense.

If you can’t card sort in person or don’t have the time for card sorting as a team, try collaborating online with a spreadsheet. Here’s an example of a New Zealand investment website created in Google Docs using fictitious statistics:

A list of categorized web pages and view counts for each web page.
An example of card sorting using a spreadsheet.

If you’re working on a redesign, consult analytics to find out which pages are getting high and low traffic. It’s a great opportunity to figure out where the design’s content is over and under served. Then, tighten and combine similar pages and separate and simplify complex pages.

Even after the official design process, a good card sorting exercise can greatly increase the usability and effectiveness of a website. It’s a smart practice that can keep a website relevant and effective. To learn more about how it’s done, read this great book on card sorting.

Bonus points: Card sort with someone unfamiliar with the company to spot biases and get unexpected feedback.

Lay out the pages

Next, we need to develop a solid understanding of the design’s visual hierarchy. Enter attention maps and a little bit of math.

An attention map is a list of goals for a page with point values assigned to each goal. Allow just enough points to see a good distribution, but not too few that you force a lot of similar point values. The idea is to get a firm understanding of how the goals relate to each other so you can form a solid hierarchy of content.

Example point distribution:

Example result:

An attention map is more effective than a prioritized list because it helps determine how much space to dedicate to each goal on the page. Since the service description has three points more (almost twice as many) than the benefits of use, you can bet the service description needs a lot of attention.

A large rectangle divided into smaller labelled rectangles that are sized appropriately to their value score.
Use attention maps to classify areas of importance on a webpage.

Sketching out options that fit the goals, organization, and attention map should now be straightforward and strategic. There will probably be a lot less sketcher’s block!

Bonus points: When you’re done, try flipping the sketches over, or look at them through a mirror to see if they still work. Critiquing your own sketches, including the odd mirror sketch, can generate a lot more ideas.

Develop a personality

A strong archetype can create an immediate and powerful emotional bond. An archetype is a group of characteristics and traits that are commonly seen in groups of people of any language, history, and size around the world. Every archetype has strengths, weaknesses, gifts, and fears. When you apply these aspects of personality without shame, people will identify emotionally with a design. This helps strengthen memory and build trust.

The Hero and the Outlaw, by Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson, powerfully captures 12 archetypes covering nearly every aspect of humanity.

The archetypes:

If you choose the outlaw (think Harley Davidson), start critiquing everything you do against the outlaw’s traits. You might be surprised at the amount of new and interesting ideas generated.

Outlaw traits:

If you can keep this “personality” consistent through different designs, consider applying it to other areas where customer interaction happens, and pay close attention to customer reactions. You’ll build a very strong brand.

Bonus points: People often confuse their company’s personality with their own. Determine the archetype of the project owner and other key people involved to differentiate individual personalities from the company personality.

Define the fit and finish

Design traits directly support and reinforce content. Unfortunately, traits are very hard to boil down to a visual style that’s consistently understood across a large audience. It’s good to have groups of opposing traits to create boundaries. This helps you clarify the specific look of the design and gives you something to measure and critique against when the design is up for review.

A great way to do this is to figure out the opposing traits that significantly affect the design and put them on sliding scales. Here’s an example:

A spectrum with calm one side and lively on the other.
An example of a sliding scale used to define opposing design traits.

With trait scales, the designer can get a real sense for how things should feel to the website visitor. If the designer’s idea of “lively” is too intense, it will be easy to debate where it lies on the calm vs. lively scale and adjust accordingly. This can generate a lot more constructive criticism than “it’s too intense.”

Add, delete, and change the trait scales as needed. But remember that the criteria needs to be measurable and debatable. A trait such as “high tech” is too dependent on the tastes and opinions of the designer. Most of the time, a specific trait such as “high-tech” will be a combination of broader traits, including “modern,” “simple,” and “formal”—all of which can be easily placed on a scale and discussed by people without design backgrounds.

Bonus points: After the project, evaluate which sets of traits had the most impact on the project’s success and keep track of any sets that you wish you had put in.

Design confidently

A solid and common understanding of goals, organization, layout, personality, and fit and finish will create an environment in which you (and the project owner) can rely on rigorously discussed and well documented ideas. Together, you’ll create smaller margins of error, purposeful exploration, fewer broken expectations, and, ultimately, a better design.

Originally published as Taking the Guesswork Out of Design on A List Apart.

Decoupling Usability and Visuals

Design is often seen as a subjective and creative pursuit. I tend to agree, but feel that the more subjective and detached you are from specific strategic goals, the more problems will arise.