In this article, I will introduce the subject of competitive analysis, which is basically a method to determine how well your competitors are performing. My aim is to introduce the subject to those of you who are new to the concept. It should be useful if you are new to product design, UX, interaction or digital design, or if you have experience in these fields but have not performed a competitive analysis before.
No prior knowledge of the topic is needed because I’ll be explaining what the term means and how to perform a competitive analysis as we go. I am assuming some basic knowledge of the design process and UX research, but I’ll provide plenty of practical examples and reference links to help with any terms and concepts you might be unfamiliar with.
Note:If you are a beginner in UX and interaction design, it would be good to know the basics of the design process and to know what is UX research (and the methods used for UX research) before diving into the article’s main topic. Please read the next section carefully because I’ve added reference links to help you get started.
Competitive Analysis, Service Design Cycle, Five-Stages Design Process
If you are a UX designer, then you might be aware of the service design cycle. This cycle contains four stages: discover, explore, test and listen. Each one of these stages has multiple research methods, and competitive analysis is part of the exploration. Susan Farrell has very helpfully distinguished different UX research methods and activities that can be performed for your project. (You can check this detailed segregation in her “UX Research Cheat Sheet”.)
The image below shows the four steps and the most commonly used methods in these steps.
Please don’t confuse the five-stages design process with the service design cycle. Basically, they serve the same purpose in the design thinking process, but are explained in different styles. Here is a brief explanation of what these five stages contain:
This stage involves gaining a clear understanding of the problem you are trying to solve from the user’s point of view.
This stage involves defining the correct statement for the problem you are trying to solve, using the knowledge you gained in the first stage.
In this stage, you can generate different solution ideas for the problem.
Basically, a prototype is an attempt to give your solution some form so that it can be explained to others. For digital products, a prototype could be a wireframe set created using pen and paper or using a tool such as Balsamiq or Sketch, or it could be a visual design prototype created using a tool such as Sketch, Figma, Adobe XD or InVision.
Testing involves validating and evaluating all of your solutions with the users.
You can perform UX research at any stage. Many articles and books are available for you to learn more about this design process. “Five Stages in the Design Thinking Process” by Rikke Dam and Teo Siang is one of my favorite articles on the topic.
According to Nielsen Norman Group’s “User Experience Careers” survey report, 61% of UX professionals prefer to do the competitive analysis for their projects. But what exactly is competitive analysis? In simple language, competitive analysis is nothing but a method to determine how your competitors are performing, what they are offering and how well they are doing it.
Sometimes, competitive analysis is referred as competitive usability evaluation.
Why Should You Do A Competitive Analysis?
There are many reasons to do a competitive analysis, but I think the most important reason is that it helps us to understand the rights and wrongs of our own product or service.
Using competitive analysis, you can make decisions based on knowledge of what is currently working well for your users, rather than based on guesses or intuition. In doing competitive analysis, you can also identify risks in your product or service and use those insights to add value to it.
Recently, I was working on a project in which I did a competitive analysis of a feature (collaborative meeting note-taking) that a client wanted to introduce in their web app. Note-taking is not exactly a new or highly innovative thing, so the biggest challenge I was facing was to make this functionality simpler and easier to handle, because the product I was working on was in the very early stages of development. The feature, in a nutshell, was to create a simple text document where some interactive action items could be added.
Because a ton of apps are out there that allow you to create simple text documents, I decided to do a competitive analysis for this functionality. (I’ll explain this process in more detail later in the section “Five Easy Steps to Do a Competitive Analysis”.)
How To Find The Right Competitors?
Basically, there are two types of competitors: direct and indirect. As a UX designer, your role is to study the designs of these competitors.
Jaime Levy gives very good definitions of direct and indirect competitors in her book UX Strategy. You can learn more about competitive analysis (and types of competitors) in chapter 4 of the book, “Conducting Competitive Research”.
Direct competitors are the ones who offer the same, or a very similar, set of features to your current or future customers, which means they are solving a similar problem to the one you are trying to solve, for a customer base that you are targeting as well.
Indirect competitors are the ones who offers a similar set of features but to a different customer segment; or, they target your exact customer base without offering the exact same set of features, which means indirect competitors are solving the same problem but for a different customer base, or are solving the same problem but offer a different solution.
You can search for these types of competitors online (by doing a simple web search), or you can directly ask your current and potential customers what they are using already. You can also look for your direct and indirect competitors on websites such as Crunchbase and Product Hunt, and you can search for them in the Google Play and the iOS App Store.
Five Easy Steps To Do A Competitive Analysis
You can perform a competitive analysis for your existing or new product using the following five-step process.
1. Define And Understand The Goals
Defining and understanding the goal is an integral part of any UX research process. You must define an accurate goal (or set of goals) for your research; otherwise, there is a chance you’ll get the wrong outcome.
Draft all of your goals right before starting your process. When defining your goals, consider the following questions: Why are you doing this competitive analysis? What kind of outcome do you expect? Will this analysis affect UX decisions?
Remember: When setting up goals for any kind of UX research, be as specific as possible.
I mentioned earlier that I recently performed a competitive analysis for a collaborative meeting note-taking feature, to be introduced in the app that I was developing for a client. The goals for my research were very general because innumerable apps all provide this type of functionality, and the product I was working on was in the very early stages of development.
Even though your research goals might be simple, make them as specific as possible, and write them all down. Writing down your goals will help you stay on the right track.
The goals for my analysis were more like questions for which I was trying to find the answers. Here is the list of goals I set for this research:
Which apps do users prefer for note-taking? And why do they prefer them?
Goal: To find out the user’s behavior with these apps, their preferences and their comfort zone.
What is the working mechanism of these apps?
Goal: To find how out competitors’ apps work, so that we can identify their pros and cons.
What are the “star” features of these apps?
Goal: To identify functionalities that we were trying to introduce as well, to see whether they already exist and, if they exist, how exactly they were implemented.
How comfortable does a user feel when using these apps?
Goal: To identify user loyalty and engagement in the apps of our competitors.
How does collaborative editing work in these competitive apps?
Goal: To identify how collaborative-editing functionality works and to study its technical aspects.
What is the visual structure and user interface of these apps?
Goal: To check the visual look and feel of the apps (user interface and interaction).
2. Find The Right Competitors
After setting the goals, go on a search and make a list of both direct and indirect competitors. It’s not necessary to analyze all of the competitors you find. The number is completely up to you. Some people suggest analyzing at least two to four competitors, while others suggest five to ten or more.
Finding the right competitors for my research wasn’t a hard task because I already knew many apps that provided similar features, but I still did a quick search on Google, and the results were a bit surprising — surprising because most of the apps I knew turned out to be more like indirect competitors to the app I was working on; and later, after a bit more searching, I also found the apps that were our direct competitors.
Putting each competitor in the right list is a very important part of competitive analysis because the features and functionality in your competitors’ apps are based on exactly what users of those apps want. Let’s assume you put one indirect competitor, XYZ, under the “direct competitors” list and start doing your analysis. While doing the research, you might find some impressive feature in XYZ’s app and decide to add a similar feature in your own app; then, later it turns out that the feature you added is not useful for the users you are targeting. You might end up wasting a lot of energy, time and money building something that is not at all useful. So, be careful when sorting your competitors.
For my research, the competitors were as follows:
Direct competitors br>Quip, Cisco Spark Meeting Notes, Workboard, Lucid Meeting, Less Meeting, MeetingSense, Minute-it, etc.
All of the apps above provide the same type of functionality, which we were trying to introduce for almost the same type of user base.
Indirect competitors br>Evernote, Google Keep, Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Microsoft OneNote and other traditional note-taking apps and pen-paper note-taking methods.
The user base for all of the above is not exactly different from the user base we were targeting, but most of the users we were targeting were using these apps because they were unaware of the more convenient ways to take meeting notes.
3. Make A Competitive Analysis Matrix
A competitive analysis matrix is not complex, just a simple spreadsheet. You can use Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets, Apple Numbers or any other tool you are comfortable with.
First, divide all competitors you’ve found into two groups (direct and indirect) and put them in a spreadsheet. Jamie Levy suggests making the following columns:
I would recommend digging a bit deeper and adding a few more columns, such as for “unique features”, “pros and cons”, etc. It would help to summarize your analysis. It’s not necessary to set your columns exactly as mentioned above. You can modify the columns to your own research goals and needs.
For my analysis, I created only four columns. My competitive analysis matrix looked as follows:
Competitor name br>In this column, I put the names of all of the competitors.
URL br>These are website links or app download links for these competitors.
Features/comments br>In this column, I put all of my comments, some ”star” features I needed to focus on, and the pros and cons of the competitor. I color-coded the cells so that later I (or anyone viewing the matrix) could easily identify the difference between them. For example, I used light yellow for features, light purple for comments, green for pros and red for cons.
Screenshots/video links br>In this column, I put all of the screenshots and videos related to the features and comments mentioned in the third column. This way, it became very easy and quick to understand what a particular comment or feature was all about.
4. Write A Summary And An Analysis
Once you are done with the analysis matrix spreadsheet, move on and create a summary of your findings. Be as specific as possible, and try to answer all of your questions while setting up a goal or during the overall process.
This will help you and your team members and stakeholders make the right design and UX decisions. This summary will also help you find new design and UX opportunities in the product you’re building.
In writing the summary and the presentation for the competitive analysis that I did for this collaborative note-taking app, the competitive analysis matrix helped me a lot. I drafted a document with all of the high-level takeaways from this analysis and answered all of the questions that were set as goals. For the presentation, I shared the document with the client, which helped both the client and me to finalize the features, the flows and the end requirements for the product.
The last step of your competitive analysis is the presentation. It’s not a typical slideshow presentation — rather, just share all of the data and information you collected throughout the process with your teammates, stakeholders and/or clients.
Getting feedback from everywhere you can and being open to this feedback is a very important part of the designer’s workflow. So, share all of your finding with your teammates, stakeholders and clients, and ask for their opinion. You might find some missing points in your analysis or discover something new and exciting from someone’s feedback.
We live in a data-driven world, and we should build products, services and apps based on data, rather than our intuition (or guesswork).
As UX designers, we should go out there and collect as much data as possible before building a real product. This data will help us to create a solid product that users will want to use, rather than a product we want or imagine. These kinds of products are more likely to succeed in the market. Competitive analysis is one of the ways to get this data and to create a user-friendly product.
Finally, no matter what kind of product you are building or research you are conducting, always try to put yourself in the users’ shoes every now and then. This way, you will be able to identify the users’ struggles and ultimately deliver a better solution.
I hope this article has helped you plan and make your first competitive analysis for your next project!
If you want to become a better UX, interaction, visual (UI) or product designer, there are a lot of sources from which you can learn — articles, books, online courses. I often check the following few: Smashing Magazine, InVision blog, Interaction Design Foundation, NN Group and UX Mastery. These websites have a very good collection of articles on the topics of UI and UX design and UX research.
How To Create A Flat Vector Illustration In Affinity Designer
(This is a sponsored post.) If you are in the design world, chances are that you’ve already heard about Affinity Designer, a vector graphics editor for Apple’s macOS and Microsoft Windows.
It was July 2015 when Serif Europe launched the amazing software that many designers and illustrators like me are using now as their main tool for professional work. Unlike some other packages, its price is really affordable, there’s no subscription model and, as mentioned already, it’s available for both Macs and PCs.
In this article, I would like to walk you through just some of its very user-friendly main tools and features as an introduction to the software and to show you how we can create a nice flat vector illustration of a Volkswagen Beetle. The illustration will scale up to whatever resolution and size needed because no bitmaps will be used.
Note: As of today, July 11, Affinity Designer is also available for the iPad. Although the iPad app’s features and functionality almost completely match the desktop version of Affinity Designer, it relies much more on using the touch screen (and the Apple Pencil) and because of that, you may expect to find some differences in the workflows.
I will also explain some of the decisions I take and methods I follow as I work. You know the old saying, “All roads lead to Rome”? In this case, many roads will take us where we’d like to get to, but some are better than others.
We will see how to work with the Pen tool to trace the main car outline, how to break curves and segments, how to convert objects into curves, and how to use the wonderful Corner tool. We will also, among other things, learn how to use the Gradient tool, what is a “Smart copy”, how to import a color palette from an image that we can use as a reference for our artwork, how to use masks, and how to create a halftone pattern. Of course, along the way, you will also learn some helpful keyboard shortcuts and commands.
Note:Affinity Designer has three work environments, referred to as “personas”. By default, Affinity Designer is set to the draw persona. To switch from the draw persona to the pixel persona or to the export persona, you have to click on one of the three icons located in the top-left corner of the main window. You can start working in the draw persona and switch to the pixel persona at any time, when you need to combine vectors and bitmaps.
Introduction: The Flat Design Era
In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of “flat design”, in contrast to what is known as skeuomorphic representation in design.
To put it simply, flat design gets rid of the metaphors that skeuomorphic design uses to communicate with users, and we’ve seen these metaphors in design, especially in user interface design, for years. Apple had some of the best examples of skeuomorphism in its early iOS and app designs, and today it is widely used in many industries, such as music software and video games. With Microsoft’s (with Metro) and later Google’s material design and Apple’s iOS 7, mobile apps, user interfaces and most systems and OS’ have moved away from skeuomorphism, using it or elements of it as mere enhancements to a new design language (including gradients and shadows). As you can imagine, illustrations on these systems were also affected by the new design currents, and illustrators and designers started creating artwork that would be consistent with the new times and needs. A whole new world of flat icons, flat infographics and flat illustrations opened in front of our eyes.
Let’s Draw A Flat Illustration!
I am providing here the source file for this work, so you can use it to explore it and to better follow along as we design it. If you do not yet have a copy of Affinity Designer, you can download a trial.
1. Canvas Settings
Open Affinity Designer, and create a new document by clicking Cmd + N (Mac) or Ctrl + N (Windows). Alternatively, you can go to “Menu” → “File” → “New”. Be sure not to check the “Create Artboard” box.
Set the type to “Web”, which will automatically set the field DPI to 72. It should be understood now as PPI, but we won’t dive into the details here. If you want to learn more on the topic, check the following two resources:
Also, remember that you can change this setting at any time. The vectors’ quality won’t be affected by scaling them.
Set the size to 2000 × 1300 pixels, and click “OK”.
Our white canvas is now set, but before we start, I’d suggest you first save this file and give it a name. So, go to “File” → “Save”, and name it “Beetle”.
2. Importing A Color Palette From An Image
One of the things I use a lot in Affinity Designer is its ability to import the colors contained in an image and creating a palette from them.
Let’s see how this is done.
For the illustration I want to draw, I thought of warm colors, like in a sunset, so I searched Google with this query: “warm colors yellows oranges reds palette”. From all the images it found, I chose one that I liked and copied it into Affinity Designer in my recently created canvas. (You can copy and paste the image to the canvas directly from the browser.)
If the Swatches panel isn’t open yet, use menu “View” → “Studio” → “Swatches”. Click the menu in the top-right corner of the panel, and select the option “Create Palette From Document”, and then click on “As Document Palette”. Click “OK” and you’ll see the colors contained in the image form a new palette in the Swatches panel. The default name for it will be “Palette” if you still haven’t saved your file with a name. In case you have, the name of this palette will be the same as your document, but if you want to rename it, simply go to the menu on the right in the Swatches panel again and select the option “Rename Palette”.
I will call it “Beetle Palette”.
We can now get rid of that reference image, or simply hide it in the Layers panel. We will be using this palette as a guide to create our artwork with harmonious colors.
Interface: Before we continue, I will present a quick overview of the main sections of the user interface in Affinity Designer, and the names of some of the most used tools.
3. Creating The Background With The Gradient Tool
The next thing is to create a background. For this, go to the tools displayed on the left side, and select the Rectangle tool. Drag it along the canvas, making sure to give it an initial random fill color so that you can see it. The fill color chip is located in the top toolbar.
Next, select the Fill tool (the color wheel icon, or press G on the keyboard), and in the top Context toolbar, select the type: “Linear”.
We have several options here: “None” removes the fill color, “Solid” applies one solid color, and all of the rest are different types of gradients.
To straighten the gradient and make it vertical, place your cursor over one of the ends and pull. When you are near the vertical line, press Shift: This will make it perfectly vertical and perpendicular to the base of the canvas.
Next, in the Context toolbar, click on the color chip, and you’ll see a dialog that corresponds exactly with the gradient we just applied. Click now on the color chip, and an additional dialog will open.
In the combo, click on the “Color” tab, and then select “RGB Hex Sliders”; in the field marked with a #, input the value: FE8876. Press “OK”. You’ll see now how the gradient has been updated to the new color. Repeat this action with the other color stop in the gradient dialog, and input this value: E1C372.
You should now have something like this:
Let’s go to the Layers panel and rename the layer to “Background”. Double-click on it to rename it, and then lock it (by clicking on the little lock icon in the top-right corner).
4. Drawing The Car Outline With The Pen Tool
The next thing we need to do is look for an image that will serve as our reference to draw the outline of the car. I searched Google for “Volkswagen Beetle side view”. From the images I found, I selected one of a green Beetle and copied and pasted it into my document. (Remember to lock the layer with the reference image, so that it doesn’t move accidentally.)
Next, in the side toolbar, select the Pen tool (or press P), zoom in a bit so that you can work more comfortably, and start tracing a segment, following the outline of the car in the picture. Give the stroke an 8-pixel width in the Stroke panel.
Note:You won’t need to create a layer, because the segments you trace will be automatically placed on top of the image.
The Pen tool is one of the most daunting tools for beginners, and it is obviously one of the most important tools to learn in vector graphics. While practice is needed to reach perfection, it is also a matter of understanding some simple actions that will help you use the tool better. Let’s dive into the details!
As you trace with the Pen tool in Affinity Designer, you will see two types of nodes: squared nodes appear first, and as you pull the handles, they will turn into rounded nodes.
Affinity Designer comes with several pen modes, but we will only be using the default one, called “Pen Mode”, and as we trace the car, we will get rid of one of the handles by clicking Alt in such a way that the next section of the segment to be traced will be independent of the previous one, even if connected to it.
Here’s how to proceed. Select the Pen tool, click once, move some distance away, click a second time (a straight line will be created between nodes 1 and 2), drag the second node (this will create a curve), Alt-click the node to remove the second control handle, then proceed with node 3, and so on.
An alternative way would be to select the Pen tool, click once, move some distance away, click a second time (a straight line will be created between nodes 1 and 2), drag the second node (this will create a curve), then, without moving the mouse, Alt-click the second handle’s point to remove this handle, then proceed with node 3, and so on.
Note:Don’ be afraid to trace segments that are not perfect. With time, you’ll get a better grip of the Pen tool. For now, it’s not very important that each node and line looks as we want it to look in the end. In fact, Affinity Designer makes it really easy to amend segments and nodes, so tracing a rough line to start is just fine. For more insight on how to easily use the Pen tool (for beginners), check out Isabel Aracama’s video tutorial.
5. Resculpting Segments And Using The Corner Tool
What we need now is to make all of those rough lines look smooth and curvy. First, we will pull the straight segments to smoothen them, and then we will improve them using the Corner tool.
Click the Node tool in the side toolbar, or select it by pressing A on your keyboard. Now, start pulling segments to follow the lines of your reference picture. You can also use the handles to help make the line take the shape you need by moving and pulling them accordingly. Just do it in such a way that it all fits the reference image, but don’t bother much if it’s not yet perfect. With the Node tool (A), you can both select and move nodes, but you can also click and drag the curves themselves to change them.
Once all of the segments are where we need them, we are going to smoothen their corners using the Corner tool (shortcut: C). This is one of my favorite tools in Affinity Designer. The live Corner tool allows you to adjust your nodes and segments to perfection. Select it by pressing C, or select it from the Tools sidebar. The method is pretty simple: Pass the corner tool over the sharp nodes (squared nodes) that you want to smoothen. If you need to, switch back to the Node tool (A) to adjust a section of a segment by pulling it or its handles. (Smooth nodes (rounded nodes) don’t allow for more softening, and they will display a smaller circle the moment you select the Corner tool.)
Once our corners and segments look good, we’ll want to fill the shape and change the color of the stroke. Select the closed curve line that we just created for the car, click on the fill color chip, and in the HEX color field input FFCF23. Click on the stroke color chip beside it and input 131000.
Create now a shape with the Pen tool, and fill it with black (000000). Place it behind the car’s bodywork (the yellow shape). The exact shape of the new object that you will create does not really matter, except that its bottom side needs to be straight, as in the image below. Place it behind the main bodywork (the yellow shape) via either the Layers panel or through the menu “Arrange” → “Back One”.
6. Creating The Wheels Using Smart Copy
We need to put the wheels in place next. In the Tools, pick the Ellipse tool, and drag over the canvas, creating a circle the same size as the wheel in the reference picture. Click Shift as you drag to make the circle proportionate. Additionally, holding Ctrl (Windows) or Cmd (Mac), you can create a perfect circle from the center out.
Note:If you need to, hide the layers created thus far to see better, or simply reduce their opacity temporarily. You can change the opacity by selecting any shape and pressing a number on the keyboard, from 1 to 9, where 1 will apply a 10% opacity and 9 a 90% opacity value. To reset the opacity to 100%, press 0 (zero).
Choose a random color that contrasts with the rest. I like to do so initially just so that I can see the shapes well contrasted and differentiated. When I am happy with them, I apply the final color. Set the opacity to 50% (click 5 on the keyboard) to be able to see through as you draw it.
Zoom into your wheel shape. Press Z to select the Zoom tool, and drag over the shape while holding Alt key, or double-click on the thumbnail corresponding to it in the Layers panel. (It doesn’t need to be previously selected, although this will help you to visually locate it in the Layers panel.)
We will now learn how to use Smart copy, and we will paste some concentric circles.
Select the circle and press Cmd + J (Mac) or Ctrl + J (Windows). A new circle will be placed on top of the original one. Select it. This command is found under “Edit” → “Duplicate”, and it’s also known as Smart copy or Smart duplicate.
Click Shift + Cmd (Mac) or Shift + Ctrl (Windows), and drag in to transform it into a smaller concentrical circle. Repeat three times, reducing a bit more in size each time, to fit your reference. Smart duplicating a shape by pressing Shift + Cmd (Mac) or Shift + Ctrl (Windows) will make the shape transform in a relative way. This will happen from your third smart-duplicated shape onwards.
So, we have our concentric circles for the wheel, and now we have to change the colors. Go to the Swatches panel, and in the previously created palette, choose colors that work well with the yellow that we have applied to the car’s bodywork. You can select a color and modify it slightly to adapt to what you think works best. We need to apply fill and stroke colors. Remember to give the stroke the same width as the rest of the car (8 pixels) except for the innermost circle, where we will apply a stroke of 11.5 pixels. Also, remember to put back to 100% the opacity of each concentric circle.
I chose these colors, from the outer to inner circles: 5D5100, 918A00, CFA204, E5DEAB.
Now we want to select and group all of them together. Select them all and press Cmd + G (Mac) or Ctrl + G (Windows). Name the new group “Front Wheel” in the Layers panel. Duplicate this group and, while pressing Shift, select it and drag along the canvas until it overlaps with the back wheel. Name the layer accordingly.
7. Breaking Curves And Clipping Masks To Draw The Inner Lines Of The Car’s Bodywork
To keep working, either hide all layers or bring down the opacity so that they don’t get in your way. We need to trace the front and back fenders. We have to do the same as what we did for the main bodywork. Pick the Pen tool and trace an outline over it.
Once it is traced, modify it by using the handles, nodes and Corner tool. I also modified the black shape behind the car a bit, so that it shows a bit more in the lower part of the body work.
Now we want to trace some of the inner lines that define the car. For this, we will duplicate the main yellow shape, remove its fill color and place it onto our illustration in the canvas.
Press A on the keyboard, and click on any of the bottom nodes of the segment. In the top Context toolbar, click on “Action” → “Break Curve”. You will see now that the selected node has turned into a red-outlined squared node. Click on it and pull anywhere. As you can see, the segment is now open. Click the Delete or Backspace key (Windows) or the Delete key (Mac), and do the same with all of the bottom nodes, leaving just the leftmost and rightmost ones, and also being very careful that what is left of the top section of the segment is not deformed at all.
I use this method for one main reason: Duplicating an existing line allows for a more consistent look and for more harmonious lines.
Select now the newly opened curve, and make it smaller in such a way that it fits into the main yellow shape when you place them on top of one another. In the Layers panel, drag this curve into the yellow shape layer to create a clipping mask. The reason for creating a clipping mask is simple: We want an object inside another object so that they do not overlap (i.e. both objects are visible), but one nested inside the other. Not doing so would result in some bits of the nested object being visible, which is not what we want; we need perfect, clean-cut lines.
Note:Clipping masks are not to be mistaken for masks. You will know you’re clipping and not masking because of the thumbnail (masks show a crop-like icon when applied) and because when you are about to clip, a blue stripe is displayed horizontally, a bit more than halfway across the layer. Masks, on the other hand, display a small vertical blue stripe beside the thumbnail.
Now that we have applied our clipping mask to insert the newly created segment inside the main shape of the car, I’ve broken some nodes and moved some others around a bit in order to place them exactly how I want. I’ve stretched the width a bit, and separated the front from the rest of the segment using exactly the same methods we’ve already seen. Then, I applied a bit more Corner tool to soften whatever I felt needed to be softened. Finally, with the Pen tool, I added some extra nodes and segments to create the rest of the inner lines that define the car.
Note:In order to select an object in a mask, a clipping mask or a group when not selecting the object directly in the Layers panel, you have to double-click until you select the object, or hold Ctrl (Windows) or Cmd (Mac) and click.
After some amendments and tweaking using the mentioned methods, our car looks like this:
8. Drawing The Windows Using Some Primitive Shapes
In the side Toolbar, select the Rounded Rectangle tool. Drag on the canvas to create a shape. The size of the shape should fit in the car’s bodywork and look proportionate. No matter how you create it, you will be able to resize it later, so don’t worry much.
Note:When you create a shape with strokes and resize it, be sure to check “Scale with object” in the Stroke panel if you want the stroke to scale in proportion with the object. I recommend that you visually compare the difference between having this option checked and unchecked when you need to resize an object with a stroke.
Once you have placed your rounded rectangle on the canvas, fill it with a blue-ish colour. I’ve used #93BBC1. Next, select it with the Node tool (press A). You will now see a little orange circle in the top-left corner. If you pull outwards or inwards, you’ll see how the angle in that corner changes. In the top Context toolbar, you can uncheck “Single radius”, and apply the angle you want to each corner of the rectangle individually. Uncheck it, and pull inwards on the tiny orange circle in the top-left corner. If you pull, you will be able to round it to a certain percentage, but you can also input the desired value in the input field for it, or even use the slider it comes with (it will show whether you’ve clicked on the little chevron). Let’s apply a value of 100%.
Primitive shapes are not so flexible in terms of vector manipulation (compared to curves and lines), so, in order to apply further changes to such a shape (beyond fill, stroke, corners, width and height), we will need to convert it to curves.
Note:Once you convert a primitive shape into curves, there is no way to go back, and there will be no option to manipulate the shape through the little orange stops. If you need further tweaking, you will need to do it with the Corner tool.
Select the rectangle with the Node tool (A), and in the top Context toolbar, click the button “Convert to Curves”. The bounding box will disappear, and all of the nodes forming the shape will be shown. Also, note how in the Layers panel, the name of the object changes from “Rounded Rectangle” to “Curve”.
Now you need to manipulate the shape in order to create an object that looks like a car window. Look at the reference picture to get a better idea of how it should look. Also, tweak the rest of the drawn lines in the car, so that it all fits together nicely. Don’t worry if the shapes don’t look perfect (yet). Getting them right is a matter of practice! Using the Pen tool, help yourself with the Alt and Shift keys and observe how differently the segment nodes behave. After you have created the front window, go ahead and create the back one, following the same method.
We also need to create the reflections of the window, which we’ll do by drawing three rectangles, filling them with white color, overlapping them with a bit of offset from one another, and setting the opacity to 50%.
Place the cursor over the top bounding-box white circle, and when it turns into a curved arrow with two ends, move it to give the rectangles an angle. Create a clipping mask, dragging it over the window shape in the Layers panel as we saw before. You can also do this by following the following alternative methods:
Under the menu “Layer” → “Insertion” → “Insert Inside” the selected window object.
With the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + X (Windows) and Cmd + X (Mac), select your window object → “Edit” → “Paste Inside” (Ctrl/Cmd + Alt + V).
Repeat this for the back window. To add visual interest, you can duplicate the reflections and slightly change the rectangles’ opacities and widths.
9. Adding Visual Interest: Halftone Pattern, Shadows And Reflections
Before we start with the shadows and reflections, we need to add an extra piece onto the car so that all of the elements look well integrated. Let’s create the piece that sits below the doors. It is a simple rectangle. Place it on the corresponding layer order, so that it looks like the picture below, and keep inserting all of the pieces together so that it looks compact. I will also move a bit the front fender to make the front shorter.
Now let’s create the halftone pattern.
Grab the Pen tool (P) and trace a line on your canvas. In the Stroke panel (you can also do this in the Pen tool’s Context toolbar section for the stroke, at the top), set the size to something like 7 pixels. We can easily change this value later if needed. Select the “Dash” line style, and the rest of the dialog settings should be as follows:
Now, duplicate this line, and place the new one below with a bit of an offset to the left.
Group both lines, duplicate this group with a Smart copy, and create something like this:
When you drag a selection in Affinity Designer, only objects that are completely within the selection area will be selected. If you want to select all objects without having to drag over all of them completely, you have the following options:
Mac: Holding the ⌃ (Ctrl) key will allow you to select all objects touching the selection marquee as you draw it.
Windows: Click and hold the left mouse button, start dragging a selection, and then click and hold the right mouse button as well. As you are holding both buttons, all objects touching the selection marquee will be selected.
Alternatively, you can make this behavior a global preference. On Mac, go to “Affinity Designer” → “Preferences” → “Tools”, and check “Select object when intersects with selection marquee”. On Windows, go to “Edit” → “Preferences” → “Tools”, and check “Select object when intersects with selection marquee”.
To make the illustration more interesting, we are going to vary the beginning and end of some of the lines a bit. To do this, we select the Node tool (A), and move the nodes a bit inwards.
It should now look like this:
To apply the pattern to our design, make sure everything is grouped, copy and paste it into our car artwork, reduce its opacity to 30%, and also reduce the size (making sure “Scale with object” is checked in the Stroke panel). We will then create a clipping mask. It is important to keep consistency in the angle, color and size of this pattern throughout the illustration.
Now, apply the halftone pattern to the back fender and to the car’s side; make sure to create a placeholder for it first, be it the fender itself or a new shape. Make some tweaks if you need to adapt the pattern to your drawing in a harmonious way. You can change the overall size, the dots’ size, the transparency, the angle and so on, but try to be consistent when applying these changes to the pattern bits.
For the shadow below the windows, I drew a curve to be the placeholder, and applied the color #CFA204 so that it looks darker.
10. Creating The Remaining Elements Of The Car
Now, it’s all about creating the rest of the elements that make up the car: the bumpers, the back wheel and the surf board, plus the design stickers.
The front and back lights
For the front light, switch to the Segment tool and draw the shape. Then we need to rotate it a bit and place it somewhere below the car’s main bodywork. The same can be done for the back light but using the Rectangle tool. The colors are #FFDA9D for the front light and #FF0031 for the back light.
To create the surfboard, we will use the Ellipse tool and draw a long ellipse. Convert it to curves and pull up the lower segment, adjusting a bit the handles to give it the ideal shape.
Now, just create two small rounded rectangles, with a little extra line on top for the board’s rack. Place them in a layer behind the car’s main body shape.
With the Pen tool, add the rudder. Its color is #B2E3EF. And for the stroke, use a 6-pixel width and set the color to #131000.
Now let’s create the the spare wheel! Switch to the Rounded Rectangle tool. Drag over the canvas to draw a shape. Color it #34646C, and make the stroke #131000 and 8 pixels in size. The size of the spare wheel should fit the proportions of your car and should have the same diameter as the other wheels, or perhaps just a bit smaller. Pull the orange dots totally inwards, and give it a 45-degree angle. For the rack that holds the wheel, create a small piece with the Rectangle tool, and give it the same 45-degree angle, color it #4A8F99, and make the stroke #131000 and 4.5 pixels in size. Create the last piece that rests over the car in the same way, with a color of #34646C, and a stroke that is #131000 and 4.5 pixels in size.
Lastly, let’s create a shadow inside the wheel to add some more interest. For this, we’ll create a clipping mask and insert an ellipse shape with a color of #194147, without a stroke.
Note:We may want to create the same shadow effect for the car wheels. Use the Rectangle tool and a color of #312A00, create a clipping mask, and insert it in the wheel shape, placing it halfway.
For the bumpers, we will apply the boolean operation “add” to two basic shapes and then clip-mask a shadow, just as we did for the wheels.
Boolean operations are displayed in the section of icons labeled “Geometry” (Mac) and “Operations” (Windows). (Yes, the label names are inconsistent, but the Affinity team will likely update them in the near future, and one of the labels will become the default for both operating systems.) If you don’t see them in the upper toolbar, go to “View” → “Customize Toolbar”, and drag and drop them into the toolbar.
Important: If you want the operation to be non-destructive, hold the Alt key while clicking on the “Add” icon (to combine the two basic shapes).
Note:If you try to paste the “shadow” object inside the bumper, it will only work if the bumper is one whole object (a destructive operation). So, if you used Alt + “Add”, this will not work now. However, you can still work around this by converting the Compound shape (the result of a non-destructive operation that is a group of two objects) to one Curve (one whole vector object). You just need to click on the Compound shape, then in the menu go to “Layer” → “Convert to Curves” (or use the key combination Ctrl + Enter).
We are still missing the back window, which we will create with the Pen tool, and the decoration for the car. For the two colored stripes, we need the Square tool and then clip-mask these two rectangles into the main bodywork. The size is 30 × 380 pixels, and the colors are #0AC8CE and #FF6500. Clip them by making sure you’ve put them on the right layer, so that the dark lines we drew before are above them.
For the number “56” decoration, use the Artistic Text tool (“T”), and type in “56”. Choose a nice font that matches the style of the illustration, or try the one I’ve used.
The color for the text object is #FFF3AD.
(I added an extra squared shape behind the back fender, which will look like the end of the exhaust pipe. The color is #000000.)
Now that we’ve done this, check the color stripes and the window they overlap with. As you can see (and because we put some transparency in the window glass), the orange stripe is visible through it. Let’s use some Boolean power again to fix this.
Duplicate the window object. Select both the window object (the one you just duplicated) and the orange stripe in the Layers panel. Apply a “subtract” operation.
Now, the orange stripe has the perfect shape, fitting the window in such a way that they don’t overlap.
To create the smoke from the exhaust, draw a circle with a white stroke, 5.5 pixels in size and no fill. Transform it to curves and break one of its points. From the bottom node, trace a straight line with the Pen tool.
Duplicate this “broken” circle, and resize to smaller circles, and flip and place them so that they look like this:
Note:Now that the car is finished, group all of its layers together. It will be much easier to keep working if you do so!
11. Creating The Ground And The Background Elements.
Let’s trace a simple line for the ground, and add two bits breaking it in order to create visual interest and suggest a bit of movement. We also want to add an extra piece to create the ground. For this, we will use the Rectangle tool and draw a rectangle with a gradient color of #008799 for the left stop and #81BEC7 for the right stop. Give it 30% opacity.
For the clouds, select the Cloud tool from the list of (primitive) vector shapes. Draw a cloud by holding Shift to keep the proportions. Make it white. Transform it into curves, and with the Node tool (A) select the bottom nodes and delete them. Sub-select the bottom-left and bottom-right nodes (after deleting all of the others), and then in the Context toolbar, select “Convert to Sharp” in the Convert section. This will make your bottom segment straight. Apply some transparency with the Transparency tool (Y), and duplicate this cloud. Place the clouds in your drawing, spread apart as you wish and in different sizes.
My clouds have 12 bubbles and an inner radius of 82%. You can do the same or change these values to your liking.
To create the palm trees, use the Crescent tool from the list of primitive shapes on the left. Give it a gradient color, with a left stop of #F05942 and a right stop of #D15846.
Drag to draw the crescent shape. Move its center of rotation to the bottom of the bounding box, and give it a -60-degree angle.
The center of rotation can be made visible in the Contextual toolbar section for the Move (and Node) tool. It looks like a little crosshair icon. When you click on it, the crosshair for moving the rotation center of an object will show. Duplicate it, either via Cmd + C and Cmd + V (Mac) or Ctrl + C and Ctrl + V (Windows), or by clicking and then Alt + dragging on the object, and move the angle of the new crescent to -96 degrees. Make it a bit smaller. Copy the two shapes and flip them horizontally.
I also created and extra crescent.
To create the indentations on the leaves, transform the object to curves, add a node with the Node tool, and pull inwards. To make the vortex sharp, use “Convert” → “Sharp”.
Create the trunk of the palm tree with the Pen tool, group all of the shapes together, and apply an “add” boolean. This way, all of the shapes will transform into just one. Apply a 60% opacity to it.
Duplicate the tree shape several times, changing the sizes and tweaking to make the trees slightly different from one another. (Making them exactly the same would result in a less interesting image.)
The last thing we need to make is the sun.
For this, simply draw an ellipse and apply a color of #FFFFBA to it. Apply a transparency with the Transparency tool (Y), where the bottom is transparent and gets opaque at the top.
Now we will add some detail by overlapping several rounded rectangles over the sun circle and subtracting them (click Alt for a non-destructive action, if you prefer).
Place your sun in the scene, and we are done!
12. A Note On The Stacking Order (And Naming Of Layers)
While you work, and as the number of objects (layers) grows, which will also make your illustration more and more complex, keep in mind the stacking order of your layers. The sooner you start naming the layers and placing them in the right order, the better. Also, lock those layers that you’re done with (especially for things such as the background), so that they don’t get in the way as you work.
In this illustration, the order of elements from bottom to top is:
I hope you could follow all of the steps with no major problems and now better understand some of Affinity Designer’s main tools and actions. (Of course, if you have some questions or need help, leave a comment below!)
These tools will allow you to create not only flat illustrations, but many other kinds of artwork as well. The tools, actions and procedures we’ve used here are some of the most useful and common that designers and illustrators use daily (including me), be it for simple illustration projects or much more complex ones.
However, even my most complex illustrations usually need the same tools that we’ve seen in action in this tutorial! It’s mainly a matter of understanding how much you can get out of each tool.
Remember the few important tips, such as locking the layers that could get in your way (or using half-transparency), stacking the layers in the right order, and naming them, so that even the most complex of illustrations are easy to organize and work with. Practice often, and try to organize things so that your workflow improves — this will lead to better artwork and better time management as well.
Also, to learn more about how to create this type of illustration, check out the video tutorial that I posted on my YouTube channel.
Working Together: How Designers And Developers Can Communicate To Create Better Projects
Among the most popular suggestions on Smashing Magazine’s Content User Suggestions board is the need of learning more about the interaction and communication between designers and developers. There are probably several articles worth of very specific things that could be covered here, but I thought I would kick things off with a general post rounding up some experiences on the subject.
Given the wide range of skills held by the line-up at our upcoming SmashingConf Toronto — a fully live, no-slides-allowed event, I decided to solicit some feedback. I’ve wrapped those up with my own experience of 20 years working alongside designers and other developers. I hope you will add your own experiences in the comments.
Some tips work best when you can be in the same room as your team, and others are helpful for the remote worker or freelancer. What shines through all of the advice, however, is the need to respect each other, and the fact that everyone is working to try and create the best outcome for the project.
Working Remotely And Staying Connected
The nomadic lifestyle is not right for everyone, but the only way to know for sure is to try. If you can afford to take the risk, go for it. Javier Cuello shares his experience and insights from his four years of travel and work. Read article →
For many years, my own web development company operated as an outsourced web development provider for design agencies. This involved doing everything from front-end development to implementing e-commerce and custom content management solutions. Our direct client was the designer or design agency who had brought us on board to help with the development aspect of the work, however, in an ideal situation, we would be part of the team working to deliver a great end result to the end client.
Sometimes this relationship worked well. We would feel a valued part of the team, our ideas and experience would count, we would work with the designers to come up with the best solution within budgetary, time, and other constraints.
In many cases, however, no attempt was made to form a team. The design agency would throw a picture of a website as a PDF file over the fence to us, then move on to work on their next project. There was little room for collaboration, and often the designer who had created the files was busy on some other work when we came back with questions.
It was an unsatisfactory way to work for everyone. We would be frustrated because we did not have a chance to help ensure that what was designed was possible to be built in a performant and accessible way, within the time and budget agreed on. The designer of the project would be frustrated: Why were these developers asking so many questions? Can they not just build the website as I have designed? Why are the fonts not the size I wanted?
The Waterfall versus Agile argument might be raised here. The situation where a PDF is thrown over the fence is often cited as an example of how bad a Waterfall approach is. Still, working in a fully Agile way is often not possible for teams made of freelancers or separate parties doing different parts of the work. Therefore, in reading these suggestions, look at them through the lens of the projects you work on. However, try not to completely discount something as unworkable because you can’t use the full process. There are often things we can take without needing to fully adopt one methodology or another.
Setting Up A Project For Success
I came to realize that very often the success of failure of the collaboration started before we even won the project, with the way in which we proposed the working relationship. We had to explain upfront that experience had taught us that the approach of us being handed a PDF, quoting and returning a website did not give the best results.
Projects that were successful had a far more iterative approach. It might not be possible to have us work alongside the designers or in a more Agile way. However, having a number of rounds of design and development with time for feedback from each side went a long way to prevent the frustrations of a method where work was completed by each side independently.
Creating Working Relationships
Having longer-term relationships with an agency, spanning a number of projects worked well. We got to know the designers, learned how they worked, could anticipate their questions and ensure that we answered them upfront. We were able to share development knowledge, the things that made a design easier or harder to implement which would, therefore, have an impact on time and budget. They were able to communicate better with us in order to explain why a certain design element was vital, even if it was going to add complexity.
For many freelance designers and developers, and also for those people who work for a distributed company, communication can become mostly text-based. This can make it particularly hard to build relationships. There might be a lot of communication — by email, in Slack, or through messages on a project management platform such as Basecamp. However, all of these methods leave us without the visual cues we might pick up from in-person meetings. An email we see as to the point may come across to the reader as if we are angry. The quick-fire nature of tools such as Slack might leave us committing in writing something which we would not say to that person while looking into their eyes!
Freelance data scientist Nadieh Bremer will talk to us about visualizing data in Toronto. She has learned that meeting people face to face — or at least having a video call — is important. She told me:
“As a remote freelancer, I know that to interact well with my clients I really need to have a video call (stress on the video) I need to see their face and facial/body interactions and they need to see mine. For clients that I have within public transport distance, I used to travel there for a first ‘getting to know each other/see if we can do a project’ meeting, which would take loads of time. But I noticed for my clients abroad (that I can’t visit anyway) that a first client call (again, make sure it’s a video-call) works more than good enough.
It’s the perfect way to weed out the clients that need other skills that I can give, those that are looking for a cheap deal, and those where I just felt something wasn’t quite clicking or I’m not enthusiastic about the project after they’ve given me a better explanation. So these days I also ask my clients in the Netherlands, where I live, that might want to do a first meeting to have it online (and once we get on to an actual contract I can come by if it’s beneficial).”
Working In The Open
Working in the open (with the project frequently deployed to a staging server that everyone had access to see), helped to support an iterative approach to development. I found that it was important to support that live version with explanations and notes of what to look at and test and what was still half finished. If I just invited people to look at it without that information we would get lists of fixes to make to unfinished features, which is a waste of time for the person doing the reporting. However, a live staging version, plus notes in a collaboration tool such as Basecamp meant that we could deploy sections and post asking for feedback on specific things. This helped to keep everyone up to date and part of the project even if — as was often the case for designers in an agency — they had a number of other projects to work on.
There are collaboration tools to help designers to share their work too. Asking for recommendations on Twitter gave me suggestions for Zeplin, Invision, Figma, and Adobe XD. Showing work in progress to a developer can help them to catch things that might be tricky before they are signed off by the client. By sharing the goal behind a particular design feature within the team, a way forward can be devised that meets the goal without blowing the budget.
Scope Creep And Change Requests
The thing about working in the open is that people then start to have ideas (which should be a positive thing), however, most timescales and budgets are not infinite! This means you need to learn to deal with scope creep and change requests in a way that maintains a good working relationship.
We would often get requests for things that were trivial to implement with a message saying how sorry they were about this huge change and requests for incredibly time-consuming things with an assumption it would be quick. Someone who is not a specialist has no idea how long anything will take. Why should they? It is important to remember this rather than getting frustrated about the big changes that are being asked for. Have a conversation about the change, explain why it is more complex than it might appear, and try to work out whether this is a vital addition or change, or just a nice idea that someone has had.
If the change is not essential, then it may be enough to log it somewhere as a phase two request, demonstrating that it has been heard and won’t be forgotten. If the big change is still being requested, we would outline the time it would take and give options. This might mean dropping some other feature if a project has a fixed budget and tight deadline. If there was flexibility then we could outline the implications on both costs and end date.
With regard to costs and timescales, we learned early on to pad our project quotes in order that we could absorb some small changes without needing to increase costs or delay completion. This helped with the relationship between the agency and ourselves as they didn’t feel as if they were being constantly nickel and dimed. Small changes were expected as part of the process of development. I also never wrote these up in a quote as contingency, as a client would read that and think they should be able to get the project done without dipping into the contingency. I just added the time to the quote for the overall project. If the project ran smoothly and we didn’t need that time and money, then the client got a smaller bill. No one is ever unhappy about being invoiced for less than they expected!
This approach can work even for people working in-house. Adding some time to your estimates means that you can absorb small changes without needing to extend the timescales. It helps working relationships if you are someone who is able to say yes as often as possible.
This does require that you become adept at estimating timescales. This is a skill you can develop by logging your time to achieve your work, even if you don’t need to log your time for work purposes. While many of the things you design or develop will be unique, and seem impossible to estimate, by consistently logging your time you will generally find that your ballpark estimates become more accurate as you make yourself aware of how long things really take.
“It all comes down to respect for your colleague’s craft, and sort of knowing your place and precisely where you fit into the project. When working with a developer, I surrender to them in a creative way, and then, defuse whatever power play they might try to make on me by leading the charges with constructive design advice, lightning-fast email replies and generally keeping the spirit upbeat. It’s an odd offense to play. I’m not down with the adversarial stuff. I’m quick to remind them we are all in the same boat, and, who’s paying their paycheck. And that’s not me. It’s the client. I’ll forever be on their team, you know? We make the stuff for the client. Not just me. Not ‘my team’. We do it together. This simple methodology has always gone a long way for me.”
I love this, it underpins everything that this article discusses. Think back to any working relationship that has gone bad, how many of those involved you feeling as if the other person just didn’t understand your point of view or the things you believe are important? Most reasonable people understand that compromise has to be made, it is when it appears that your point of view is not considered that frustration sets in.
There are sometimes situations where a decision is being made, and your experience tells you it is going to result in a bad outcome for the project, yet you are overruled. On a few occasions, decisions were made that I believed so poor; I asked for the decision and our objection to it be put in writing, in order that we could not be held accountable for any bad outcome in future. This is not something you should feel the need to do often, however, it is quite powerful and sometimes results in the decision being reversed. An example would be of a client who keeps insisting on doing something that would cause an accessibility problem for a section of their potential audience. If explaining the issue does not help, and the client insists on continuing, ask for that decision in writing in order to document your professional advice.
Learning The Language
I recently had the chance to bring my CSS Layout Workshop not to my usual groups of front-end developers but instead to a group of UX designers. Many of the attendees were there not to improve their front-end development skills, but more to understand enough of how modern CSS Layout worked that they could have better conversations with the developers who built their designs. Many of them had also spent years being told that certain things were not possible on the web, but were realizing that the possibilities in CSS were changing through things like CSS Grid. They were learning some CSS not necessarily to become proficient in shipping it to production, but so they could share a common language with developers.
There are often debates on whether “designers should learn to code.” In reality, I think we all need to learn something of the language, skills, and priorities of the other people on our teams. As Aaron reminded us, we are all on the same team, we are making stuff together. Designers should learn something about code just as developers should also learn something of design. This gives us more of a shared language and understanding.
“I have basically made a career out of being both technical and creative so I strongly feel that the more crossover the better. Obviously what I do now is wonderfully free of the constraints of client work but even so, I do think that if you can blur those edges, it’s gonna be good for you. It’s why I speak at design conferences and encourage designers to play with creative coding, and I speak at tech conferences to persuade coders to improve their visual acuity. Also with creative coding. It’s good because not only do I get to work across both disciplines, but also I get to annoy both designers and coders in equal measure.”
I have found that introducing designers to browser DevTools (in particular the layout tools in Firefox and also to various code generators on the web) has been helpful. By being able to test ideas out without writing code, helps a designer who isn’t confident in writing code to have better conversations with their developer colleagues. Playing with tools such as gradient generators, clip-path or animation tools can also help designers see what is possible on the web today.
We are also seeing a number of tools that can help people create websites in a more visual way. Developers can sometimes turn their noses up about the code output of such tools, and it’s true they probably won’t be the best choice for the production code of a large project. However, they can be an excellent way for everyone to prototype ideas, without needing to write code. Those prototypes can then be turned into robust, permanent and scalable versions for production.
An important tip for developers is to refrain from commenting on the code quality of prototypes from members of the team who do not ship production code! Stick to what the prototype is showing as opposed to how it has been built.
A Practical Suggestion To Make Things Visual
Eva-Lotta Lamm will be speaking in Toronto about Sketching and perhaps unsurprisingly passed on practical tips for helping conversation by visualizing the problem to support a conversation.
Creating a shared picture of a problem or a solution is a simple but powerful tool to create understanding and make sure they everybody is talking about the same thing.
Visualizing a problem can reach from quick sketches on a whiteboard to more complex diagrams, like customer journey diagrams or service blueprints.
But even just spatially distributing words on a surface adds a valuable layer of meaning. Something as simple as arranging post-its on a whiteboard in different ways can help us to see relationships, notice patterns, find gaps and spot outliers or anomalies. If we add simple structural elements (like arrows, connectors, frames, and dividers) and some sketches into the mix, the relationships become even more obvious.
Visualising a problem creates context and builds a structural frame that future information, questions, and ideas can be added to in a ‘systematic’ way.
Visuals are great to support a conversation, especially when the conversation is ‘messy’ and several people involved.
When we visualize a conversation, we create an external memory of the content, that is visible to everybody and that can easily be referred back to. We don’t have to hold everything in our mind. This frees up space in everybody’s mind to think and talk about other things without the fear of forgetting something important. Visuals also give us something concrete to hold on to and to follow along while listening to complex or abstract information.
When we have a visual map, we can point to particular pieces of content — a simple but powerful way to make sure everybody is talking about the same thing. And when referring back to something discussed earlier, the map automatically reminds us of the context and the connections to surrounding topics.
When we sketch out a problem, a solution or an idea the way we see it (literally) changes. Every time we express a thought in a different medium, we are forced to shape it in a specific way, which allows us to observe and analyze it from different angles.
Visualising forces us to make decisions about a problem that words alone don’t. We have to decide where to place each element, decide on its shape, size, its boldness, and color. We have to decide what we sketch and what we write. All these decisions require a deeper understanding of the problem and make important questions surface fairly quickly.
All in all, supporting your collaboration by making it more visual works like a catalyst for faster and better understanding.
Working in this way is obviously easier if your team is working in the same room. For distributed teams and freelancers, there are alternatives to communicate in ways other than words, e.g. by making a quick Screencast to demonstrate an issue, or even sketching and photographing a diagram can be incredibly helpful. There are collaborative tools such as Milanote, Mural, and Niice; such tools can help with the process Eva-Lotta described even if people can’t be in the same room.
I’m very non-visual and have had to learn how useful these other methods of communication are to the people I work with. I have been guilty on many occasions of forgetting that just because I don’t personally find something useful, it is still helpful to other people. It is certainly a good idea to change how you are trying to communicate an idea if it becomes obvious that you are talking at cross-purposes.
Over To You
As with most things, there are many ways to work together. Even for remote teams, there is a range of tools which can help break down barriers to collaborating in a more visual way. However, no tool is able to fix problems caused by a lack of respect for the work of the rest of the team. A good relationship starts with the ability for all of us to take a step back from our strongly held opinions, listen to our colleagues, and learn to compromise. We can then choose tools and workflows which help to support that understanding that we are all on the same team, all trying to do a great job, and all have important viewpoints and experience to bring to the project.
I would love to hear your own experiences working together in the same room or remotely. What has worked well — or not worked at all! Tools, techniques, and lessons learned are all welcome in the comments. If you would be keen to see tutorials about specific tools or workflows mentioned here, perhaps add a suggestion to our User Suggestions board, too.
At some point in your career, most web designers and developers can relate to issues with scope creep, unexpected project delays, client relationships breaking down, and unpaid invoices. The good news is that there’s an insurance policy to help with these scenarios. In the UK, we call it “professional indemnity insurance.” Elsewhere, it can be called “professional liability” or “errors and omissions insurance.”
Let’s explore what this insurance is and how it’s designed to keep web professionals in business. I’ll also be sharing real stories of businesses who were glad they had insurance.
What Is Professional Indemnity Insurance?
Professional indemnity insurance protects your business from screw-ups and problem clients.
Let’s say a client threatens legal action, claims loss of income or damages due to a service you provided. Even if you’re in the wrong, professional indemnity steps in to ensure the consequences to your business aren’t crippling.
It’s also important to distinguish what professional indemnity insurance isn’t. After all, business insurance is an umbrella term for different types of cover. One of those covers is public liability insurance — or general liability insurance as it’s known in the US.
Public liability insures your business against claims of:
physical injury to clients and members of the public
accidents on your work premises
damage to third-party property.
This is a popular cover for those who have clients visit their office or those who work from client premises. However, in this article, we’re focusing exclusively on professional indemnity.
How Can Insurance Help Me If I’m A Designer Or Developer?
Business insurance isn’t often talked about in web circles. I think it’s because insurers have focused their products and user experience on traditional industries. A lot of the information out there isn’t relevant to those of us working in digital.
To add to that, people don’t equate working with a computer as being a danger or massive liability. Especially when you have all of your clients sign a contract. This can lull designers and developers into a false sense of security. A common objection I hear from web professionals when talking about insurance is:
I can’t cause any damage as a web designer. For anything that does go wrong, I have a clause in my contract that says I’m not liable.
Firstly, I have to debunk the myth of not needing to have insurance because you work with a contract. Contracts don’t alleviate you from liability. They’re useful for laying the foundation of what duties are expected of both parties, but insurance steps into action when those duties come into question.
With every scenario I’m sharing today, they all had the following in common:
A contract was signed by both parties.
They had years of experience in their profession.
They were professionally insured, but never expected to have to use their insurance.
Below are real stories of how professional indemnity insurance helped these designers and developers.
A developer built a web platform to spec, but the client complained of missing functionality.
The developer agreed to build the perceived missing functionality for a further fee, but the client believed it should have been included in the initial build. Not only did the client refuse to pay the remaining invoice, but they threatened legal action if the developer didn’t cooperate.
Having professional indemnity insurance meant that the developer had a team of legal experts behind him. They helped the developer communicate with his client to avoid the problem escalating.
The developer’s professional indemnity policy also had a mitigation costs clause. This meant the insurer paid the amount owed to him by his client, which was thousands of pounds.
Designers and developers often work to tight deadlines. Missing deadlines can cause problems if the project has an important launch date.
A creative agency was hired to design a website, but the project started to unravel. Key members of the team left part way through the project and the pace of the work being completed slowed down.
While the website was delivered in time for launch, it was missing a lot of major features. The client said it wasn’t fit for purpose.
After wasting money on a marketing campaign for the launch, the client refused to pay the final invoice. They also incurred extra expenses from hiring new contractors to complete the website’s missing features.
The client threatened to involve solicitors if the agency pursued payment.
The unpaid invoice was settled by the insurer under the mitigation costs clause of their professional indemnity policy. The insurer also provided the agency with legal advisors to confirm with the client that the project is considered at an end.
Client Relationships Breaking Down
This is a common catalyst for professional indemnity claims. Even if we spot a few amber flags, we like to believe we can make our client relationships work and projects run smoothly. However scary it is, sometimes you have to burn bridges with a client.
A designer did this when working with a client they felt didn’t respect them. An ever-changing scope, long hours, and poor pay lead to a breakdown in the relationship. What had started off as a promising project was now a strained working relationship and source of stress. The designer decided to walk away from the project.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of things. The client wanted to be reimbursed for the money they had already paid to the designer. They also wanted damages for the loss of income due to a delayed launch and compensation for hiring other contractors to complete the project.
A team of legal experts was arranged by the insurer to deal with the designer’s client. A settlement was agreed out of court, which was also covered by the insurer.
What Does A Professional Indemnity Policy Insure Against?
Professional indemnity insurance is a meaty policy, so it isn’t feasible to cover every scenario here. At its core, it’s designed to put your business back in the same financial position after a loss as it was in before a loss. As you can see from the stories above, a loss can be legal fees, client damages, compensation or even unpaid invoices. However, this has to stem from a client expressing dissatisfaction with your work.
While all professional indemnity policies differ, let’s look at some of the key features you can expect to see.
If a client makes a claim against you, your professional indemnity policy will pay the defence costs. This isn’t just for situations that have escalated to court. Insurers want to solve problems before they get to that stage, so they’ll provide a team of legal experts to help negotiate terms with your client.
Intellectual Property Infringement
Web and graphic designers are vulnerable to arguments over copyright infringement, whereas developers could get into disputes over who owns the code. This clause covers claims against copyright infringement, trademarks, slogans, and even domain names.
If you read the stories above, you’ll have seen mitigation costs mentioned where unpaid invoices were paid by the insurer. If a client is dissatisfied with your work, refuses to pay any or all your fees and threatens to bring a claim against you, professional indemnity may pay the amount owed to you by your client. This is only if the insurer believes it will avoid a claim for a greater amount.
Negligence covers a broad spectrum, but think of this as a warranty for any mistakes you make that lead to an unhappy client.
Unintentional Breach Of Contract
Breach of contract can take many forms. It could be something as simple as failing to deliver a project on time or not meeting the client’s expectations. Any breach of contract may entitle the client to make a claim against you.
Some Practical Tips For Buying Insurance
The first question people ask when it comes to buying insurance is, “How much should I insure my business for?”. The level of cover will typically start at £100,000 and can go well into the millions. It can be a difficult question to answer, but there are factors that can help you arrive at a reasonable figure.
If your client contract has an insurance clause, it’s usually for £1,000,000 of professional indemnity. This is the base level of cover a client would expect. It’s the most common level of cover I see businesses buy.
Types of Clients
What type of clients are you working with? Is it large corporations with in-house legal teams, or local small businesses? It’s not unwise to assume the larger companies pose a bigger threat, therefore should have a higher level of cover. You may also find that larger companies will have an insurance clause in their contract.
Type Of Work You Do
A developer building a payment platform will potentially face a bigger risk than somebody designing a website to showcase a restaurant’s menu. Does your work involve dealing with sensitive information or higher-cost products? Are businesses depending on your service to generate income for them?
If it feels like I’ve skirted around answering this, it’s because there isn’t a straightforward figure. A lot of insurers will simply tell you to buy what you’ve budgeted for. If in doubt, consider a base level of £1,000,000 and periodically evaluate your clients and type of work you do. Most insurers allow you to make a mid-term adjustment part way through your policy to increase your level of cover.
Other than the cost of insurance, there are a few other factors to be aware of when buying insurance.
Insuring More Than One Activity
The web is a multi-disciplinary industry. You should be looking for a policy that can cover your various activities. A web developer may also provide web hosting. A designer may also offer consulting services. If you fall outside of the typical box, you might find it useful talking to a broker or using a service like With Jack where your policy can be customized instead of using an online comparison site.
Insuring Your Work Worldwide
By default, professional indemnity policies in the UK exclude US jurisdiction. If you’re working with US clients under US contract law, look for an insurer that can lift the jurisdictional limit from your policy, so you’re insured worldwide. Just beware that it will increase your premium.
Your Policy Can Adapt To Your Needs
Insurance can be flexible. Don’t delay buying insurance because you’re thinking of switching from sole trader to Limited company down the line, or because you’re waiting to add a new service to your business. A good insurance company will allow you to adjust your policy, adapting it as your business changes and grows.
How Insurance Can Help You Build A Bulletproof Business
Whenever I see newcomers ask for advice on starting their business in the web industry, I see a lot of suggestions that look like this:
“Get an accountant immediately.”
“Build a network!”
“Have your clients sign a contract.”
“Monitor your cashflow!”
This is all great advice, of course, but rarely do I see anybody mentioning getting insured. Insurance should be a crucial part of any professional designer or developer’s toolbox.
Offering your professional services to clients comes with a degree of risk. It’s your responsibility to mitigate that risk. You have to be confident that — if something does go wrong — you can get back to work quickly. There can be issues with mistakes in your work, a relationship going sour or a client claiming they’re unhappy with your service. It doesn’t matter how good you are, these things happen!
This is why I’m sharing these stories — to highlight the importance of being insured. I want to get web professionals not just thinking about insurance, but understanding it. Insurance is something we don’t necessarily want to budget for or consider, yet as professionals, we have to. The stories above show how critical it can be.
So yes, work with a contract. Monitor your cash flow. Have an accountant manage your bookkeeping, but also get insured. There’s little point in building your business only for one problem client or mistake to take it away from you.
Every e-commerce business should strive to collect more online reviews. After all, a recent study found that 1 in 5 online shoppers view customer reviews as the single most important factor influencing their decision to make a purchase. But how does web design influence customer reviews? In this article, we’ll look at 3 web design tips e-commerce businesses can use to deliver a better user experience for online shoppers while encouraging more customers to write reviews. Use Visuals to Summarize Important Information At a Glance Chances are, most of your customers’ reviews will center on the same key details. You…
Designing the best experience is a challenge, and every designer and developer has their own way of tackling it. But, well, no matter how different our approaches are, one thing is for sure: We can learn a lot from each other.
To give you your dose of UX inspiration, we are happy to announce that our dear friends at Adobe, are streaming live from the Awwwards Conference which will take place in Berlin on February 8th and 9th.
If you want to craft a delightful marketing experience and you’re using popups, you need to make sure you hold them to the same high standards as the content they are covering up. You can learn a lot by looking at bad website popup examples.
Once you understand what not to do, you’ll default to starting your own popup designs from a better baseline.
What does a bad popup design actually look like?
Well, it depends on your judging criteria, and for the popup examples below, I was considering these seven things, among others:
Clarity: Is it easy to figure out the offer really quickly?
Relevance: Is it related to the content of the current page?
Manipulation: Does it use psychological trickery in the copy?
Design: Is it butt ugly?
Control: Is it clear what all options will do?
Escape: Can you get rid of it easily?
Value: Is the reward worth more than the perceived (or actual) effort?
The following popup examples, each make a number of critical errors in their design decisions. Take a look, and share your own worst popup design examples in the comments!
#1 – Weather Channel Rudeness
What’s so bad about it?
Okay, I get it Weather.com, ads are one of, or your only, revenue stream. There are plenty of sites who ask you to turn off an ad blocker to read the full article. I don’t have a problem with it, and the main paragraph of text here is okay.
What I *do* have a problem with is the copy on the CTA. “Turn off your ad blocker”.
Really? You can’t even say please? That’s just obnoxious.
Fun fact, the Canadian version of the site doesn’t have this popup. Go figure.
(I had to VPN to get the U.S. version.)
If you peer into the background behind the popup, you’ll see a news story headline that begins with “Nightmare Alert”. I think that’s a pretty accurate description of what’s happening here.
Design: Bad. The first thing I saw looks like a big mistake. The Green line with the button hanging off the bottom looks like the designer fell asleep with their head on the mouse.
Clarity: Bad. And what on earth does the headline mean? click.click.click. Upon deeper exploration, it’s the name of the newsletter, but that’s not apparent at all on first load.
Clarity: worse. Then we get the classic “Clear vs. Clever” headline treatment. Why are you talking about the pronunciation of the word “Gif”? Tell me what this is, and why I should care to give you my email.
Design: Bad. Also, that background is gnarly.
#3 – KAM Motorsports Revolution!
What’s so bad about it?
It’s motorsports. It’s not a revolution. Unless they’re talking about wheels going round in circles.
Clarity: Bad. The headline doesn’t say what it is, or what I’ll get by subscribing. I have to read the fine print to figure that out.
Copy: Bad. Just reading the phrase “abuse your email” is a big turn off. Just like the word spam, I wasn’t thinking that you were going to abuse me, but now it’s on my mind.
Relevance: Bad. Newsletter subscription popups are great, they have a strong sense of utility and can give people exactly what they want. But I don’t like them as entry popups. They’re much better when they use an exit trigger, or a scroll trigger. Using a “Scroll Up” trigger is smart because it means they’ve read some of your content, and they are scrolling back up vs. leaving directly, which is another micro-signal that they are interested.
#4 – Utterly Confused
(Source unknown – I found it on confirmshaming.tumblr.com)
What’s so bad about it?
I have no earthly clue what’s going on here.
Clarity: Bad. I had to re-read it five times before I figured out what was going on.
Control: Bad. After reading it, I didn’t know whether I would be agreeing with what they’re going to give me, or with the statement. It’s like an affirmation or something. But I have no way of knowing what will happen if I click either button. My best guess after spending this much time writing about it is that it’s a poll. But a really meaningless one if it is. Click here to find out how many people agreed with “doing better”…
It ends with “Do Better”. I agree. They need to do a lot better.
#5 – Purple Nurple
What’s so bad about it?
Manipulation: Bad. Our first “Confirm Shaming” example. Otherwise known as “Good Cop / Bad Cop”. Forcing people to click a button that says “Detest” on it is so incongruent with the concept of a mattress company that I think they’re just being cheap. There’s no need to speak to people that way.
I found a second popup example by Purple (below), and have to give them credit. The copy on this one is significantly more persuasive. Get this. If you look at the section I circled (in purple), it says that if you subscribe, they’ll keep you up to date with SHIPPING TIMES!!! Seriously? If you’re going to email me and say “Hey Oli, great news! We can ship you a mattress in 2 weeks!”, I’ll go to Leesa, or Endy, or one of a million other Casper copycats.
#6 – Hello BC
What’s so bad about it?
Context: This is an entry popup, and I have never been to this site before.
Relevance: Bad. The site is Hellobc.com, the title says “Supernatural British Columbia”, and the content on the page is about skydiving. So what list is this for? And nobody wants to be on a “list”, stop saying “list”. It’s like saying email blast. Blast your list. If you read the first sentence it gets even more confusing, as you’ll be receiving updates from Destination BC. That’s 4 different concepts at play here.
Design: Bad. It’s legitimately butt ugly. I mean, come on. This is for Beautiful Supernatural British Columbia ffs. It’s stunning here. Show some scenery to entice me in.
Value: Bad. Seeing that form when I arrive on the page is like a giant eff you. Why do they think it’s okay to ask for that much info, with that much text, before I’ve even seen any content?
Control: Bad. And there’s not any error handling. However, the submit button remains inactive until you magically click the right amount of options to trigger it’s hungry hungry hippo mouth to open.
Well, that’s all for today, folks. You might be wondering why there were so few popup examples in this post. Honestly, when the team was rallying to find me a bunch of examples, we all struggled to find many truly awful ones. We also struggled to find many really awesome ones.
This is where YOU come in!
Send me your terrible and awesome popup examples!
If you have any wonderfully brutal, or brutally wonderful examples of website popup design, I’d really appreciate a URL in the comments. If you could share the trigger details too that would be rad (e.g. exit, entrance, scroll, delay etc.).
Tomorrow’s Post is about Awesome Popup Examples! YAY.
So get your butt back here same time tomorrow, where I’ll be sharing my brand new Popup Delight Equation that you can use to grade your own popup designs.
The Middle Eastern market is growing at a rapid pace, and, as a result, demand for IT products is also booming in the region. What is peculiar, though, is that Middle Eastern countries require design that is not only compatible with their needs and comfortable for their users, but that is also suitable to their language standards, making a serious adaptation process very important. Given that most languages spoken in the Middle East are written and read from right to left (such as Arabic, Hebrew, and Urdu), developers often face a range of problems when creating products in those languages.
Although this might seem like not that big of a deal, IT development for right-to-left (RTL) languages entails paying attention to a number of peculiarities. This is only further complicated by the fact that the RTL market is relatively new, and not many resources are available to help developers.
When it comes to building and maintaining a website, one has to take a ton of things into consideration. However, in an era when people want to see results fast, while at the same time knowing that their information online is secure, all webmasters should strive for a) improving the performance of their website, and b) increasing their website’s security.
Both of these goals are vital in order to run a successful website. So, we’ve put together a list of five technologies you should consider implementing to improve both the performance and security of your website.
Enter service workers. Through service workers, all framework and application code to output the HTML view can be precached in the browser, thus speeding up both the first meaningful paint and the time to interact. In this article, I will share my experience with implementing service workers for PoP, an SPA website that runs on WordPress, with the goal of speeding up the loading time and providing offline-first capabilities.