There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about iterative design. And the difference between the two can add up to the difference between designing something that really works and something that just doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Now, I’ve gone on record before with my belief that iterative design is the best method there is to reach an elegant design, but it can actually be an obstacle to success if you don’t already have a good grasp of the problem you’re trying to solve or what you’re trying to build.
And while I agree with Joshua Porter’s discussion of how design can either be about building interfaces or solving problems, I think this sidesteps the real issue at play.
The main obstacles that face designers who use an iterative approach are:
- We iterate blindly, trusting in sheer numbers to result in the best solution
- We don’t develop theories in the best possible way
- We don’t iterate with customers early enough
In short, to iterate properly and reach a truly elegant and effective design, our iterative process must be (1) planned, (2) diverse, and (3) early.
Am I blindly iterating?
The Design Staff blog recently got me thinking about prototyping applications. Their recent post on the topic covered a very important piece of the puzzle that is consistently missing from most iterative design processes. Here’s what they do: On the second day of a five-day process, they take the time to identify as many possible solutions that fit what they know at that time. Most design processes rush through or even skip this step in a rush to build an interface around the first or easiest solution that occurs to them. But it’s actually one of the most vital steps a design team can take.
Mocking up a design or building an interface helps us understand the real complexity of the problem. It forces us to adjust our strategy and recalculate when and where we introduce certain concepts to the user. This is great! We should do this A LOT, because it gives us an increasing number of opportunities to learn and think creatively about the problem before us.
But if we’re unclear as to how we even want to solve a problem it could take dozens of these iterations to chip away and reveal an elegant solution.
There’s often a badge of honor that comes from dozens or even hundreds of iterations. It’s not hard to find a designer bragging about how many paths they took to get to a solution. There’s a point where iterations like this go from due diligence to procrastination. Brute force is rarely a good way to do things, and neither is sheer quantity of meaningless experimentation.
Without a theory and a clear evaluation of whether or not it’s valid, an iteration isn’t much better than gambling. You might work out something better, you might not. You might do something great and not even realize it. Your trash pile could be a gold mine of elegant solutions to problems that you didn’t even understand at the time, and never got a chance to embrace because you didn’t properly develop your theory of the problem in the first place.
Update: my favorite illustration of this idea is in Des Traynor’s blog post Wireframing for Web Apps. It does a great job of making the distinction between refinement and exploration.
So how do I properly develop my theories?
Like a lot of designers, I have a deep-seated hatred for two common evils of the modern workplace: meetings and the need for consensus. But both can be useful when exploring a problem. With complex problems of the kind we’re talking about designing for, even the most expert among us should make a concerted effort to get outside of our own heads and use the brain cells of others — yes, others — to reach a viable solution.
Nothing works wonders like a diverse team. Getting multiple people with overlapping expertise involved is a great way to poke and prod at your ideas, play devil’s advocate, and force you to dig a little deeper. Most of us try to convince ourselves we can do this on our own, but it’s too easy to rationalize your own ideas as correct and end up sabotaging your work. Don’t let that happen.
On the matter of consensus, I don’t mean consensus around the final choice. I mean consensus around which theories are legitimate to pursue in the first place. It’s usually not that difficult to propose 872 different approaches to a problem. The hard part is identifying which of those approaches are attached in any way to reality. Use other people’s brains to help you identify which handful of theories are truly worth pursuing.
Once you’ve developed 3 or 5 legitimate paths to a solution, you can compare and contrast them in a way that reveals their potential value much more clearly.
When do I iterate?
Now that you’ve chosen your handful of workable theories, it’s time to choose the one with the most potential and start building. But — and this is the really important part — once you have something worth using, get it in front of some customers and start validating your theories with real people. Now is when you need to iterate like crazy — keep tweaking your design based on the feedback you receive until you feel as though you’ve taken that theory as far as you can.
Remember, now that you’ve thoroughly explored your first theory, your other theories should have more context and you can better judge their value. If you want to abandon your first theory, you will most likely already know what theory to pursue next. If not, stop iterating, step back, and find some better theories to pursue. Don’t iterate for the sake of iterating.
Iterate like you mean it!
Once you stop using iterations to discover a solution and instead apply it as a tool for validating theories, your iterations will become much more efficient. Only iterate with an expected result that you can verify. Use your previously tested theories to inform future theories. And, for the love of God, get in front of customers as soon as possible.
“Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.” – Archimedes
Simple and powerful interfaces have a few things in common:
- visual hierarchy that makes the most important action of the page the most noticeable
- context builders to help people predict the results of taking an action
- previous actions are reiterated through the results
If you were to think about this process as a feedback loop, you would want it to be as small and tight as possible. The ultimate goal is for everyone who uses the interface to know exactly what to do, be confident in the things they do, and know exactly what caused the results. It should be as simple as pulling a lever to get some candy (sorry, I have a sweet tooth).
Even though some of the most basic systems typically require more complex interfaces than a lever, they should still have the same clarity of purpose. Large books, when well edited, can have a clear and simple lesson. Why can’t we do the same with complex interfaces?
Develop a strong plot
When relevant but unnecessary design elements get in the way it’s a lot like a book sharing too many details. Every hero eats, bathes, and sleeps. That doesn’t mean people need to see everything she does to understand the plot. Be careful with what you share and ruthlessly cut out any design element that doesn’t contribute to the primary goal of the interface.
Regularly show you’re interfaces to others, ask them what they think it does, and carefully listen. If they can’t identify the main idea/theme/goal of the interface within a few seconds, there’s a good chance you’ve lost your way. Distractions from secondary features are strong indicators you’re providing too many details and obscuring the plot.
Foreshadow all the things!
Building expectations and meeting those expectations will make your customers feel as though they’ve mastered your application. There is always a big twist in a great suspense story, but that’s the last thing you want to do to people using your product. They should be surprised by the quality of the content or results, yet find the process totally predictable.
With every design element, take the time to hint at what might happen when tapped/clicked/swiped. For example, if someone is in a multiple step process, call out the next step and reveal how many steps are left. Don’t leave them wondering what to do next and how long it will take.
Don’t skimp on the celebrations
When something significant happens, don’t think of it as a simple checkbox or another table row. Take the time to show your customers what happened, why it matters, and give them credit for doing it. Powerfully closing that feedback loop is a great way to give closure and build confidence.
Make sure your customers know how they impact their own world. In complex interfaces, important events can easily get lost. If they do something that makes a difference and don’t realize it, you’ve lost an opportunity to make a meaningful connection.
Simple and powerful, just like a lever
If there’s anything that should be good inspiration for a designer, a lever should be right at the top. It may be an impossible goal, but it’s definitely worth working towards. Pushing for clarity, building expectations, calling out results, and closing that feedback loop is great place to start.
This book was a big surprise. It was in my reading list for a long time because I kept hearing about it, but I never cared enough to buy it. What lessons could a designer learn from advertising? I didn’t expect much.
After enough people recommended it I looked it up and noticed it was a very short book. What the hell, let’s give Scientific Advertising a shot. Now I wish I read it the first day I heard about it.
Almost everything Claude Hopkins wrote seems to align with the way I think about design. It was like he was telling me things I already knew, only with much more clarity and purpose.
To start, much of what bothered me about marketing websites was summed up in just a few sentences:
“Don’t think of the people in the mass. That gives you a blurred view. Think of a typical individual, man or women who is likely to want what you sell. Don’t try to be amusing. Money spending is a serious matter. Don’t boast, for all people resent it. Don’t try to show off. Do just what you think a good salesman should do with a half-sold person before him.”
Then he articulates why most marketing messages don’t resonate with customers:
“The maker of an advertised article knows the manufacturing side and probably the dealer’s side. But the very knowledge often leads him astray in respect to customers. His interests are not in their interests. The advertising man studies the consumer. He tries to place himself in the position of the buyer. His success largely depends on doing that to the exclusion of everything else.”
Followed up by what messages effectively persuade people:
“The ads are based entirely on service. They offer wanted information. They site advantages to users. Perhaps they offer a sample, or to buy the first package, or to send something on approval, so the customer may prove the claims without any cost or risks. Some of these ads seem altruistic. But they are based on the knowledge of human nature. The writers know how people are led to buy.”
And, finally, he drives the point home with something people seem to so commonly forget:
“People can be coaxed but not driven. Whatever they do they do to please themselves.”
At this point I had to put the book down for a while. I needed to digest the ideas. I decided not to come back to the book that day and sleep on it. The first thing I did the next day was tell everyone I worked with to read it.
That night I continued with what effort is involved in creating great advertisements. The research and focus aspects of his advice seemed to reiterate everything I care about with design, only better. This guy was starting to piss me off.
On taking the time to find your core audience:
“What you have will interest certain people only, and for certain reasons. You care only for those people. Then create a headline which will hail those people only.”
Then validating and verifying your assumptions through showing and testing your work:
“All guesswork is eliminated. Every mistake is conspicuous. One quickly loses this conceit by learning how often his judgment errs – often nine times in ten. There one learns that advertising must be done on a scientific basis to have any fair chance of success.”
Followed up by calling out your weak arguments:
“To say, “Best in the world,” “Lowest price in existence,” etc. are at best simply claiming the expected. But superlatives of that sort are usually damaging. They suggest looseness of expression, a tendency to exaggerate, a careless truth. They lead readers to discount all the statements that you make."
This was the second time I had to put down the book. It’s a tiny book. I bought it for a quick read. Why the hell is this taking so long? I don’t feel like I’ve read anything I haven’t read before, but it still feels like I’ve learned a lot. It’s amazing how ruthlessly editing and refining an idea can produce something so awesome.
The next pass revolved around being personal and direct:
“We must consider individuals, typical people who are using rival brands. A man on a Pullman, for instance, using his favorite soap. What could you say to him in person to get him to change to yours? We cannot go after thousands of men until we learn how to win one.”
While maintaining some dignity and inspiring respect:
“Give samples to interested people only. Give them only to people who exhibit that interest by some effort. Give them only to people whom you have told your story. First create an atmosphere of respect, a desire, an expectation. When people are in that mood, your sample will usually confirm the qualities you claim.”
Then further educating your customers with a positive and appreciative approach:
“Show a bright side, the happy and attractive side, not the dark and uninviting side of things. Show beauty, not homeliness; health, not sickness. Don’t show the wrinkles you propose to remove, but the face as it will appear. Your customers know all about wrinkles.”
In a nutshell, it seems like Claude Hopkins is advising us to really dig deep and understand our customers, talk only about their needs and desires, and treat them with respect. If we can do that, we’ll gain their trust, loyalty, and business.
Hopefully all of this sounds obvious. Which is exactly why you need to read it. Go get Scientific Advertising right now!