You have the ability to compile more data than you could ever need about your website visitors using conversion rate optimization (CRO) tools. But why should you care about user behavior? After all, CRO is just about maximizing clicks, conversions, and sales, right? Why should it matter what happens in between those actions? I’m here to tell you that it matters — a lot. User behavior gives you insight into how your website visitors act, think, and make decisions. While they’re contemplating a decision — for instance, about whether or not to sign up for your email newsletter — you…
As designers, we know that research should play a pivotal role in any design process. Sadly, however, there are still a lot of organizations that do not see the value of research and would rather jump straight into the visual design stage of the design process.
The excuses given here tend to be:
“We already know what our customers want.”
“We don’t have the time/budget/people.”
“We’ll figure out the flaws in BETA.”
As designers, it is important that we are equipped to be able to have conversations with senior stakeholders to be able to sell and justify the importance of the so-called “Design Discovery” within the design process.
In this article, I’ll demystify what is meant by the term “Design Discovery” to help you better establish the importance of research within the creative process. I’ll also be giving advice on how to handle common pushbacks, along with providing various hints and tips on how to select the best research methods when undertaking user research.
My hope is that by reading this article, you will become comfortable with being able to sell “Design Discovery” as part of the creative process. You will know how to build a “Discovery Plan” of activities that answers all the questions you and your client need to initiate the design process with a clear purpose and direction.
Design With A Purpose
Digital design is not just about opening up Photoshop or Sketch and adding colors, shapes, textures, and animation to make a beautiful looking website or app.
As designers, before putting any pixels on canvas, we should have a solid understanding of:
Who are the users we are designing for?
What are the key tasks those users want to accomplish?
Ask yourself, is the purpose of what you are producing? Is it to help users:
Maintain a healthy lifestyle,
Or something entirely different?
Understanding the answers to these questions should inform your design decisions. But before we design, we need to do some research.
Any design process worth its salt should start with a period of research, which (in agency terms) is often referred to as a “Discovery Phase”. The time and budget designers can allocate to a Discovery phase is determined by many factors such as the amount of the client’s existing project research and documentation as well as the client’s budget. Not to mention your own personal context, which we will come to later.
Business And User Goals
In a Discovery phase, we should ensure adequate time is dedicated to exploring both business and user goals.
Yes, we design experiences for users, but ultimately we produce our designs for clients (be that internal or external), too. Clients are the gatekeepers to what we design. They have the ultimate say over the project and they are the ones that hold the purse strings. Clients will have their own goals they want to achieve from a project and these do not always align with the users’ goals.
In order to ensure what we design throughout our design process hits the sweet spot, we need to make sure that we are spending time exploring both the business and user goals for the project (in the Research/Discovery phase).
Uncovering Business Goals
Typically, the quickest way to establish the business goals for a project is to host a stakeholder workshop with key project stakeholders. Your aim should be to get as many representatives from across different business functions as possible into one room to discuss the vision for the project (Marketing, Finance, Digital, Customer Services, and Sales).
Tip: Large organizations often tend to operate in organizational silos. This allows teams to focus on their core function such as marketing, customer care, etc. It allows staff to be effective without being distracted by activities where they have no knowledge and little or no skills. However, it often becomes a problem when the teams don’t have a singular vision/mission from leadership, and they begin to see their area as the driving force behind the company’s success. Often in these situations, cross-departmental communication can be poor to non-existent. By bringing different members from across the organization together in one room, you get to the source of the truth quicker and can link together internal business processes and ways of working.
The core purpose of the stakeholder workshop should be:
To uncover the Current State (explore what exists today in terms of people, processes, systems, and tools);
To define the Desired Future State (understand where the client wants to get to, i.e. their understandig of what the ideal state should look like);
To align all stakeholders on the Vision for the project.
There are a series of activities that you can employ within your stakeholder workshop. I tend to typically build a full workshop day (7-8 hours) around 4-5 activities allowing 45mins uptil 1 hour for lunch and two 15-min coffee breaks between exercises. Any more that than, and I find energy levels start to dwindle.
I will vary the workshop activities I do around the nature of the project. However, each workshop I lead tends to include the following three core activities:
Explore who the business feels their users are and what are the key user stories we need to deliver against.
Tip:If you’re new to delivering client workshops, I’ve added a list of recommended reading to the references section at the bottom of this article which will give you useful ideas on workshop activities, materials, and group sizes.
Following the workshop, you’ll need to produce a write up of what happened in the workshop itself. It also helps to take lots of photos on the workshop day. The purpose of the write-up should be to not only explain the purpose of the day and key findings, but also recommendations of next steps. Write-ups can be especially helpful for internal communication within the organization and bringing non-attendees up to speed with what happened on the day as well as agreeing on the next steps for the project.
Uncovering User Goals
Of course, Discovery is not just about understanding what the organization wants. We need to validate what users actually want and need.
With the business goals defined, you can then move on to explore the user goals through conducting some user research. There are many different user research methods you can employ throughout the Discovery process from Customer Interviews and Heuristic Evaluations to Usability Tests and Competitor Reviews, and more.
Having a clear idea of the questions you are looking to answer and available budget is the key to helping select the right research methods. It is, for this reason, important that you have a good idea of what these are before you get to this point.
Before you start to select which are the best user research methods to employ, step back and ask yourself the following question:
“What are the questions I/we as a design team need answers to?”
For example, do you want to understand:
How many users are interacting with the current product?
How do users think your product compares to a competitor product?
What are the most common friction points within the current product?
How is the current product’s performance measured?
Do users struggle to find certain key pieces of information?
Grab a pen and write down what you want to achieve from your research in a list.
Tip: If you know you are going to be working on a fixed/tight budget, it is important to get confirmation on what that budget may look like at this point since this will have some bearing on the research methods you choose.
Another tip: User research does not have to happen after organizational research. I always find it helps to do some exploratory research prior to running stakeholder workshops. This ensures you go into the room with a baseline understanding of the organization its users and some common pain points. Some customers may not know what users do on their websites/apps nowadays; I like to go in prepared with some research to hand whether that be User Testing, Analytics Review or Tree Testing outputs.
Selecting Research Methods
The map below from the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) shows an overview of 20 popular user research methods plotted on a 3-dimensional framework. It can provide a useful guide for helping you narrow down on a set of research methods to use.
The diagram may look complicated, but let us break down some key terms.
Along the x-axis, research methods are separated by the types of data they produce.
Quantitative data involves numbers and figures. It is great for answering questions such as:
Qualitative data involves quote, observations, photos, videos, and notes.
What do users think?
How do users feel?
Why do users behave in a certain way?
What are users like?
What frustrates users?
Along the y-axis, research methods are separated by the user inputs.
This data is based on what users do (outcomes).
This data is based on attitudes and opinions.
Finally, research methods are also classified by their context. Context explains the nature of the research, some research methods such as interviews require no product at all. Meanwhile, usability tests require users to complete scripted tasks and tell us how they think and feel.
Using the Model
Using your question list, firstly identify whether you are looking to understand users opinions (what people say) or actions (what people do) and secondly whether you are looking to understand why they behave in a certain way (why and how to fix) or how many of them are behaving in a certain way (how many and how much).
Now look at this simplified version of the matrix, and you should be able to work out which user research methods to focus in on.
If you’re looking to understand users’ attitudes and beliefs and you don’t have a working product then ‘Focus Groups’ or ‘Interviews’ would be suitable user research methods.
If you want to understand how many users are interacting with the current website or app then an ‘Analytics Review’ would be the right research method to adopt. Meanwhile, if you want to test how many people will be impacted by a change, A/B testing would be a suitable method.
No Silver Bullet
By now you should realize there is no shortcut to the research process; not one single UX research method will provide all the answers you need for a project.
Analytics reviews, for example, are a great low-cost way to explore behavioral, quantitative data about how users interact with an existing website or application.
However, this data falls short of telling you:
Why users visited the site/app in the first place (motivation);
What tasks they were looking to accomplish (intent);
If users were successful in completing their tasks (task completion);
How users found their overall experience (satisfaction).
These types of questions are best answered by other research methods such as ‘Customer Feedback’ surveys (also known as ‘Intercept Surveys’) which are available from tools such as Hotjar, Usabilla, and Qualaroo.
In order to build a holistic view of the user experience, the Research/Discovery process should typically last around 3 to 4 weeks and combine a combination of the different research methods.
Use your list of questions and the NNG matrix to help you decide on the most suitable research methods for your project. Wherever possible, try to use complimentary research methods to build a bigger picture of users motivations, drivers, and behaviors.
Tip: The UX Recipe tool is a great website for helping you pull together the different research methods you feel you need for a project and to calculate the cost of doing so.
Which brings me on to my next point.
Contexts And Budgets
The time and budget which you can allocate to Discovery will vary greatly depending on your role. Are you working in-house, freelance, or in an agency? Some typical scenarios are as follows:
Clients employ agencies to build projects that generate the right results. To get the right results, you firstly need to ensure you understand both the business’ needs and the needs of the users as these are almost always not the same. Agencies almost always start with a detailed Discovery phase often led by the UX Design team. Budgets are generally included in the cost of the total project, as such ample time is available for research.
In-House: Large Company
When working in a large company, you are likely to already have a suite of tools along with a program of activity you’re using to measure the customer experience. Secondly, you are likely to be working alongside colleagues with specialist skills such as Data Analysts, Market Researchers, and even a Content Team. Do not be afraid to say hello to these people and see if they will be willing to help you conduct some research. Customer service teams are also worth befriending. Customer service teams are the front line of a business where customer problems are aired for all to see. They can be a goldmine of useful information. Go spend some time with the team, listen to customer service calls, and review call/chat logs.
In-House: Smaller Company
When working as part of an in-house team in a smaller company, you are likely to be working on a tight budget and are spread across a lot of activities. Nevertheless, with some creative thinking, you can still undertake some low-cost research tasks such as Site Intercept surveys, Analytics reviews, and Guerilla testing, or simply review applied research.
When working freelance, your client often seeks you out with a very fixed budget, timeline and set of deliverables in mind, i.e. “We need a new Logo” or “We need a landing page design.” Selling Discovery as part of the process can often be a challenge freelancers typically undertake since they mostly end up using their own time and even working overtime. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Clients can be willing to spend their time in the Discovery pre-project phase. However, you need to be confident to be able to sell yourself and defend your process. This video has some excellent tips on how to sell Discovery to clients as a freelancer.
Selling Design Discovery
As you can see from the above, selling Design Discovery can be a challenge depending on your context. It’s much harder to sell Design Discovery when working as a freelancer than it is working within an agency.
Some of the most commons excuses organizations put forward for discounting the research process are:
“We don’t have the budget.”
“We’ll find it out in BETA.”
“We don’t have time.”
“We already know what users want.”
When selling Design Discovery and combating these points of view, remember these key things:
It doesn’t have to be expensive.
Research does not have to be costly especially with all of the tools and resources we have available today. You can conduct a Guerilla User Testing session for the price of a basic coffee. Furthermore, you can often source willing participants from website intercepts, forums or social media groups who are more than willing to help.
It’s much harder to fix later.
The findings that come as an output from research can be invaluable. It is much more cost and time effective to spend some of the project budgets up front to ensure there are no assumptions and blind spots than it is to course correct later on if the project has shifted off tangent. Uncovering blockers or significant pain points later into the project can be a huge drain on time as well as monetary resources.
Organizational views can often be biased.
Within large organizations especially, a view of ‘what users want’ is often shaped by senior managers’ thoughts and opinions rather than any applied user research. These viewpoints then cascade down to more junior members of the team who start to adopt the same viewpoints. Validating these opinions are actually correct viewpoints is essential.
There are other cross-company benefits.
Furthermore, a Discovery process also brings with it internal benefits. By bringing members from other business functions together and setting a clear direction for the project, you should win advocates for the project across many business functions. Everyone should leave the room with a clear understanding of what the project is, its vision, and the problems you are trying to fix. This helps to alleviate an enormous amount of uncertainty within the organization.
I like to best explain the purpose of the discovery phase by using my adaptation of the Design Squiggle by Damien Newman:
See how the Discovery phase allows us time to tackle the most uncertainty?
Waterfall And Agile
A Discovery phase can be integrated into both Waterfall and Agile project management methodologies.
In Waterfall projects, the Discovery phase happens at the very start of the project and can typically run for 4 to 12 weeks depending on the size of the project, the number of interdependent systems, and the areas which need to be explored.
In Agile projects, you may run a Discovery phase upfront to outline the purpose for the project and interconnect systems along with mini 1 to 2-week discovery process at the start of each sprint to gather the information you need to build out a feature.
The next time you start on any digital project:
Make sure you allow time for a Discovery phase at the start of your project to define both business and user goals, and to set a clear vision that sets a clear purpose and direction for the project to all stakeholders.
Be sure to run a Stakeholder workshop with representatives from a variety of different business functions across the business (Marketing, Finance, Digital, Customer Services, Sales).
Before selecting which user research methods to use on your project, write down a list of questions you wish to understand and get a budget defined. From there, you can use the NNG matrix to help you understand what the best tool to use is.
If you found this article interesting, here is some recommended further reading:
If you are interested in running Stakeholder workshops, I’d highly recommend reading the following books. Not only will they give you useful hints and tips on how to run workshops, they’re packed full of different workshop exercises to help you get answers to specific questions.
Redesigning A Digital Interior Design Shop (A Case Study)
Good products are the result of a continual effort in research and design. And, as it usually turns out, our designs don’t solve the problems they were meant to right away. It’s always about constant improvement and iteration.
I have a client called Design Cafe (let’s call it DC). It’s an innovative interior design shop founded by a couple of very talented architects. They produce bespoke designs for the Indian market and sell them online.
DC approached me two years ago to design a few visual mockups for their website. My scope then was limited to visuals, but I didn’t have the proper foundation upon which to base those visuals, and since I didn’t have an ongoing collaboration with the development team, the final website design did not accurately capture the original design intent and did not meet all of the key user needs.
A year and a half passed and DC decided to come back to me. Their website wasn’t providing the anticipated stream of leads. They came back because my process was good, but they wanted to expand the scope to give it space to scale. This time, I was hired to do the research, planning, visual design and prototyping. This would be a makeover of the old design based on user input and data, and prototyping would allow for easy communication with the development team. I assembled a small team of two: me and a fellow designer, Miroslav Kirov, to help run proper research. In less than two weeks, we were ready to start.
Useful tip: I always kick off a project by talking to the stakeholders. For smaller projects with one or two stakeholders, you can blend the kick-off and the interview into one. Just make sure it’s no longer than an hour.
Our two stakeholders are both domain experts. They have a brick-and-mortar store in the center of Bangalore that attracts a lot of people. Once in there, people are delighted by the way the designs look and feel. Our clients wanted to have a website that conveys the same feeling online and that would make its visitors want to go to the store.
There wasn’t a clear distinction between new, returning and potential clients.
DC’s selling points weren’t clearly communicated.
They had future plans for transforming the website into a hub for interior design ideas. And, last but not least, DC wanted to attract fresh design talent.
Defining the Goals
We shortlisted all of our goals for the project. Our main goal was to explain in a clear and appealing manner what DC does for existing and potential clients in a way that engages them to contact DC and go to the store. Some secondary goals were:
lower the drop-off rate,
capture some customer data,
clarify the brand’s message,
make the website responsive,
explain budgets better,
provide decision-making assistance and become an information influencer.
Our number-one key metric was to convert users to leads who visit the store, which measures the main goal. We needed to improve that by at least 5% initially — a realistic number we decided on with our stakeholders. In order to do that, we needed to:
shorten the conversion time (time needed for a user to get in touch with DC),
increase the form application rate,
increase the overall satisfaction users get from the website.
We would track these metrics by setting up Google Analytics Events once the website is online and by talking with leads who come into the store through the website.
Useful tip: Don’t focus on too many metrics. A handful of your most important ones are enough. Measuring too many things will dilute the results.
In order for us to gain the best possible insights, our user interviews had to target both previous and potential clients, but we had to go minimal, so we picked two potential and three existing clients. They were mostly from the IT sector — DC’s main target group. Given our pretty tight schedule, we started with desk research while we waited for all five user interviews to be scheduled.
Useful tip: You need to know who you are designing for and what research has been done before. Stakeholders tell you their story, but you need to compare it to data and to users’ opinions, expectations and needs.
We could reference some Google Analytics data from the website:
Most users went to the kitchen, then to the bedroom, then to the living room.
The high bounce rate of 80%+ was probably due to a misunderstanding of the brand message and unclear flows and calls to action (CTAs).
Traffic was mostly mobile.
Most users landed on the home page, 70% of them from ads and 16% directly (mostly returning customers), and the rest were equally divided between Facebook and Google Search.
90% of social media traffic came from Facebook. Expanding brand awareness to Instagram and Twitter could be beneficial.
There’s a lot of local competition in the sector. Here were some repeating patterns:
video spots and elaborate galleries showing the completed designs with clients discussing their services;
attractive design presentations with high-quality photos;
targeting of group’s appropriate messages;
quizzes for picking styles;
big bold typography, less text and more visuals.
DC’s customers are mostly aged between 28 and 40, with a secondary set in the higher bracket of 38 and 55 who come for their second home. They are IT or business professionals with a mid to high budget. They value good customer experience but are price-conscious and very practical. Because they are mostly families, very often the wives are the hidden dominant decision-maker.
We talked with five users (three existing and two potential customers) and sent out a survey to 20 more (mixing existing and potential customers; see Design Cafe Questionnaire).
Useful tip: Be sure to schedule all of your interviews ahead of time, and plan for more people than you need. Include extreme users along with the mainstreams. Chances are that if something works for an extreme user, it will work for the rest as well. Extremes will also give you insight about edge cases that mainstreams just don’t care about.
All users were confused about the main goal of the website. Some of their opinions:
“It lacks a proper flow.”
“I need more clarity in the process, especially in terms of timelines.”
“I need more educational information about interior design.”
Everyone was pretty well informed about the competition. They had tried other companies before DC. All found out about DC by either a reference, Google, ads or by physically passing by the store. And, boy, did they love the store! They treated it like an Apple Store for interior design. Turns out that DC really did a great job with that.
Useful tip: Negative feedback helps us find opportunities for improvement. But positive feedback is also pretty useful because it helps you identify which parts of the product are worth retaining and building upon.
Personal touch, customer service, prices and quality of materials were their main motivations for choosing DC. People insisted on being able to see the price of every element on a page at any time (the previous design didn’t have prices on the accessories).
We made an interesting but somehow expected discovery about device usage. Mobile devices were used mostly for consumption and browsing, but when it came to ordering, most people opened their laptops.
The survey results mostly overlapped with the interviews:
Users found DC through different channels, but mainly through referrals.
They didn’t quite understand the current state of the website. Most of them had searched for or used other services before DC.
All of the surveyed users ordered kitchen designs. Almost all had difficulty choosing the right design style.
Most users found the process of designing their own interior hard and were interested in features that could make their choice easier.
Useful tip: Writing good survey questions takes time. Work with a researcher to write them, and schedule double the time you think you’ll need.
User Journeys Overview
Talking with customers helped us gain useful insight about which scenarios would be most important to them. We made an affinity diagram with everything we collected and started prioritizing and combining items in chunks.
The result was seven point-of-view problem statements that we decided to design for:
A new customer needs more information about DC because they need proof of credibility.
A returning customer needs quick access to the designs because they don’t want to waste time.
All customers need to be able to browse the designs at any time.
All customers want to browse designs relevant to their tastes, because that will shorten their search time.
Potential leads need a way to get in touch with DC in order to purchase a design.
All customers, once they’ve ordered, need to stay up to date with their order status, because they need to know what they are paying for and when they will be getting it.
All customers want to read case studies about successful projects, because that will reassure them that DC knows its stuff.
Using this list, we came up with design solutions for every journey.
The previous home page of Design Cafe was confusing. It needed to present more information about the business. The lack of information caused confusion and people were unsure what DC is about. We divided the home page into several sections and designed it so that every section could satisfy the needs of one of our target groups:
For new visitors (the purple flow), we included a short trip through the main unique selling points (USPs) of the service, the way it works, some success stories and an option to start the style quiz.
For returning visitors (the blue flow), who will most likely skip the home page or use it as a waypoint, the hero section and the navigation pointed a way out to browsing designs.
We left a small part at the end of the page (the orange flow) for potential employees, describing what there is to love about DC and a CTA that goes to the careers page.
The whole point of the onboarding process was to capture the customer’s attention so that they could continue forward, either directly to the design catalog or through a feature we called the style quiz.
We made the style quiz to help users narrow down their results.
DC previously had a feature called a 3D builder that we decided to remove. It allowed you to set your room size and then drag-and-drop furniture, windows and doors into the mix. In theory, this sounds good, but in reality people treated it much like a game and expected it to function like a minified version of The Sims’ Build Mode.
Everything made with the 3D builder was ending up completely modified by the designers. The tool was giving people a lot of design power and too many choices. On top of that, supporting it was a huge technical endeavor because it was a whole product on its own.
Compared to it, the style quiz was a relatively simple feature:
It starts out by asking about colors, textures and designs you like.
It continues to ask about room type.
Eventually, it displays a curated list of designs based on your answers.
The whole quiz wizard extends to only four steps and takes less than a minute to complete. But it makes people invest a tad bit of their time, thus creating engagement. The result: We’re improving conversion time and overall satisfaction.
Alternatively, users can skip the style quiz and go directly to the design catalog, then use the filters to fine-tune the results. The page automatically shows kitchen designs, what most people are looking for. And for the price-conscious, we made a small feature that allows them to input their room’s size, and all prices are recalculated.
If people don’t like anything from the catalog, chances are they are not DC’s target customer and there’s not much we can do to keep them on the website. But if they do like a design, they could decide to go forward and get in touch with DC, which brings us to the next step in the process.
Getting in Touch
Contacting DC needed to be as simple as possible. We implemented three ways to do that:
through the chat, shown on every page — the quickest way;
by opening the contact page and filling out the form or by just calling DC on the phone;
by clicking “Book a consultation” in the header, which asks for basic information and requests an appointment (upon submission, the next steps are shown to let users know what exactly is going to happen).
The rest of this journey continues offline: Potential customers meet a DC designer and, after some discussions and planning, place an order. DC notifies them of any progress via email and sends them a link to the progress tracker.
The progress tracker is in a user menu in the top-right corner of the design. Its goal is to show a timeline of the order. Upon an update, an “unread” notification pops out. Most users, however, will usually find out about order updates through email, so the entry point for the whole flow will be external.
Once the interior design order is installed and ready, users will have the completed order on the website for future reference. Their project could be featured on the home page and become part of the case studies.
One of DC’s long-term goals is for its website to become an influencer hub for interior design, filled with case studies, advice and tips. It’s part of a commitment to providing quality content. But DC doesn’t have that content yet. So, we decided to start that section with minimal effort and introduce it as a blog. The client would gradually fill it up with content and detailed process walkthroughs. These would be later expanded and featured on the home page. Case studies are a feature that could significantly increase brand awareness, though they would take time.
Preparing for Visual Design
With the critical user journeys all figured out and wireframed, we were ready to delve into visual design.
Data showed that most people open the website on their phones, but interviews proved that most of them were more willing to buy through a computer, rather than a mobile device. Also, desktop and laptop users were more engaged and loyal. So, we decided to design for desktop-first and work down to the smaller (mobile) resolutions from it in code.
We started collecting visual ideas, words and images. Initially, we had a simple word sequence based on our conversations with the client and a mood board with relevant designs and ideas. The main visual features we were after were simplicity, bold typography, nice photos and clean icons.
Useful tip: Don’t follow a certain trend just because everybody else is doing it. Create a thorough mood board of relevant reference designs that approximate the look and feel you’re going after. This look should be in line with your goals and target audience.
Our client had already started working on a photo shoot, and the results were great. Stock photography would have ruined everything personal about this website. The resulting photos blended with the big type pretty well and helped with that simple language we were after.
Initially, we went with a combination of Raleway and Roboto for the typography. Raleway is a great font but a bit overused. The second iteration was Abril Fatface and Raleway for the copy. Abril Fatface resembles the splendor of Didot and made the whole page a lot more heavy and pretentious. It was an interesting direction to explore, but it didn’t resonate with the modern techy feel of DC. The last iteration was Nexa for the titles, which turned out to be the best choice due to its modern and edgy feel, with Lato — both a great fit.
Useful tip: Play around with type variations. List them side by side to see how they compare. Go to Typewolf, MyFonts or a similar website to get inspired. Look for typefaces that make sense for your product. Consider readability and accessibility. Don’t go overboard with your type scale; keep it as minimal as possible. Check out Butterick’s summary of key rules if in doubt.
DC already had a color scheme, but they gave us the freedom to experiment. The main colors were tints of cyan, golden and plum (or, rather, a strange kind of bordeaux), but the original hues were too faded and didn’t blend with each other well enough.
Useful tip: If the brand already has colors, test slight variations to see how they fit the overall design. Or remove some of the colors and use only one or two. Try designing your layout in monochrome and then test different color combinations on an already mocked-up design. Check out some other great tips by Wojciech Zieliński in his article “How to Use Colors in UI Design: Practical Tips and Tools”.
Here’s what we decided on in the end:
The way we presented all of those type variants and colors was through iterations on the home page.
We focused the first visual iteration on getting the main information clearly visible and squeezing the most out of the testimonials and style quiz sections. After some discussion, we figured it was too plain and needed improvement. We made changes to the fonts and icons and modified some sections, shown in iterations 2 and 3 in the image below.
We didn’t have the time to design custom icons, but the NounProject came to the rescue. With the SVG file format, it’s very simple to change whatever you need and mix it with something else. This sped up our work immensely, and with visual iteration number 4, we signed off on the design of the home page. This allowed us to focus on components and use them as LEGO blocks to build the templates.
I listed most components (see PDF) in a Sketch artboard to keep them accessible. Whenever the design needed a new pattern, we’d come back to this page and look for ways to reuse elements. Having a visual system in place, even for a small project like this, kept things consistent and simple.
Useful tip: Components, atoms, blocks — no matter what you call them, they are all part of systematic thinking about your design. Design systems help you gain a deeper understanding of your product by urging you to focus on patterns, design principles and design language. If you’re new to this approach, check out Brad Frost’s Atomic Design or Alla Kholmatova’s Design Systems.
Prototyping With Code
For our prototype, we decided to use code and set up a simple build process to speed up our work.
Picking tools and processes
Gulp automated everything. If you haven’t heard of it, check out Callum Macrae’s awesome guide. Gulp enabled us to handle all of the styles, scripts and templates, and it outputs a ready-to-use minified production version of the code.
Some of the more important Gulp plugins we used were:
This allows you to use PostCSS. You can bundle it with plugins like cssnext to get a pretty robust and versatile setup.
This sets up a server and automatically updates the view on every change. You can set it to fire up upon starting “gulp watch”, and everything will be synced up on hitting “Save”.
This is a Handlebars implementation for Gulp. It’s a quick way to create templates and reuse them. Imagine you have a button that stays the same throughout the whole design. It would be a symbol in Sketch. It’s basically the same concept but wrapped in HTML. Whenever you want to use that button, you just include the button template. If you change something in the master template, it propagates the changes to every other button in the design. You do that for everything in the design system, and thus you’re using the same paradigm for both visual design and code. No more static page mockups!
Components and templates
We had to mix atomic CSS with module-based CSS to get the most of both worlds. Atomic CSS handled all of the general styles, while the CSS modules handled edge cases.
In atomic CSS, atoms are immutable CSS classes that do just one thing. We used Tachyons, an atomic toolkit. In Tachyons, every class you apply is a single CSS property. For instance, .b stands for font-weight: bold, and .ttu stands for text-transform: uppercase. A paragraph with bold uppercase text would look like this:
<p class="b ttu">Paragraph</p>
Useful tip: Once you get familiar with atomic CSS, it becomes a blazingly fast way to prototype stuff — and a very systematic one, because it urges you to constantly think about reusability and optimization.
A major benefit of prototyping with code is that you can demo complex interactions. We coded most of our critical journeys this way.
Useful tip: With HTML prototypes, you will have to decide the level of fidelity you want to achieve. That might get pretty time-consuming if you go too deep. But you can’t really go wrong with that either because as you go deeper and deeper into the code and fine-tune every possible detail, at some point you’ll start delivering the actual product.
Clients, especially small B2C companies, love when you deliver a design solution that they can use immediately. We shipped just that.
Unfortunately, you can’t always predict a project’s pace, and it took several months for our code to be integrated in DC’s workflow. In its current state, this code is ready for testing, and what’s better is that it’s pretty easy to modify. So, if DC decides to conduct some user tests in the future, any changes will be easy to make.
Collaborate with other designers whenever possible. When two people are thinking about the same problem, they will deliver better ideas. Take turns in taking notes during interviews, and brainstorm goals, ideas and visuals together.
We shipped a working version of the website, and the client was able to use it right away. If you aren’t able to sign off on the code, try to get as close to the final product as possible, and communicate that visually to your client’s team. Document your design — it’s a deliverable that will be used and abused by everyone, from developers to marketers to in-house designers. Set aside some time to make sure all of your ideas are properly understood by everyone.
Scheduling interviews and writing good surveys can be time-consuming. You have to plan ahead and recruit more people than you think you will need. Hire an experienced researcher to work with you on these tasks, and spend some time with your team to identify your goals. Be careful when sourcing participants. Your client can help you find the right people, but you’ll need to stick to participants who meet the right demographics.
Schedule enough time for planning. Project goals, processes, and responsibilities should be clear to everyone on your team. You need time to allow for multiple iterations on prototypes, because prototypes improve products quickly. If you don’t want to mess with code, there are various ways to prototype. But even if you do, you don’t need to write flawless code — just write designer’s code. Or, as Alan Cooper once said, “Sometimes the best way for a designer to communicate their vision is to code something up so that their colleagues can interact with the proposed behavior, rather than just see still images. The goal of such code is not the same as the goal of the code that coders write. The code isn’t for deployment, but for design [and] its purpose is different.”
Don’t focus on a unique design per se, unless that’s the main feature of your product. Better to spend time on things that matter more. Use frameworks, icons and visual assets where possible, or outsource them to another designer and focus on your core product goals and metrics.
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