Last month David Adkin and I flew to New York to attend SmashingConf, an annual design conference hosted by Smashing Magazine. As with most conferences, the event kicked off with a laser show:
(you can check out the full video here)

Our minds suitably blown, the event moved into a series of talks about the design process itself.

Session 1

The first talk was from Marcin Wichary who works at Medium. Marcin devoted his entire talk to describing the process of designing the perfect underline for Medium. Despite my initial reservations, the talk turned out to be really great! It wasn’t really about the under line (thankfully). Instead, the story of the under line was a great narrative device for Marcin to share his thoughts on the design process itself.

First, a designer needs to be pragmatic and idealistic at the same time. We should aim for the stars and try to tackle the hard problems because often something that is a simple user experience is actually very complicated under the covers. So you need to make tradeoffs. At some point, you reach diminishing returns and it won’t be worth the effort to keep going. After all, real artists ship.

This does introduce a problem for designers, through. It essentially means that we ship things that aren’t perfect, and the designer is painfully aware of all those imperfections that exist in the product. Thus, Marcin devoted a part of his talk to how to not go insane. His tips included: hanging out with other people who care about craft, getting others interested, and creating your own universes. Side projects that you fully control can be a great outlet to express your perfectionism. Finally, you can change your mindset. It’s easy for us to classify things as “good” and “perfect” and then be sad that we can’t have the perfect one. Marcin, though, invoking the spirit of a wise Jedi master claimed that there is no good and perfect, there is only better and even better.

Marcin also used a metaphor to describe good design that I (to the surprise of no one) really liked. Really good UI is like Disney World. You’re immersed this perfect universe where every part of your experience is designed. Unpolished UI is like if Disney guests got to see what was going on in the maintenance tunnels under the Magic Kingdom. Instead, you should take the brunt of the messiness and keep it behind the scenes so your users don’t have to deal with it. Because so much of design is actually hiding things from users, there won’t be a lot of recognition for your efforts (nor should there be). Sure, people will notice overall that this experience feels great, but they won’t be aware of all of the individual decisions that add up to the great experience.

Take Away from Martin’s Talk

Design is in the details and everyone of them matters throughout the entire experience. The problem is all of these details add up without anyone really noticing them one by one so designers go crazy.

Session 2

The next talk was by Daniel Burka who works for Google Ventures, Google’s investment arm, as a sort of design consultant for the startups they invest in.

Daniel’s talk started with a discussion of what design even means. He described design as simply intent and talked about how anything can be designed--objects, teams, strategies, even the way we work. Thinking of design this broadly is why everyone at Apple thinks of themselves as designers. He talked about how the world is finally starting to value this kind of design and how designers finally have a seat at the table. The problem he says is that most people are still under the impression that design is only about the aesthetics. If design is defined as simply intent and you can design things like strategies then it’s not all about aesthetics. This is just often how we communicate it. Because of this we as designers need to stop messing up our opportunity at the table. Don’t just talk about the visuals. Talk about the whole experience and the conceptual strategies when you’re at the table. He also believes that designers are really good at telling a story. In fact, it’s one of their key talents.

A key challenge for designers is figuring out what level of fidelity your mockup needs to be. How do you take something that started as just an inkling and grown into a fully fledged vision and make that accessible to the rest of the world? This will change depending on the project and on your audience. In some cases, a sketch on a napkin is enough for everyone to see the beautiful vision you have it your head, but often communicating your vision requires more work than that. You just don’t want it to be too much work because this is 1) a waste of time and 2) can lead to sunk cost bias and cause you to fall in love with an idea even if it’s not amazing. This is why it’s so important to understand what’s just enough for your audience to suspend their disbelief and imagine what your design would be like in real life. Invision and Flinto were two prototyping tools he recommended checking out.

Take Away from Daniel’s Talk

Design is more than just the visuals. Because of that designers have a challenge to figure out what level of fidelity to bring to your visual mockups for each different situation.

Session 3

In the next talk, Samantha Warren spoke about failing during her time at Twitter. She had been part of a team that worked on a multi-year project to provide a set of internal tools for other people at Twitter. The problem was, when they finally completed the project, no one wanted it.

So why did the project fail? The strategy behind the project was fundamentally flawed. And unfortunately, there was never any kind of feedback loop for her team or others on the strategy itself. So, while they thought they had been working on a design problem, it turns out that they were actually subject to a larger organizational problem.
She also suggested a series of tactics to design like a guerilla. Stay fast and flexible. Be persistent. Don’t wait for an invitation to do the work you want. Break the problem down. Use storyboards. Pay attention to the world around you; always be observing.

Take Away from Samantha's Talk

Design projects can often fail before they even start if you’re not tackling the correct problem. Stay fast and flexible to allow for big picture changes.

Session 4

The last process talk was from Susan Weinschenk, a psychologist who gave a presentation on human perception. After all, everything we design if for humans, but how much time do we really take to understand how the human brain works? First of all, it’s important to understand that it’s all about the brain. Our sense perceive things, but it’s the brain that does the interpreting.

It turns out that our brain is made up of multiple systems that do coordinate, but in some ways seem to have a mind of their own. For example, there is a big difference in the way that central vision and peripheral vision work. Peripheral vision is used to give you a sense of the gist, or overall context of where you are, largely unconsciously . It also responses to danger faster than central vision and will then direct the central vision where to focus on next. One application of this would be to have alert messages pop up at the edge of the screen, rather than the center.

She also spent time talk about how font can make a big difference in the user experience. If people find text about a task harder to read, then they will think the task is going to be harder. On the flip side, if text is harder to read, the reader will also remember it much better. Finally she mentioned a studied that showed that humans prefer objects with curves over sharp edges. This is likely because in the real world, sharp things hurt.

Takeaway from Susan’s Talk

Designers need to learn more about the human brain and our natural human tendencies (aka Psych 101), if we are to truly design a great product.

Session 5

The conference also played host to a fair number of technical talks as well. The one I found most interesting was by Daniel Espeset who works on the Front End Infrastructure team at Etsy. Much of his presentation focused on their process for shipping code. At first, this sounded very similar to our process. They built a web interface (called Deployinator) where you could build and deploy with the push of a button. They deploy to their staging environments runs a series of automated tests. This will also cause a bot to update a dedicated irc channel. Once the code is deployed, they watch their error log to see if any new issues crop up. Here’s where things get interesting though. They don’t really branch. Pretty much all their code changes happen on master. How do they do this without releasing a ton of bugs? Feature flags. Every new piece of functionality they build is put behind a feature flag. In fact, the first thing they do when starting a new project is release the feature flag even though there’s nothing behind it yet. What this has ultimately allowed them to do is create an infrastructure for a/b that is so robust it’s become a fundamental part of their development process. They describe their process as: idea, validate, prototype, a/b test, refine, a/b test, release, something they call “continuous experimentation. “

Take Away from Daniel’s Talk

Improving how you deploy code can actually improve your entire design process.

Session 6

The second day of the conference kicked off with a “mystery speaker,” and I have to say I found this to be the biggest disappointment of the conference. This was partly because I was not the right audience for this talk. It was clearly meant for people who code. It was also because the Smashing team had been raising expectations all conference about who it would be, even suggesting that it might be a celebrity. Finally, though, part of my disappointment stemmed from the structure of the talk it self. It was essentially “I want to try to make a pie chart with css. Here’s one way to do it. But that way is not very good. Here’s a better way to do it, but it’s still not very good. Here’s a great way to do it. But it won’t work in any major browser. By the way, you should probably be using bar charts and tables instead of pie charts.”

Take Away from the Mystery Speaker’s Talk

Don’t overhype. It’s almost impossible to be successful when the expectations are too high.

Session 7

There was a provocative presentation from Christian Heilmann who works at Microsoft on Edge, their new browser that’s replacing Internet Explorer. In what was really a self-described rant, Heilmann cautioned the development community against being too self-involved. Too often he sees developers build things because they think they are cool or because they think other developers think they are cool. Instead we should be building for our users.

Session 8

The final set of presentations I’ll cover were what I’ll call inspirational. They delved into the fuzzy topics of creativity, magic, and beauty.

Andrew Clarke asked “Why are famous commercials remembered for decades, but not great websites?” He contends that great website lack the soul of great commercials because there is no tolerance for risk in their design and development. Creativity is not manufacturing, but we try to treat it like it is. Creativity can’t just be packed up into a tidy process. You will never be able to turn a bad idea into a good one by iterating. He called for us to find ways to bring soul into our designs, to find ways to really connect with our users as we tell our stories. As a first step he recommending introducing the discipline of art direction into the development process.

Take Away from Andrew’s Talk

Creativity is not a manufacturing process so don’t treat it like that.

Session 9

Josh Clark gave a great talk about how to design for the impending Internet of Things. He kicked off his presentation by using a wand to light and extinguish electronic candles on the stage. He then went on to talk about how we should think about UX in a world where literally anything can be the interface, not just our screens. Design is the rendering of intent. The best ux design is translating that intent to action. The reason that mobile phones have taken over so many other products is because it connects us when we have the intent to take an action. These interactions shouldn’t be a detour from the actual experience. They should highlight it. Doing so creates an experience that feels magical. We should look to movies and cartoons to see what our imagination has come up with and to see where we should correctly connect technology to our intent. Magic Wands, Magic Mirrors, etc. After all, all interface is an illusion trying to rhyme with how our brain expects the world to work. That’s why we should look to myths and legends for interaction inspiration. A good way to get inspiration to connect technology to our lives is just to simply frame it in the context of imagination. Design for what the thing already is, and then ask, “what would this be like if it were magical?” He saw beacons as anathema to his vision. There’s nothing compelling about beacons that send us coupons we don’t want. This is because we don’t want the coupons and we don’t have that intention. Instead we want to connect intention at the time we want to take an action. Technology should amplify our humanity, not consume it.

Takeaway from Josh’s Talk

Technology shouldn’t be a detour from the actual experience. It should highlight it.

Session 10

Jon Burgerman is an artist well known for his doodles. They’ve been featured on everything from billboards to sidewalks to Pepsi cans. He described a doodle as something that you start without knowing exactly what it’s going to end up as. He then walked us through several of his projects that he’d done recently, and it became apparent that his creative process itself was a doodle. He sort of starts on one project that sounds interesting, but then it may not really go anywhere, but it gives him an idea that turns into something really successful. You can see an example in this picture.

He thought it would be fun to play with perspective and give the people on his bus doodle-bodies. This then gave him the idea to pose in front of movie posters using forced perspective to make it seem like he was interacting with the poster. He then began to realize that most movie posters are depicting violence and he did a series of photos of him being the subject of violence of these posters. This series then became hugely popular and sparked a debate about the depiction of violence in public places.

Takeaway from Jon’s Talk

You shouldn’t really know where your design process is going to take you. If you just keep exploring new ideas that you find fun, you will eventually produce something great.

Session 11

Finally, the last presentation of the conference tackled a very tricky subject--beauty. Stefan Sagmeister, who runs a world renowned design studio, started by talking about the history of beauty. Ultimately, looking back, particularly at architecture, led us to a question: Why were building created centuries ago more beautiful than ones that were created during the 20th century? It turns out that this was a very intentional shift. There were a few architecture who were influential after the first World War who didn’t believe in beauty, they thought that what mattered was a thing’s function, not its form. This notion impacted the design of most things across most nations for the rest of the century. And that’s a shame because beauty really is important and in ways that are very quantifiable. Quantify beauty? Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder. Not so much, actually. Stefan showed us a study in which participants were show two very similar pieces of art. One was the original, the other was fake. People are able to spot the real piece of art 80% of the time!

So we can quantify if something’s beauty, but what about it’s impact on the world. Stefan gave several examples, but one that David and I got to experience first hand was the High Line. The High Line had for decades been an abandoned elevated rail line in New York until about five years ago when it was re-imagined to be a beautiful elevated garden and walkway. In the past five years, there have been NO crimes reported from the High Line.

Take Away from Stefan’s Talk

To be beautiful is to be human. We must invest time the beauty and humanity of our designs.

Top Takeaways

Design is in the details and every one of them matters throughout the entire experience. The problem is all of these details add up without anyone really noticing them one by one, so designers go crazy.

Design is more than just the visuals. Because of that designers have a challenge to figure out what level of fidelity to bring to your visual mockups for each different situation.

Design projects can often fail before they even start if you’re not tackling the correct problem. Stay fast and flexible to allow for big picture changes.

Designers need to learn more about the human brain and our natural human tendencies (aka Psych 101), if we are to truly design a great product.

Improving how you deploy code can actually improve your entire design process.

Don’t overhype. It’s almost impossible to be successful when the expectations are too high.

Design for our users not our peers.

Creativity is not a manufacturing process so don’t treat it like that.

Technology shouldn’t be a detour from the actual experience. It should highlight it.

You shouldn’t really know where your design process is going to take you. If you just keep exploring new ideas that you find fun, you will eventually produce something great.

To be beautiful is to be human. We must invest time in the beauty and humanity of our designs.