The barrier to building cool stuff has never been lower. We have tools to take us from idea to mockup to prototype to a finished product — within hours and for little to no money. Most of these tools are delightfully breezy to use. And if we get stuck, the internet abounds with tutorials, communities, and friendly customer support folks to help us along the way. We’re more empowered than ever to build things ourselves.
All in all, building digital things can now be fast, convenient, and even pretty fun. And this new paradigm of making things has turned the way we use design on its head.
Before we had the resources we have today, building software meant investing a great deal of capital and thousands of hours of work. So if a founder built something just because it seemed like a good idea, that was a wildly risky assumption. And the only way to mitigate that risk was with a foundation of strong design research. Designers could find out if people actually needed a product, and if they’d really change their behaviors to use it.
Today, it’s not so risky to build an idea to fruition without testing it out first. You can put together a minimum viable product all by yourself, within a couple days, and only spend a few dollars. If you then find out your idea wasn’t picking up traction, it will bum you out, but you haven’t lost much. In fact you’ve learned a lot in the process!
So where does design factor in to this new way of making things? Does design even matter anymore?
I’m a designer by profession, so you’re probably expecting a rousing “heck yes it still matters!” from me. But if I’m being honest, the truth is a lot more complicated than that.
The thing about design is that it has no inherent business value.
Business value comes down to building the right product for the right users at the right price point. There’s not much more to it than that.
Take airlines. Virgin America was known for being the trendy, edgy one. The cabins had purple light that was more than slightly reminiscent of the club. And their booking platform was lovely to use. Clean, calming, no extraneous information, great use of white space.
Now let’s look at American Airlines. On their site at the time, you had to scroll a bit to get to the booking info. Because there was an image carousel dominating the screen.
Virgin America folded two years ago, shortly after this screenshot was taken. American Airlines is currently the most profitable airline in the US. (And while they thankfully ditched the carousel, the UI has barely changed in that time.)
In the end, no one was going to choose Virgin because they had better design. (Okay, except maybe designers ourselves, we’re weird like that.) They were going to choose American because the prices were lower and they had more direct flights. That’s the inherent value.
So we can build products from scratch without design research. And a successful company’s value isn’t hindered by subpar visual design. But there’s an entire vast terrain of middle ground where design can make or break your success, especially as an indie maker.
Design is fundamentally about communication.
In visual design, we create clarity using basic principles: proximity, similarity, continuity, closure, and connectedness. (This is called Gestalt. It comes from a psychological theory about how human visual perception creates a sense of wholeness and completion. It’s very cool and totally worth taking a deep dive on the subject!) Designers work with these principles to create a hierarchy of information. We use visual elements to tell you what’s important and direct your actions.
In experience design, it’s all about learning what the user needs and what their behaviors are. This way, we gain the best possible understanding of who is on the other end of the product. We most often achieve this through research: forming questions and then gathering data — by thinking, observing, interviewing, experimenting, and reading — and finally analyzing the results. Then we take the research to create product stories, journey maps, and user personas to see how it factors in to the product.
A maker who understands how to work with user experience design is at a huge advantage. They’ll have a crystal clear understanding of how the product fits into the users’ lives, and why it matters to them. Combine this with thoughtfully deployed visual design, which makes the product easy and delightful for your users. Suddenly, the path to creating business value isn’t so opaque anymore. You’ve built the right product for the right users, and this has likely taught you a lot about what the right price point should be.
And you don’t have to be a design whiz to leverage its benefits. Just like how development tools have grown in leaps and bounds, so have design resources. Front end frameworks have a baked in hierarchy of information that’s enough to get your design off to a good start. The trick to getting better at design isn’t so different from getting better at coding. Learn from the skills shared by people experienced in the industry, then iterate. Be open to critique and evolve your taste and knowledge. DesignBetter.co is a great place to learn design principles from leaders in the industry, and Dribbble is the go-to inspiration source for visual design trends.
The easiest way to improve your user experience is to talk to the people trying your product. Maker communities like Product Hunt, Indie Hackers, and Work In Progress are great places to get constructive feedback. Once you’ve gained some traction, being active and responsive on social media gives you a direct and organic line to your users. Let people tell you what they want.