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Beautiful design is everywhere, hidden in plain view

Beautiful design is everywhere, hidden in plain view

As if running an ambitious agency isn’t challenging enough, for the past decade I have spent a few hours most Saturdays refereeing a game of rugby.  Erstwhile colleagues have speculated that not content with throwing my weight around for forty hours Monday to Friday that my power–hunger required further topping up for eighty minutes with thirty burly players on a Saturday.

Anyone who has ever officiated competitive sport will know that the greatest compliment that can be paid to any official is silence.  The very best referees go unnoticed, are rarely spoken about, and aspire to be invisible.  They make a very difficult pursuit look easy, because they know their job is to make the players look good and give them the very best chance of expressing their skills on the pitch.

The best refs make the players the story by remaining invisible themselves.

So too the very best digital design makes the user the protagonist by remaining invisible, hidden in plain view if you will.

I believe that the essence of user–experience is how a digital product makes someone feel.  That might sound overly simplistic, patronising almost, and yet I put it to you that everyone reading this blog will in the past month have felt anger at a digital product.  It seems inconceivable that the marketers responsible for digital product development should make their customers feel angry, but that’s what happens when design isn’t taken seriously, or is done incorrectly.

I know people who feel other emotions when using the web.  Some people, particularly digital immigrants, feel stupid.  Imagine designing something which makes your customer feel stupid.  Feeling stupid is one of the worst human emotions, and yet marketers are designing websites and apps which produce that response.  And then there’s frustration, annoyance and confusion.

We’ve all been through the digital version of the Kübler–Ross classic five stages of grief:

Denial – there’s no way they would have built something *just* this bad

Anger – I want to throw my laptop out the window

Bargaining – OK, I’ll try it just one more time, I’ll close and re–open my browser, and hopefully I’ll be able to find what I’m looking for

Depression – it’s just not worth going on, I’m calling the customer service number to give off, or heading to Twitter to rant

Acceptance — it’s not me, it’s the website, I’m just going to have to get on with it

This is why it is so dangerous for a website owner to want their website to have the “wow” factor.  It is why wanting the App to be “award winning” can miss the point.  Both of these sentiments focus on outputs not outcomes.

Trying to put the designer in the spotlight is like trying to make the referee the hero.  The whole point is that it isn’t about them.  They both have crucially important roles however these roles are about making others look good, not themselves.

The communicator quite rightly wants the outputs to be right.  And it is critical that the outputs are right.  But of much greater importance to the user than the interface is the outcome.  The app helps them save time, buy the ticket, find the phone number, compare the price, discover the arrival time, predict the weather etc.  They are using the digital product in the first place because they believe it will bring them value.

The web’s most popular digital products are outcome focused. We barely notice Google, Amazon, BBC, eBay, Twitter and when we use them, because they make us the protagonist–in–chief, not them.  They are more interested in our outcomes that their outputs.

Once again, long–time Fathom hero and Director of Strategy at Government Digital Services Russell Davies summarises the user / designer power–hierarchy to perfection.  When asked how his users felt about the excellent online service provides them with, he responded bluntly yet accurately “Hopefully most of our users don’t think about or notice us. They just use the service and get on with their lives.”

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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