Today I attended a full day talks from The Future of Web Design NY. The conference showcases a diverse set of speakers, ranging from the design focused (wireframing, typography and music) to the more technical (a HTML5 crash course, responsive CSS design.) This diversity and the short nature of the talks can lead to a bit of information overload, but a few trends stood out:
Aaron Walter’s focus was on emotional web design. In particular, websites should include humanistic elements to help connect them emotionally to their audience. Notably, most examples (e.g. a joke-cracking cartoon monkey in a website header, a cute Twitter bird indicator in an iPhone app) were small in scope. They stood out for their simplicity and (arguably) low development cost yet made a huge impact on their user base.
Doug Bowman touched on this small scale theme as well in his talk on bringing delight from great web design. He encouraged designers to “sweat the small details,” from the little zig-zag pattern of milk in a latte, to the subtle removal of underlined links on Google’s home page, to a mouse over color change for the follow and unfollow buttons on Twitter.com. Subtle change, big impact.
Bowman also highlighted the otherwise small detail of great packaging: A contrast was made between the tedious process of opening many electronic devices in tight clamshell packaging versus Apple’s simplistic, well thought out wrapping. As evidenced by the many “unboxing” videos online, opening an Apple product can be an experience in itself.
Jon Schlossberg noted the importance of web design details as well, couching these details as a form of “feel”, parallel to the experience of the feel of a physical product like a kitchen mixer or vegetable peeler. For emphasis, Schlossberg included probably my favorite quote of the day from the famous designer Charles Eames: “The details are not details, they make the product.”
While designers Schlossberg and Brad Haynes covered different web design territory in their talks, both shared a focus on rapid deployment of their designs to their team and user base.
Schlossberg’s focus was on repeated fast web site prototyping tested heavily by clients and users. Interestingly, in one of his tips he explicitly challenged the more traditional “waterfall” based design – sometimes it’s best to ignore the gap between design and development; start developing and building before the full design phase is over. Schlossberg also noted that getting prototyping/testing released quickly can increases empathy both by developers and skeptical clients, kind of like a mini positive feedback loop.
Haynes went through an overview his firm’s design workflow, from initial research and strategy to wireframing and final UI output. In it, he stressed the importance gauging the clients needs by including them early on process. Those early strategic moves in turn, in Haynes mind, set the tone for the entire remaining design process. For example, more hands on, detail or visual oriented clients/users may expect a very high fidelity (e.g. inclusive of “finished” assets like photos, detailed results of every UI action) set of wireframes and mockups, while looser, unsure or flexible clients may prefer lower fidelity wireframes (e.g. rough sketch forms, mostly labeled boxes.)
I found Jakob Thyness’s talk on “dirty” UX design the most unique (and controversial?) of the day. In it, he seemed to thumb his nose at some of the more conventionally pretty sites that are lauded for their design or branding savvy. Rather, Thyness stressed a text and contrast heavy, straightforward approach, coined “dirty UX”. The designer used examples from no-nonsense sites like YouTube and Amazon to make his point.
Thyness was concerned that much of today’s web designs were just focused in matching a business’s own needs instead of their users. He argued users come to most sites in control, actively looking for information and goal oriented around a few very specific definable tasks (e.g. buying a TV, playing a Flash game, getting the latest headlines.) It’s the difference between an actively participating, “lean forward” (or as Thyness described, “pull”) medium versus the mass market, “lean back” (Thyness used “push”) markets of TV, film and music.