Our design team explains, amongst other things, why “What if?” is and always will be, the most important question.
We’ve recently welcomed Jamie Heuze as our Head of Design, and Adam Weekes as our first dedicated UI Designer, and by way of introduction I asked them for their thoughts on 21st century design, the power of process and the difference between UI and UX design.
Tim: ‘Beautiful design. Rock solid engineering. Software built with both sides of the brain’ is the way we describe Dootrix’s approach so that seems like a good place to start. Do you subscribe to the idea of left brain/right brain?
Jamie: I feel it’s a simple metaphor for what we do but it’s not actually correct; it is an easy way to say, “There are people who do creative work and there are people who do logic-based work.” But for me that’s not entirely true, considering today’s digital landscape there are many, including myself that sit in both camps. There are definitely different ways to approach certain types of work but the reason why I think I feel that it’s not the right description for me is that I am a designer who comes from a logic-based background. A lot of my designs come from the fundamentals of mathematics, grid based design systems and user research, most of this is process-driven but I can quickly step it up, work on some illustrations or animations if that helps the user or product achieve what they’re trying to do. Essentially to me everyone is “creative”, thinking creatively to solve problems happens in everyone’s role, the only thing that is different is the tools we use.
Tim: So, when you were at school, pre-college, were you more of a scientist?
Jamie: I did it all. I did science, art, design, advanced maths.
Adam: I only had the option to study fine art, we didn’t have graphics and design at school, but I was always into my sciences and IT. It wasn’t until college that I then had the options to do graphics and animation, and so then I think that’s why I went into the more technical, computer-based disciplines. To combine creativity with logic.
Tim: Do you prefer to start roughly in pen or pencil for ideas?
Adam: I don’t necessarily have to start that way — it is just for when ideas come to me. I could be in a client meeting and they will say something, and I will be like, ‘lightbulb’ and I literally sketch it then and there, even if it is just the scrappiest doodle. But then I might go and reiterate that on the computer.
Jamie: I tend to just rattle through notebooks, mainly just writing notes and sketching wireframes. I have always got a notepad in my pocket. That is just the easiest method to record stuff during the day. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s where I start, I don’t see an advantage of not using the notepad first, or vice versa.
I can probably draw a wireframe digitally faster than I can on pen and paper now. The real advantage of doing it this way is that it becomes a reusable component. The idea is then not dead; it’s not just left in that notebook lost in the back the draw. It is something I could send over to Adam, he can do his work on top of it, it’s now this evolving thing that is shared with everyone.
Tim: So do you ever call yourself a ‘digital designer’? Is that what you see yourselves as?
Jamie: ‘Digital’ is just a platform, a tool. I think ‘Design’ is what we do. I would like to just known as a Designer, I design experiences, sometimes that doesn’t even include going near a sketchpad, computer or any design tool. I could write a scenario for how something should change in a checkout flow, in a physical store, and that to me is still designing.
Adam: Yes. I think about processes that don’t work properly as much as anything. I am in the middle of buying a house and the whole drawn-out process of dealing with solicitors and just dilly-dallying with paperwork back and forth has been so frustrating. There should be this an online account hub where you can go in, upload your files, and see the progress — that it is with a solicitor, or it is being progressed, that it has been accepted or there is an amendment you have got to do, or something like that.
Tim: So, do you find that that comes into it, when you go to a client meeting, that you are thinking in those kinds of processes rather than in imagery or icons or colours?
Jamie: When we get to a client, that first engagement, normally they have an idea of what they want in their head, and nine times out of ten it doesn’t normally end up being that at all. It’s good for us to come in from a completely outside perspective and question everything. Why do they think that this thing is really important in the first place?
Tim: This might be a bit of a leap, but with that in mind, how do you then stay relentlessly focussed on ‘the user’?
Jamie: I would say as a designer you inherently have good intentions to empathise with the user, the reason you’re designing is for them and you want them to keep using it. However, I believe there is a tendency for some to speak on behalf of the user making assumptions of what they need. The most important thing is to go and talk to those users and find out what they want and like.
Adam: That is one of the big things that came out in the stakeholder interviews for a recent client. It wasn’t until I spoke to someone in the call centre, who has the most bugbears and was the most unhappy with the processes in the current system, that we learnt the most. He had all these golden nuggets that you just think, ‘Oh wow! How many hours are you spending on this this process, just because it’s never been thought out correctly?’ I think it was that, when you take a step back and, ‘Right, this whole little section here can be completely redesigned to really help all user bases.’
Tim: At the risk of going back to the left brain / right brain thing, is there a point where you move from a very disciplined, engineering, problem-solving process to where it bounces into the creative — where you get your paint brushes out and go, ‘This is going to be orange and there are going to be fireworks here’?
Jamie: I feel that the process and problem solving is the really creative part. So, yes there is a point, the creativity begins from the moment the project starts.
The process and problem solving is the really creative part. The creativity begins from the moment the project starts.
If we’re using colour and animation as an example, colour is very hard to define, it is based on people’s perception; everyone has a different opinion about it. It is more related to the brand and a feeling, but animation, that is a really interesting one. Animation can be reactive to the user input, you can use it to guide people through an interface. It also helps to tell a story, and I think that is really important when trying to engage with your customer.
Adam: For me, when you start to apply colours and you think about those fancy animations, I don’t think it is, ‘Oh, I like that shade of red.’ It is more, ‘That needs to serve a purpose and that colour or animation needs to aid that purpose or help tell that story.’
Adam: Google just have those four dots; and with something so simple they been able to convey so much through the use of animation, one behaviour might illustrate listening, whilst another using the same dots, means loading.
Adam: I think, by nature, everyone has this idea of you have got to have these really complicated icons and have these big, flashy shadows anddesigns and everything, but, when it really comes to it, Google paired it down and stripped away, but it is probably one of the easiest things to understand now.
Tim: Yes. To be that simple probably took them an awful lot of work.
Jamie: Yes. I absolutely adore those dots and have written about them before. They have achieved a way of communicating digital feedback with such a simplistic visual form. It’s almost like they have humanised the digital interface through animation, and it is incredible. Like you say, the amount of work that must have gone into that…
Tim: Have either of you got any maxims that codifie what makes great design — quotations that sum it up simply?
Jamie: There is a great quote from Antoine de Saint-Expuréy:
‘Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away’.
Adam: I like the Jony Ive quote:
‘A beautiful product that doesn’t work very well is ugly’.
Jamie: Probably one of my favourite quotes around user experience is:
‘Just because no one complains, it doesn’t mean that all parachutes are perfect’.
That is actually from Benny Hill, but it really makes you consider customer satisfaction. When you look at a product, people tend to only analyse historical data that’s in front of them, normally this is only half the story. They don’t see their customers complaining so it must be ok right? But did they even ask them, does the user actually use the product in the intended way? Are you just not seeing the evidence of what is really going on? Have they ever been shown the possibility of what could be? “What if?” is and always will be the most important question.
Tim: OK, can you help me with a definition — where does UI stop and UX start?
Jamie: Essentially, it doesn’t. It is a skill which designers have, to always be mindful of the overall experience. There has been a huge trend of UX only roles which I feel will start to drop off soon. The role itself is a skill that any product designer should have just like typography. User experience should be something that every designer takes seriously and practices within their work everyday.
There is a big push online creating awareness around UX which is great but the message is that everyone is a UX designer. They’re not. Everyone on the team most certainly influences the experience, but there should be people who are responsible it. Just like in development I can influence a developer to make a decision, but they are responsible for the implementation and the final result.
Everyone believing they’re responsible for user experience can often push a product into tough situations. It takes a huge amount of experience to put personal biases aside and truly create something meaningful for your customers, not yourself. Understanding when to listen to your users and how you action quantitative and qualitative feedback really makes the difference between giving someone what they thought or expected to what they really need or didn’t realise they wanted.
Adam: Agreed. UX informs UI, for example, a lot of the time a client may push back and say ‘ I’m not sure about that colour’ and it’s our job to remove personal opinion from the table and to ask the question ‘Would the user-base dislike the colour?’ Because we have picked it to perform a certain task based on research. This allows the client to expand their vision to see through their customers eyes.
Tim: Finally, ‘If you were king of design for the day, what would you change?’
Adam: An army of minions.
Tim: It is a big responsibility, having minions.
Jamie: If I was king of design for the day? I would change the way the apple mouse charges, it’s the absolute bane of my life!