How a design goes from good to “just not right”

This morning I came across an interesting post from the founder of Fog Creek Software, Joel Spolsky. Joel wrote about his experience dealing with a web design firm. Writing about his new web design Joel wrote, “We’ve been tweaking it and polishing it and changing things carefully, and the firm we hired to design it has been taking us step-by-step through information architecture, site maps, wireframes, initial designs, and several rounds of design. All with a carefully-designed process to get our buy-in at every step along the way. And so far every step I thought the design was converging and we’d get a nice web design out of it. And then I came back after a week on the road, took one look at it, and thought, oh crap. We can’t go public with that.”

I read this post and chuckled. This exact phenomenon has happened to me numerous times as I’ve developed software user interfaces and marketing campaigns. It’s frustrating for the people you work with. In many cases, just like Joel, people around me have gotten my buy-in all along the way. And then bam! I take a fresh look at it and no longer like it.

So why does this happen? I think there are a bunch of factors that lead to this kind of a moment. Here are a few:

1) We’ve all lost sight of the “main” thing: In my opinion, a good design clearly points the user to the main purpose of the page. In the times where I’ve had the “just not right” feeling, I look at the design and think to myself “I don’t see the main point of this page.” That’s a clear sign.

2) It doesn’t feel right: The reality is that we all have our own sense of what “feels right.” If it doesn’t feel right to you, then you just have to fix it.  Joshua Porter wrote today that “people make sense to themselves.” I agree. And people know for themselves what looks good and feels right. When you’re the final decision maker (like Joel), it’s critical that you know when to say “this doesn’t look right.” The key is choosing when and how to say that, and to not do it too frequently (unless you want to really piss off the designers and engineers).

3) It doesn’t look as good as Blahblah.com: I don’t care what your process of design is, but if at the end of the day you look at your design and then you look at someone else’s design and you feel inferior, then you have to go fix it. I’ve been in this situation many times. We *thought* we were on the right path, but the final product simply didn’t look as good as something else we had seen. The key to communication with designers is to clearly explain why you think Blahblah.com is better — and be as specific as possible. The better you can articulate the differences, the more likely they are to work with you to fix the design.

I applaud Joel for recognizing that sometimes you have to stop the presses and revisit your design. Even if you are “on board” all of the way through the process, you have to be truly happy and proud of the final product. After all, users don’t have the insight to see the process along the way. They only see the final product. And it better be great if you want to keep them as users.

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One Response to How a design goes from good to “just not right”

  1. paperseedblog says:

    I like what you’ve written here. Although sometimes, a client asks for adjustments they think they want to see, and the end product just looks or works worse and not better, and it takes a while before they realize it. I guess going down the wrong road can help to find the right one. Then there are times the design a client likes on one website simply won’t translate properly for their product or service, so its about finding that happy medium.

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