Episode 26: What is good digital design?

Episode 26: What is good digital design?

In episode 26, Cathi, Jackie & Monique discuss: What is good digital design? We take you back to the 80s and talk design for print. From there we touch on some design changes over the years and discuss how we work now. We also talk about the design of lawnmowers and Monique will tell you why she thinks Apple products like the magic mouse and the iPhone 11 are examples of bad design.  Listen now through your favorite podcast software, or read the transcript at the bottom.

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Full Transcript of this Podcast Episode


Jackie Hey everyone. Thanks for joining us for episode two of season three. This is Jackie D'Elia, and I'm here with my co hosts, Cathi Bosco and Monique Dubbelman. And we are going to talk about what is good digital design today.

Monique Hello, yes and can we start talking about what is bad digital design or bad design first because I think it's easier to spot that.

Jackie All right, take it away Monique.

Cathi An example?

Monique I have two examples I and it's actually, Apple. We're not making any advertisements here, right? But Apple is known for its good design and cheered for it. But I've got two examples and they really annoyed me with. One is the Apple wireless mouse. I mean, what...

Jackie Wait, wait, wait. I love the Apple wireless mouse. So tell me what you don't like about it?

Monique I love it too! Well, what moron decided that you need to charge it at the bottom that you can't use it while you charge it.

Jackie I agree. That's the one thing I wish that it did have that it doesn't. But I like I like that it is rechargeable number one. And I also like that, well I've even like the original design. So this is the second iteration of the Magic Mouse and I think it's a great design for using it but I agree when it runs out of power...

Monique You have a problem? Yeah, laughing...

Cathi You have to have a backup mouse. Like if you're a functioning professional that relies on one just in case, although they do recharge, mine recharges very quickly, which is a plus.

Monique Yeah, but But still, and I mean, a lot of digital tools, software and everything is not equipped to use with the keyboard, which it should, but it isn't. Right. If you want to have it accessible when you can't use a mouse. Some people cannot use a mouse, mouse because they're, you know, physically disabled. I don't think you can say disabled? Impaired, what's the right word? I'm making it worse, challenged? Now, I don't know but but even you have the same problem when it's when it needs to be charged. Right. So that's one thing and the other bad design. I'll do it quick. I won't take up all of our time on bad design, is the iPhone 11 which I bought half a year ago. They have designed it this way that the the on and off button and the volume buttons are on opposite of each other and exactly at the place where I hold the phone. And apparently it does things in my bag as well because the other week I accidentally been calling the Dutch 911 and my phone completely blocked it called my emergency contacts, which was my partner who was with me, lucky me, but it could have been other people I don't know may have panicked because I didn't notice. But the worst thing was, I couldn't unblock it. It kept sitting in emergency mode, and I had to look up my partner's phone to find the instructions how to unblock my phone which is bad digital design. So this was my rant about two Apple products.

Jackie That's not a visual design issue. This is more of an actual usability issue with with the design.

Monique Yeah. So that that means design stretches broader than visual design. I think we agree to that.

Jackie That is a great segway. That's a very good segway. Okay.

Cathi I have told this story before about my how my husband struggles because he thinks when I tell him Well, this is an intuitive design. So like, intuitive design, you incrementally things change. And, you know, decisions are made that are based on users, previous knowledge of experience with it. And if you're someone who doesn't have previous knowledge with a product, or an app or something, it's very frustrating. And so he says to me, intuitive. This phone is not intuitive. This is intuitive. And he holds it up and he licks the front of his phone. He says, look, it doesn't work and I'm like, Ohhhh, he's always the most challenging case, he's a great usability test person to have around but that's so subjective, right?

Jackie Very much so. So talking about good digital design. So how did we do design back in the days? We were talking about this earlier last week, and we, we thought it would be a good topic to discuss. Monique?

Monique All right, people, we have to get used to this threesome presenting, right? It's new for us. Um, yeah, so I was trained as a graphical designer back in the last century in the 80s. And I think it was less complex then people didn't really care about problem solving, which seems more of an issue these days. They came to the printing company, and I said, Well, we need a flyer or we need a folder and you put in the brand colors and the texts gave you you printed it and that was that. And as long as it matched their styling? Yeah. There there wasn't really anything more to that about placement of things on the page.

JackieSo how do you think things have changed for a digital design? And what kind of challenges? And what in what also what components of a digital design because it's not just visual, right? So there's, for a digital design to be good, it, it needs to be usable, right? It needs to serve a purpose, and it needs to serve a purpose for the audience that it was designed for.

Monique Yeah, I think challenge is and, Cathi, you can probably add to that, but, I think with online, things are less linear from the offline designs. If compare to print for me, which is a bit closer from my perspective, to digital because it's about information, right? The most information or the most designs we do online, the digital designs we do is giving people the right information in the right place and comparing it to a folder. That's very linear. You get it in front of you, you look at the first page, well, you may flip through it, but you start with chapter one and end with chapter 10. And, but if you have good design on online, it's it's more intuitive. There we go. Again.

Cathi It's a web. It's a web. It's a web go in so many views.

Monique Yeah it's semantic. Yeah, it's it's not linear. Yeah, I think that's and the same is with signage and everything. You go from one place to the other and it's someplace you don't really know where you are anymore. It needs to make sense where you go back.

Jackie Yeah, how does iteration and collaboration fit into doing a good digital design?

Cathi Research and testing, I mean, you research what, what's needed. And you validate it before you implement it. And you iterate on that as things change as time goes by as new features become required so, that's the short answer to that to me.

Jackie So we were chatting earlier about what type of questions we asked clients in the past when we were doing digital design and how that's changed as UX has become more of the DNA of what we do every day.

Cathi I think we've had parallel experiences. At least I have sort of a visual arts background and graphic illustration background to before in analog. I went to art school during analog time, we did film film and, you know, darkroom photography and performance art, you know, nothing hardly was recorded. So then when I moved into the digital realm and trying to get my portfolio online, I learned the web and website production, and I was able to ride that digital wave from a visual and graphic perspective, so I did both analog graphic design and half my studio and the other half was digital for quite a while and then it was all digital. So when we started making websites way back when for people, it would be just a brochure site because people wanted to be found. And, you know, it wasn't like we were trying to solve a problem for them. We were just trying to help them to be discoverable or to appear as an authority in their field that became sort of something that... "you" will be interpreted by people as someone who really cares about their clients and their work, and they're an authority. That was very popular for a while. Do you agree, Jackie?

Jackie Yeah. So do you think that when people think of good digital design, they're only thinking about visual design? Or, are they thinking about content? Are they thinking about what it is, who the audience is and what they're trying to accomplish? Like, who's the website for? And like, we were saying, we would ask questions earlier in talking to clients about, you know, what kind of color palette they liked, and you know, what kind of information they wanted to share. But very little for most of the people that I've talked with very little back then was done on asking them, who's their audience? Who are they trying to communicate with? And how do they want to communicate and then in what behaviors have they noticed already, if you were doing a redesign on a site, that stuff came later on? Whereas you started to realize, okay, who's the site for the site's not for the person that you're building it for? Right? So the reason our maybe owner right, so now we're looking at things a lot more differently as far as who the users are. And I think that has affected digital design, including content too.

Cathi Right! Now we're making we're making apps for clients so that they can, you know, do things for their patients or customers, like send appointment reminders, or remind them to, you know, chiropractors for example want to remind their patients to sit up straighter, to do their workouts. We're actually doing functionality for clients through their digital website into multiple devices. It's a whole new world now going towards PWA's,

Jackie Which is progressive web apps.

Cathi Yeah, yeah. And I think UI, your original question was about UI, and I run into this a lot with engineers or just product people. UI get shipped with the product. So it's it's like, it's part of the thing. It's a very tangible thing. And it's. So it gets a lot of the recognition for the work that we do. But it's it's a very small part of like a larger design scope of work.

Monique I think that company owners get more and more awareness of the fact that they need to think broader, like who their website is for. And when you say about the questions we used to ask, it wasn't, like merely ignorance that we didn't know better. I mean, I've become more aware of the broadest spectrum of the web, but the web has grown as well. Because, before like in the 90s brochure websites were good enough. There wasn't much competition. But now the importance of your online reputation and fighting like the competition, so much content is generated every day. And that increased even more with the when the the social web arrived, right. And when we started using mobile and getting these different experiences on different types of screens. So yeah, I think company owners or product owners realize more and more that they need to think about who they do it for why they do it, and that it's not just for themselves. But still, I think when you're in the digital space, whether you're a designer or whether you're a developer or whether you're a copywriter or a marketing person, or you know, sometimes it's not that separated and you have multiple hats on when you work for smaller companies. It's so obvious for us that you're not building websites for yourself. But whenever I say that to clients, I can sometimes see them blink and go like, excuse me? It's like, no, you're not building the website for yourself. You're building it for your users, for your clients. And they really need to let that sink in. And that's, that's such an eye opener still, for most clients, we shouldn't assume that, they're aware of that, because most companies tend to think from their goals, which they are important, right? That should be alignment. But it's not only that, it's not only broadcasting you need interaction, and you need to meet the customers or the users needs because otherwise, it's you need to be really focused because there's too much competition.

Jackie I would add to that another layer is that you need to talk to someone else about your site besides just your team. So like when we embed with companies for periods of time to do an a UX audit or an evaluation or heuristic evaluation are something. You know, they bring us into an existing team that has spent a lot of time building up a site or a product and a lot of design work. And, their jobs depend on it and they're very dedicated. And you bring in a set of fresh eyes to go through and do an audit or an evaluation. You've just gotten used to seeing something, it doesn't mean you've made a bad design necessarily, but you've just kind of gotten desensitized to the dust bunnies in that corner, because you've lived with it for so long, you know, and just shocking the system in that way, is really beneficial.

Jackie So how does research fit into the design process? Right, it's it sounds like to me, you know, what we've been doing lately is a lot of the research is done at the very, very early stages of a design and why do you think that's important? Whoever wants to take that.

Cathi I think you should take it Jackie.<p

Monique Laughter.... Yeah, it is too easy. You just asking the questions and let us answer.

Team UXATT [Heartwarming laughter...]

Jackie I usually ask questions.

Cathi You ask good ones but you know the answers.

Jackie Yeah. Having information about not only what the stakeholders goals are, but what and how the users feel about the product, how they interact with the product, what their expectations are, and doing some research upfront, can help you flush out design ideas. You can also start with earlier prototyping and wireframes too when you get to that point. And then you could do some focus groups and test some of your designs to see if you are on track with the design. If it's not just that it looks good, but is it is it functioning and is it achieving the goal and are people actually intuitively able to use it. Do you agree that that's primarily where we're at?

Cathi Yeah, and I think sometimes the research will just give you some validation, like when we did the research study for the new Unsplash plugin people we were asking and interviewing and seeing how they use media now for WordPress expressed, "Oh wow! When this comes out, I want this right away. All my clients are gonna want this right away." When you get that kind of feedback early on in a research study, you know, you're building the right thing. And you know, what you're building is needed. So like, part of research is just are we building the right thing? You know?

Monique Yeah, it's not always looking at what you're doing wrong, or it's also validation. I think that's a good thing. Yeah.

Jackie So Monique, how do you think content? What role do you think content plays in a good digital design? And I know that I'm asking you because content is a big part of what you do. You're very good at that.

Monique Well, thank you. I at least I'm very passionate about it! And we're going to fit this in half an hour all together, right? So we need to separate content special I think. Yeah, I come from from graphical design, and I sort of rolled into marketing. But I never really felt at ease there because I really care about the content. It shouldn't be broadcasting, but it should be written to meet what clients want to read. And also on a very micro level, it shouldn't be confusing. I don't think you can separate the content from the design, which is usually done. But when you start doing more content strategy and work on your copy and stuff like that, and the designers made a visual design that always looks perfect, right? It's got these slight four letter headings four line paragraph. Oh, but well there's this copy or the client existing content, and the heading spans, like, I don't know, five lines or something like that. And there you go. You you experienced that with the pre made templates. we know from the WordPress commercial spaces you have, you know, and you try to fit in your own content, and it never matches. So I think there should be a one on one connection between content and design, because you shouldn't try to fit your content in the design, but you should design around the content that's there. So I'm going for content first approach.

Cathi Yeah, yeah, that's so of true.

Jackie What about user generated content. We had chatted about ratings and reviews and how that can actually create a good design right. A good example is Amazon which has become a resource for people who want to research products right. So so that design provides a user with the ability to do research to help make a decision about what product to buy. So does that all fall into the category of a good design is the fact that the how that's all put together a good design because it serves a purpose for the user.

Monique Yeah, it does. And at some point reviews, I think, a very difficult example, as well as what people say in social media, right? Because I'm sort of experiencing a review fatigue at the moment. Everything you buy online, which is a lot or every service you've used, you get emails, like, "give us a review, give us a review", like "oh, no". But if you're not happy with something, you're more urged to leave a review. So I'm not sure if it really gives you a full view on what's there. And what's I think one of you said is that the bigger companies and I think some some Dutch online companies do as well is that they rate the reviews or you can rate reviews like this helped me or so it's sort of curated reviews, which can maybe help avoiding click farms. But yeah, it definitely helps. It's part of research like what did others think of this product? Yeah.

Cathi It's part of when they instituted asking people to rate whether reviews were helpful or not. That's sort of like a data driven decision. They take wrap it in, like you're taking data from users and then giving them what they want first. Because early reviews when something first comes out, the first reviews that people write are usually the best reviews. Like they take the most time to give like, "Oh, this particular feature did this for me. I highly recommend it" whereas like later in the lifecycle of a product or something in an e-commerce site, "This was great." "I loved it," those are not really helpful in your decision making process. So they give you a filtered version of the reviews so that they're more beneficial, which I think is kind of a fascinating way to deliver outcomes to users. Got to be ethical about that, but I think that's pretty ethical, usefulness.

Jackie I agree. So we're, we're in agreement, that content does play a part in the overall good design. So and I know it's hard for some, including myself when you think about design you I tend to think of it as visual because I'm a very visual person. I'm a visual learner. So when I think of design, anything design, I think it's visual, but when you start to really look at it. We had chatted, I had recently bought a electric lawnmower and we were talking about it last week about how I really liked the design of the lawnmower. I can stand it up easily and the way that the handles work and everything else. And visually, I liked the way it looked when I first saw it, I loved the colors and everything else. And that was a very visual aspect and the shape of it. But more importantly, was the usability of it and how those features that they added to it really made a difference on how pleased I was with the design and how delighted I was to be able to use it. So I think that that plays a big part even in digital design, right? It's not just how a website or an app looks, but it's how how you feel when you interact with it. Right? So navigation plays a big role in that and how your information architecture is structured, is it does it make sense for people right? Are you following common patterns that people recognize is it make it easy for them? Is it intuitive, and I think that all places a big part in it. Don't you agree?

Monique Yeah. Also the connection with the offline world you mentioned I think is important. It's, it's, I mean, we operate in the in the digital in the online space. So it's obvious to stick to that part. But I think when you review, a company's goals, online content, online, tone and voice, and their reputation. That should be reflected when you go offline as well, it should match. No one's expecting when they pick up an Apple Mac in a store to go to a corner shop and get it in a brown paper bag or something like that. That doesn't match the way they present themselves online. And as you talk about your lawnmower, I recently gifted myself a standing desk, and I really loved the website like the navigation was clean, it was easy to use. I love their their tone of voice and that worked through in their instruction manual. It had like little quirks. It brought some delight that, for me was a logical flow from what I've seen on that website, it matched like everything in my expectations. And so there should be connectivity definitely between you and then the offline work, which is a big challenge, because you can't always influence that whole process or be part of it right as a digital designer. So getting a good understanding of that whole process. I know, in the Netherlands, we have this public transport bikes that you can rent at the train stations. And I know part of the user research for making an app I saw by another company in the Netherlands do that was actually sit at the service points. And seeing people picking up the bikes and taking them away and stuff like that. Just actually observing, which I think if you get the opportunity to do that, and especially for bigger projects that that will be awesome to get the full insight

Cathi Yeah, you get so much more useful information. In a field study like that that's the best, very best.

Monique But it isn't always an option. You know, it's that might not be budget for that, which is totally valid, but at least you know, you can do some smaller stuff, some smaller research, even desk research or analytics just to recover some patterns.

Cathi That's good. And I think that that you're talking about sort of like the, before you become a customer before you use a product or before you actually get involved during your involvement with a company or experience or digital experience. And then after, I think that those things are a big part of good design when you consider all of those aspects. Um, and depending on what you're working on, that can mean a lot of different things. But good design includes all of those experiences.

Monique Yes. Hear, hear!

Team UXATT [Cheers and laughter]

Jackie One final topic to talk about in this is we had mentioned, you know, mobile apps and websites and how even even now, most designs are looked at from a desktop perspective, when you're working with clients, I think they relate to that easier. I've worked on some projects recently, though, where a lot of the design was done just for a mobile version first, and I'm just curious what, what your thoughts are on that, because it's not just the visual aspect of how you lay that out. And again, with most with responsive design, you know, you typically just, well, we hope it all works out on mobile, we're going to try to get it as best we can. And they don't really know when Yes, you're really not helping with the actual experience that a person has using it on that device, right. I mean, that's where the challenge comes. Is can you really truly make something that's an amazing experience on a desktop and on a phone all just with responsive design and, and create a good experience for both.

Cathi Well, I have so much to say about this. My mind is racing...

Team UXATT [laughter...]

Cathi So yeah, a lot of my clients really care about the phone experience more than ever before. And they're like, okay, it works on desktop, but I want this, I want these to be buttons because it's easily tappable on phones. We used to have like rules about when you use buttons and not now it's like, oh gosh, tappable phone interfaces are primary. And then, you know, we all care a lot about accessibility. And there are places in the world where people only have phones or like, you know, phone is to be you know, a primary focus and and we work on product Like, web stories, short format, multimedia experience, and the open web is all mobile focused. And it's so exciting and so wonderful. And so performant. That's right, so much is happening with mobile and phones and progressive web apps. I mean, I could just like, I don't know, I'm excited about the future with progressive web apps. I just wish Apple would unlock push notifications. And let us get out of the trap of the app store a little bit to innovate. Google's done it, Google. What's the name of the app store for Google?

Jackie Android?

Cathi Android, androids done it. So there's a lot coming. I mean, if you don't know what a progressive web application is, Twitter's a good example. It works on the web. It's also an app. It's the same rich experience in both places.

Jackie And it also works. Partly when you have poor connectivity or no connectivity, right, so that it doesn't just give you a blank screen, it has some interface for you to let you know you're either offline. And there's certain things you can do while you're offline, or it has a library of information still available to you that's cached that you can see. Or it works as best it can when you're just partially connected or have poor connectivity on on the web. And I think that's the that's what really makes progressive web apps the next take things to the next level, I guess.

Monique Yeah, we're not all experiencing, like very speedy Wi Fi connections. Right? Right. I've noticed that when I go camping, I'd love to go camping in the summer- it seems yet again possible to do that in Europe. But I'm not go I mean, it's very dense here with all the connections. But still, when I'm in the countryside in France, for instance, if I get 3g or my mobile at certain places like hanging from the toilet building in a tree or something like that, and you notice that a lot of modern websites don't load on mobile, and I have a very fancy phone. I have a good subscription with a good provider. And still, there's places where you can have that. So if you and it definitely, and that's where research again, I think comes in. It really depends on the services you deliver. But for instance, if you're the local tourist office or something like that, and people want to sort out what's happening around where they are. They should be able to use that with poor connectivity because what use it is to follow a hiking trail and you use your your mobile phone as a guidance for the track or something like that. And half of the time you have to send off or hit it against the tree because you have no connectivity, and you can't see the rest of the trails. So I think and but on the other end, when you're a company that provides online training for, like one of my clients does in explosion safety. Where there are people always in office building looking at your website or content. So do research on that. If you have no mobile users, well, that could be it for now. But if the majority is using your stuff on mobile will consider looking at that for your designs and prioritize that.

Jackie Okay, well, we're out of time. Just about here. Does anybody have any final comments they want to share before we close it up?

Cathi No, but we've made a lot of good arguments for research, and how much more we rely on it now than we did back in the day, which is good.

Jackie Yeah, I think research and content play a big role. In an overall good digital design, and it's just not visual and I think spending some time on those areas is is what will really help.

Monique Yeah, my final takeaway is no lorem ipsum ever. No cat ipsum no Pulp Fiction ipsum there are so many out there. They're funny. Don't use them for like websites you want to be successful with in your design.

Jackie Okay, well, thank you both for joining me for this episode and we will see you in the next one.

Team UXATT Thanks bye bye woohoo cheers

[Muttered laughter]

[Birds chirping]

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