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Why You’re Going to Hire the Wrong Designer

“We are not UI experts but do know when we see a good design.”

I saw this on a mailing list I occasionally read, in a post where a company was looking to hire their first design employee/contractor. I think it’s a big part of why hiring designers is a process that often ends in failure: because most people who aren’t UI experts (heck, most UI experts fall into this camp as well), don’t know when they see a good design.

The challenge, of course, partially lies in the definition of “good design”. Let’s run through a few, in increasing order of importance.

Good Design = Beautiful/Cool Design

In this arena, we might actually know when we see a good design. We often have pretty good instincts on beauty and have a lifetime of training in understanding what other people find beautiful. Beautiful design can be important– but on the web it doesn’t seem to be a necessary element to success. Take the top 50 sites on the web. For a designer who primary considered themselves an artist, how many of those sites would be a source of pride if they were in their portfolio? Designers who primarily seek beauty/coolness often get lost in their own sense of beauty and engage in what I like to call “design guitar solos“– the visual equivalent of the talent-intensive squeeling that guitar pros engage in which only another guitar pro appreciates (or even understands). In the web design world this can range from a nuanced photoshop manifesto with dozens of layers to an incomprehensible JavaScript-powered UI. With great power comes great responsibility– and oftentimes a simple melody is the most effective song.

(note: grabbed from a 1994(!) article post by Peter Morville)

Good Design = Elicits the Desired “Feeling/Motivation”

This brings us closer to a good definition of effective visual design. While it’s not a web site, take a look at Apple’s FaceTime commercial. It’s simple. It doesn’t have the cyborg eyes and spinning globe of apps that Android’s recent commercials do. The design lead on that commercial didn’t get to do the metaphorical equivalent of playing a 12-minute solo behind his head in front of a sold out crowd. No epic visual effects. Just an emphasis on generating emotion– and pretty damn effective as Apple keeps trying to battle their way to the other side of the chasm. (Side note: I think Android’s robot craziness isn’t all that bad– they are currently aiming at early adopter geek-types. Remains to be seen if that’s brand they can pivot away from when the time comes to court “normals”. It wouldn’t be the path I’d choose, though!).

Good Design = Measurably Gets the Job Done

(note: Dave McClure is putting on the WarmGun Conference on October 8th that’s centered around conversion-centric design – Check it out)

THIS is the kind of design that very few people shop for– and indeed, don’t know how to shop for because they can’t “know it when they see it”. As I’d asked in a post WAY back in 2007 (“Do Designers Deserve a Seat at the Strategy Table“), when was the last time you saw a web portfolio that talked about metrics and goals? That talked about how the new design kicked the old design’s ass as far as the numbers were concerned? That talk about an X% SEO lift over Y months? On multiple occasions, I’ve seen uglier designs tromp prettier ones, and we can look at the aforementioned top sites on the web and see that it’s chock full of ugly.

One thing that’s important to note– the experts are wrong just about as often as they are right. As a self-proclaimed expert (!), this is hard for me to stomach, but it’s true. Check out this (somewhat murky) video of the head of Microsoft’s experimentation efforts. There’s plenty of gold here. First, he runs through a couple of design variations and asks the audience (chock full of startup geeks) to guess which performed better. By and large, the audience was wrong as often as they were right. Taking this further, Ronny tells is that the internal experts at Microsoft had similar luck. Said another way, the smartest people about UX and conversion made educated guesses, tested those guesses, and found that their efforts improved their target metric only SLIGHTLY more often than they made it worse.

Good Design = An unseemly mashup of Usability, Marketing, Credibility, and Usefulness

The problem gets worse, because “getting the job done” isn’t just about pure conversion mechanics and A/B testing.

  • There’s design STRATEGY (most of the above is about tactical design). Is your designer the type of person who wants to have stategy handed down to him? Or is he the kind of person who is going to agitate for a 2-sided referral program? Or something clever like UrbanSpoon’s Spoonback effort?
  • Are they thinking about marketing? Do they think like a user? Do they understand your market? Do they want to? Marketing isn’t just about outreach– there’s a whole discipline around understanding a market, getting their feedback (from user studies to poring through support/feedback email), etc.
  • How do you deal with the conflicts between what your business wants the user to do and what THEY want to do? In my opinion, the best businesses have those goals perfectly aligned– but any ad supported site knows that their job is to find exactly how aggressive they can be with ads and pumping page views.
  • What about SEO? Content sites need to optimize for SEO. Yes, the first rule of good SEO is quality and linkworthiness. But there are design/markup considerations, anchor text concessions to consider, and more.
  • Load time. There are breathtaking studies about the effects of page load time and conversion. How many designers obsess about speed? Not enough, given that adding 2 seconds to page load showed a 4.3% reduction in revenue/user.
  • Considerations vary wildly based on the type of offering. Sites that you use every day clearly need to be faster/leaner. Are there sites out there that can afford to be slower? Apple, for example, serves up enormous (and gorgeous) photography on their home page.
  • Does the designer love writing headlines? Writing is one of the biggest parts of design– if they’d rather you do all the writing and prefer to work with Lorem Ipsum text, they have a big hole in their skillset.
  • How much do they like saying no? At any company larger than a few people, designers meet the “too many cooks” problem fairly quickly. Good design is not only a bizarre blend of graphical, technical, marketing, strategic, and writing expertise– it also requires a healthy dose of political acumen and salesmanship. What are they going to say when Alice swings by their desk and says, “You know what? I think it’d be awesome if we had a block showing our twitter feed on the home page. Maybe with one of those cute blue birds at the top?”

The problem with hiring designers (and the reason that they so often don’t work out as contractors or employees) lies squarely on the shoulders of the people doing the hiring. They’re still looking at screenshots in portfolios and saying, “Beautiful! Wow! This must be our guy/gal,” when they should be looking deeper.

About Tony Wright