29 Aug

What Design Do I Want, Really?

Quite some time ago I touched on how to be a better client when discussing design for a site, and now I’m going to make excuses for you. Simply put: it is perfectly normal for you, the client (or, in the event you’re a designer, for your clients) to not know what they want or say one thing and mean another. “Of course,” you may be thinking, “It happens all the time.” Really, it’s not completely their fault, and while it would be wonderful for you (the client) to at least make an effort to ease the development process it is a phenomenon that grips everyone when they’re in the position of being a customer. Remember New Coke? Consumers told Coca-Cola they would (after they got used to it) buy New Coke, and drink it, even if it replaced “Old” Coke (although there was a minority of focus group testers that hated the idea of a new Coke.) Lo and behold, New Coke hit the markets and one of the greatest flops in the soft drink world was born. Despite initial approval, as the drink spread into the South (where it was a significant piece of the region’s cultural tapestry) backlash began to arise, angry phone calls and letters poured in, and the tremendous stink being raised began to flow across the country. The promising figures (it did indeed sell better than old Coke) began to mean less and less as public outcry and top-level corporate uncertainty reached a fever pitch, and ultimately, we saw the reintroduction of Coke Classic, and with it, a massive surge in Coke Classic sales. The rest is history.

“Words and Phrases” Design

What does this mean for the world of web design? Simply put, designers, your clients might not know what they really want – and clients, know the same thing for your own consumer base: they could very well say they want X but actually hate it when it gets implemented. What does this mean for development then? You may be familiar with this as a client: you give a sketch of what you want your site to look like, or you discuss the design over a computer screen with a designer, or perhaps you just offer a set of words and phrases that a designer is then left to struggle with as he does his best to capture the essence of the phrase, “bright but dark,” and when the mock for the page is delivered to you, you hate what it looks like. It gets pitched back and pinned with edits, color changes and adjustments to layout, and the design back and forth begins.


This process is completely legitimate, but it is prone to taking a significant chunk of time, depending on how long it takes to get the site dialed into whatever vision you have in your head. The designers just want to know what their client is looking for, but every time it gets given to the, it seems that it wasn’t quite it.

“Totalitarian” Design

Consider the alternative, the YouTube approach. YouTube changes its layout at a decent enough clip, and the changes you see to the format are sometimes incredibly far-reaching, and ultimately, every single time that it happens people begin starting up petitions to get it changed back, they call YouTube the most poorly designed site ever, why did you move everything it was perfect before – you already know what happens. You may even be one of those people, and if you are that’s perfect because it leads directly into my next point: they didn’t care, did they? Google made their changes and shrugged at the nay-sayers. There is a reason for this (well two) – one, they’re Google, and they’ll do just about whatever they feel they need to because they have the clout to do so, but that is born out of this second, very important reason: their designers sat down and worked together on a design, taking in feedback from users and passing them through filters to root out the suggestions that would best serve the experience of the site.


But, people tend to hate sweeping site changes when they’re familiar with the site already and it consumes a considerable chunk of their day (like YouTube does for some people) but their ire is usually short-lived. It starts with, “This site is so terrible, I’m going to Vimeo.” Then it becomes, “They could have just kept this in that place and this over there and it’d be fine.” And then it becomes total silence. Acceptance, and quickly quashed grudging acceptance that the new format is indeed better springs up in them and they use the site as if nothing happened -until the layout changes again, and then the process repeats. This approach to design, where the designer takes cues from the client but ultimately makes the executive decisions on design and leaves the customer feeling slighted. Worse still, are the times when the designer(s) make(s) a mistake (and Google has made design mistakes, and still does, I have to deal with many of them every day and it irks me to no end) which has a tendency to seriously call into question the credibility of the designer(s). After all, if your job is just to design stuff that works, why doesn’t anything work? Why is the button that takes you back to the home page in a hamburger menu inside another hamburger menu?

Co-operational Design

Don’t blame the YouTube approach as the result of indifference to consumer desires though, it has more to do with how massive the user base is, you just can’t please everyone so you try to please as many people as you can. NewLeaf’s approach is close to the client (because we aren’t a massive, global entity), but also guided with input and our own suggestions, because it creates positive rapport. We have ideas for good designs in our head (well, in Jared’s head anyway) but we also aren’t about to discount your own ideas when it comes to design because you could very well have an idea for the layout of your site that is revolutionary.


This is why we try to involve you so much with each step of design. The concept boards, the wireframes, the mocks – we take in feedback and bounce ideas and problem points back and forth because it ends up creating a design that you see slowly take form and don’t feel has been shoved on you all at once, while at the same time creating an approach to design that keeps all the work from falling on you (the client) and thus creating “words and phrases” design (seriously, there’s no such thing as “bright but dark” unless you’re designing a site for a mortuary with a sense of humor) and avoiding the endless back and forth I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

If you’re interested in reading up a bit more on how people can’t quite communicate what they want, check out UX Myths, they’ve got a great series of myths they cover in the world of UX, and this particular myth I’ve spent the last thousand words covering is quite fascinating to read about.

Alex B
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