Clearleft is a leading agency in user experience design based in Brighton, England. Clearleft has gained a reputation as one of the most experienced UX consultancies working today, and was named Company of the Year both in 2009 and 2011 by .net Magazine. Clearleft members relentlessly push the web forward by contributing to awesome books, speaking at international events, organizing trailblazing conferences, and maintaining cutting-edge blogs.
You can follow Clearleft on Twitter @clearleft.
As we edge towards the finish line of 2013, it’s worth glancing over our shoulders to see where we’ve been, in the hope that it will provide some indication of where we may be heading next.
As such I worry that people are starting to rely on these abstractions a bit too much, while foregoing the fundamental knowledge that underpins them. This is especially true when you need to put in an exception and trawling through hundreds of lines of unused code doesn’t feel quite as “free” any more. I’m also worried about the number of companies settling on a library or framework before they’ve even started analysing the problem. It’s as though they are trying to fit the problem around the tool, rather than the other way round.
The strange thing with responsive design is that it isn’t actually that complicated, especially if you’ve been paying attention to liquid design, universal design and progressive enhancement over the last few years. Sure, there are a few annoyances like image sizing that require a bit of help, but a lot of responsive frameworks sit somewhere between laziness and overkill. This is one of the reasons we’re very specific about wanting to hire folks who are aware of the popular libraries and frameworks, but are able to work framework free.
On the plus side, I think the industry is getting much better at integrating responsive design into our daily practice, and this is having positive effects in other areas. For instance, Clearleft have always been a fairly collaborative bunch, but that level of collaboration has steadily risen over the last 3-4 years, as cross-functional paring became the norm.
The other big trend of 2013 has to be “flat design”. We can debate the merits of flat design or whether it counts as a movement indefinitely. However, it’s clear than many designers have eschewed metaphorical interfaces—thanks in part to Apple’s overutilization of skeuomorphism—in order to follow a more typographical heritage. The problem with this approach is that it does away with a lot of useful affordances, making discovery a lot more problematic. This is where kinetic design comes in.
For a start, subtle animation is a really efficient way of hinting how an interface works by showing what’s hidden, able to accept input or otherwise be interacted with. This is especially useful on small screen interfaces where real estate is tight and the chance of distraction is high. Animation is also a great way of communicating personality and character by simulating weight, friction or playfulness.
However it doesn’t stop there. We recently started experimenting with animation as a way of bringing static concepts to life in prototypes or during product presentations. Considering how simple this tool can be, we’ve found it surprisingly effective. In fact, it’s been so effective I’m kicking myself that we’ve never really explored it before.
As such, I think animation is going to become a much more talked about tool over the coming year, with UX agencies starting to adopt it into their daily practice as they did with sketching a number of years back. So it’s definitely worth exploring new tools like Quartz Composer, experimenting with existing tools like Keynote, and organising training session on traditional tools like After Effects.
I regularly reflect on the story of the Surveyor project at NASA as described in Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt.
If nobody knew what the lunar surface was comprised of, how were they going to build a vehicle which could go out and explore the landscape of the moon?
Scientists had whittled down their theories to four possible terrains, but were unable to come to a conclusion on which one was the most likely outcome. Some believed it would be formed of giant boulders and rocky terrain, whilst others theorised long pointed shards like a bed of nails. Without an answer development stopped.
Finally, Phyllis Buwalda wrote a specification with a statement of what the Lunar surface was like — not what she thought it was like. The machine would have large wheels akin to a tractor designed to handle flat and rocky terrain. She based her design theory on something which she could relate to: The deserts of Southwest America.
Her conclusion was that the desert was the most barren, desolate and gruelly terrain we have conquered. If the Moon was any worse than this — we weren’t going back there anyway.
With the specification complete the wheels were designed and engineered by Ferenc Pavlics at General Motors.
I love this brave leadership and sense of taking charge, even if it is a case of rolling the dice. Too often we say we want to push boundaries or step into the unknown, only to be constrained by our own uncertainty. You might end up with a result you didn’t want, but even then, sometimes that leads to unexpected wonders, think of Viagra, Super Glue, or Penicillin.
When we’re faced with difficult choices, it can often be hard to reach a compromise. I think Buwalda showed that by stepping away from the discussion and rethinking the approach entirely, you can define a strategy that allows you to keep moving instead of being broken down at the crossroads.
During the early years of Clearleft we’d say yes to every client that came our way, for fear it’d be the last. A week later our dream project would come along and we’d have to turn it down due to lack of resources. I’d hate to think how many amazing opportunities we lost because we couldn’t say “no”. We’d find ourselves working on projects that paid the bills, but were hardly stimulating— things that wouldn’t sit proudly in our portfolio or further our goals. On occasion we’d be stuck with difficult or unpleasant customers and wish we’d said “no” from the outset. Despite this, we’d continue to struggle on regardless.
Too many designers operate from a position of fear, worrying where the next check will come from. They’ll try to win every client that comes their way, whether they are suitable or not.
This attitude helps fuel one of our industry’s least endearing qualities—the tendency to bitch about clients. The thing is, as a company you chose the people you work with, so it’s your fault rather than theirs.
While most agencies try to win every project by promising to deliver everything the client wants and more, we take a radically different approach.
It’s my job to make sure a client is a good fit for Clearleft, so I’ll sound out their attitudes to quality, how they like to collaborate, and their management style. I’ve got very good at spotting the type of clients we work best with, and the warning signs to look out for.
It’s also my job to see whether we’re going to be a good fit for the client, and I’ll regularly turn down work because I think somebody else would do a better job. This may seem like a strange attitude, but I feel a duty of care to the people who approach us and want to offer the best advice possible, even if that means recommending somebody else (which I do a lot).
We’re also very honest with our prospective clients and don’t play the sales game—we’re designers after all. Instead we’ll explain that they won’t get everything they want, that the process will be hard and that we’ll make a few wrong turns along the way. We say this because design is messy and we don’t want to start the relationship on a lie. Some clients don’t want to hear this and that’s OK. Others appreciate the honesty and really want to work with us.
There’s something fantastically empowering about turning down a project or client you don’t feel is a good fit, especially when a better fit is just around the corner. It’s also surprising the level of respect you can get from the companies you’ve turned down if they understand the reasons.
So try saying “no” during the sales process a little more and you may just find it turns into more and better “yes’s”.
Empathy is for everyone
It’s been a few weeks since the project started and I’ve been spending all my time getting to know the users. I’ve listened to them talk about their lives, hopes and fears. I’ve watched them interact with the digital world and even spied on them a bit. As with every project I work on, I’ve gone to great lengths to take a walk in their shoes and see the world through their eyes. I do UX and that’s what we UX people do. Empathy is the name of the UX game.
After few weeks of research I feel like I’ve known the users all my life. It’s now time for my clients to get to know them too and what better way to instill a bit of good old empathy than using the art of storytelling? I invite my clients to a workshop and, armed with research findings and user quotes, I ask them to help me create a set of stories that will bring the key behaviours of their customers to life. They’re in and raring to go.
The first step is to create some characters. We start by giving them a name, an age and a job. We then spell out their hopes and fears, their likes and dislikes. When our characters are done, we write stories about a day in their life and some snippets about their past and present. Everybody is having fun and by the end of day they’re all talking about the characters as if they’ve known them forever, as if they were their friends, family and neighbours. Empathy is in the air and we’re all confident that the project will be a success.
The research phase is done and it’s time to start designing. What could go wrong? Well, soon enough, the characters in our lovingly crafted stories are downgraded from friends to one of those old annoying relatives that everybody in the family likes to take the piss out of or ignore. Why are my clients even considering spending most of their budget on a feature that none of our characters cares about? Why do they keep asking us to copy the homepage of that other website that none of our characters would ever use? And yes Mr Client, I realise that there is a typo on the wireframe.
Have my clients learnt nothing from the empathy journey I took them on? I seeth in anger at the coldness of their hearts and with my clenched fist pointed to the sky, I ask WHY to the Gods and curse my clients. But the curse backfires and like a bolt of cold lightning bounces back and freezes my heart. All my cherished empathy is drained out of my soul, I look at my client and instead of a human being I see a cartoon villain getting in the way of my divine quest to save the users. Like a teenager, I sulk and complain to every colleague that wants to hear about it. I mull about how everything is so terribly unfair and my clients just don’t get it. I laugh out loud at silly cartoons and jokes about annoying clients and dream of a world where clients don’t exist.
I could stay like this, cursed, for days, weeks, years, forever, but a word or maybe a memory lights a spark in my heart and wakes me up from the spell. I remember that my clients have a name, an age and a job; that they have hopes and fears, likes and dislikes. I take the time to listen to their stories. I go to great lengths to take a walk in their shoes and see the world through their eyes and I finally begin to understand the real meaning behind their words.
No matter how many times I go through this journey, it never stops surprising me how easy it is to lose perspective in the heat of a project and forget that there is no difference between a user, a client and a designer. It shouldn’t be so hard to remember that no matter the title, we’re all just people trying to get things done. I write ‘empathy is for everyone’ on a Post-it note, stick it on my monitor and get back to work.
Responsive design is an integrated process that requires designers and developers to work in harmony. It’s not a process that involves a designer mocking up 3 different versions of a page (small, medium and large) and then handing it over the wall to a developer.
If you’re doing this, please stop. You misread the memo and are doing it wrong!
At my secondary school, the head of drama was Peter Maric, a fiery Northerner with Slavic roots who would shout, spit and swear his way through the day just to keep the spirit of the theatre alive. I loved it. 20 years later, he’s still there.
Anyone who was lazy or who he didn’t like was ‘a shower’. Maric would beat Stanislavsky, Chekov and Gogol into disinterested South London kids with his sheer force of will. I was inspired by his passion and attitude; it wasn’t something you saw in many teachers.
His ‘department of one’ was constantly on the verge of being shut down, so once a year he would stage plays like ‘The Government Inspector’ or ‘Hiawatha’. The big song and dance left the parents feeling warm and fuzzy about seeing their kids on stage, gave the management something to show off, but it was ultimately a survival tactic for theatre education itself.
As I reflect on where I am now, I’ve come to see theatre as one of the most important things I did in school. Given the current climate, I wonder if we’re going to lose something if academic subjects have to prove their economic value, when what you learn is rather intangible.
Drama gave me the confidence to stand up in front of anyone and do anything ‘in the name of art’. I’ve done a fair bit of performance since leaving school, including what I consider to be one of life’s ultimate lessons: appearing naked on stage (my character lost a game of strip poker… but that’s another story…).
When you’re performing, you enter a zone where the normal rules don’t apply. The trick about it is telling yourself that it doesn’t matter what people think. Performance forces you to be free of your social inhibitions, to improvise.
Why might this be so important to design? Our work is useless in a vacuum. You can have the best ideas in the world, but if you can’t tell the story, if you can’t stand up and be passionate about your work, it is far less likely to survive. Presenting your work and ideas may only be a tiny fraction of your work time, but it’s often the most critical.
In my work as a UX designer at Clearleft, there are times when I have to walk into a room full of people I don’t know (sometimes with little or no preparation) and tell them an engaging story. Doing this with confidence is the principal way that I can help a large organisation to change what it does for the better.
Performance is not new to design. Think about Steve Jobs and his habit of unveiling new products from a bag on stage. He loved to create mystery for an audience; pure showbusiness. If you’re a designer who struggles to sell your ideas, I think amateur theatre might be useful career development. Anything that gets you in front of people and forces you to be something different, something more than you are in everyday life.
There’s also a strange paradox in being a confident performer. Once you get there, the script ceases to matter as much. You can just flow, be natural, be more yourself. It becomes less of a performance, more like real life, like you’re just talking to someone.
If you want to hold their attention, there’s no reason to be showy (or even naked!), just work on being authentic. Strangely, learning how to perform a theatrical role is good start.
Works well with others
Four years ago, I was hired by Clearleft as a visual designer. Although it was recognised that I could write good front-end code, the nature of projects at that time meant different roles were segregated. After all, it is easier to manage projects when the component parts—user experience, visual design, and front-end development—can be pieced together like a jigsaw.
Responsive design has seen the boundaries between these disciplines blur; a nightmare for project managers, but a blissful existence for me.
Happiest when exploring the intersection between design and development, I can now take a website from visual concept right through to production-ready code. I can move between graphics application and browser at will, making changes late into production. The whole process feels like a two-way conversation between designer and developer, fluid and fleeting, yet set entirely within my own mind.
Still, there are times when I’m responsible for visual design alone. This inevitably leads to discussions about handover. There is never a good time to hand over a design, be it to a developer or even another designer. No amount of documentation can hope to describe the many rules, nuances and edge-cases that go into designing a website. Not working directly with the medium is anathema to the act of design.
A single-handed approach has its downsides, though. In seeking full ownership of a design and its implementation, a broader perspective can be lost. Critique and code review is essential.
Recently, we have started holding weekly design reviews. Not only can I share my work with others in the company, but I’m forced to articulate the micro-processes that have taken place internally. Anyone in the company can attend, and some of the most interesting discussions have touched on how developers interpret visual design comps. In short, it is easy for both parties to make assumptions, and only closer co-operation can prevent this from happening.
After a decade of self-contained practice, designers and developers are now having to open up to each other. In this new world, is there any room left for solo artists?
Along with Alastair Lockie, I run a Code Club at Queens Park Primary School, Brighton. Every Wednesday after school, the kids learn how to make games and more recently, how to make websites. It’s great to see them having fun and being creative on computers.
I originally decided to get involved with Code Club due to the lack of education in creative computing. Kids are taught how to use Microsoft Office products, but are not encouraged to explore and create within a digital space. That’s all changing now.
The UK Government have noticed that they aren’t doing enough to teach kids how to code in schools. In 2014, the new National Curriculum will come into play, and it makes one major change. A new course called “Computing” will replace “ICT”. Kids will begin learning how to program and create things on computers. What’s more, schools will make gifted and talented kids “Digital Leaders”, who will help teachers and pupils with computing within lessons. This makes me very happy!
So now I ask myself, will we still need Code Clubs, when kids have so many other opportunities to learn how to code? And my answer is yes, we still need them. Here’s why:
No matter where you get your stats from, the ratio of men to women in the digital industries is far from equal. According to the A List Apart Survey, 2011, just 18% of people in the web industry are women. There’s no reason why women can’t do just as well as men in these industries, and I believe our work suffers from this gross imbalance as diversity is important. It both brings out the best in people and better reflects the society we are designing for.
I haven’t personally noticed any considerable discrimination against women in our industry, and since women are just as fit for jobs as men in this line of work, I can only attribute this imbalance to stereotyping and self-perpetuation; many women don’t apply for these jobs because they don’t think it to be a job for women.
My Code Club has 26 kids who show up each week. 13 of them are boys, and 13 are girls. One of these girls says she will run a web development company when she grows up, and she’s very talented. Besides making Code Club seem exciting in an assembly I gave to the kids, I did nothing to encourage any demographic to join the club. The fact that we have a 50:50 split is testament to the unjust bias in our industry.
I hope that by showing kids coding is exciting, creative and engaging, we can slowly address this imbalance. These kids will grow up with the knowledge that you don’t have to be a geek to be a digital creative, and that the industry isn’t just for men. It might take a couple of generations before we see any meaningful change, but I’m prepared to wait.
I had the great pleasure of organising the Responsive Day Out here in Brighton last month. It was a lovely gathering of front-end developers and designers getting together to swap stories and cry on one another’s shoulders about the challenges involved in responsive design.
There were some well-known names on the roster: people who speak at international conferences and whose work you’d be familiar with. But there were also some first-timers: people who had never spoken at a conference before.
So why would I, as a conference organiser, ask someone who has never spoken before to get up on stage and share their thoughts?
The answer is simple: their writing. Reading the intelligent and cogent blog posts and articles that they had published made me want to hear what they had to say ...and I wanted to introduce their smarts to an audience. These people took the time to write down and publish their thoughts, and that led directly to their appearance at a web conference.
I really encourage you to publish on your own site. If you don’t have your own site, I think you should. In the meantime, there are plenty of other wonderful online publications: 24 Ways, Smashing Magazine, A List Apart. Why not get in touch with them if you’ve got an idea for an article?
To say that communication is a valuable skill when you’re working on the web would be quite an understatement. In a very real sense, the web was made to allow us all to share and communicate. Anybody can do it. That’s one of the great things about the web. You don’t need to ask anybody for permission. If you have an idea or a technique or a question that you want to share, all you need to do is publish it ...as long as you take the time to write your thoughts down.
Write. Publish. Share. Speak.
The False Dilemma
Today, I asked myself the question “Why do we often form extreme opinions on things, when in reality our opinion often lies in the midground”. I have little knowledge of psychology, but it seems that humans find it difficult to make reasoned decisions to complex problems (problems with many possible outcomes) and so often rely on intuition to solve them. But when a binary alternative offers itself, we will often take the shortcut and assume there are no alternative solutions. It is also far more easy to communicate the simple binary answer than the complex one.
A false dilemma (also called false dichotomy) is a type of informal fallacy that involves a situation in which limited alternatives are considered, when in fact there is at least one additional option. The options may be a position that is between two extremes (such as when there are shades of grey) or may be completely different alternatives.
For example, if you ask someone whether they like cats or dogs, they will very often answer with one or the other. The reality is never so simple. All people somewhat like/dislike cats and somewhat like/dislike dogs. Nobody likes all cats and nobody likes all dogs. This is an example of false dilemma, as there are more than two answers. Very few things are black and white, and yet we find it hard to acknowledge this.
Take the digital industry for example, I see false dilemma everywhere. We all make quick decisions on how to do things and then forget why we made that decision. One rule rarely fits all, and yet people often shoehorn a process, technology, framework or mindset into every project they work on. Some of the best craftspeople out there will make very few assumptions, as few as possible. Every decision will be reasoned, and based on the specific needs of the product they are creating. The design will flourish out of a multitude of nuanced decisions, bespoke to this one set of constraints.
We must also be ready to evolve, and I think we are much better at this. Generally, people in the digital industry embrace new technology and adopt it into their workflow. But perhaps we could still do better, especially when it comes to an evolving understanding in the nature of digital and what it means to people. Look around you, and see what everyone else is learning. Be ready to reassess your assumptions and move forwards. It doesn’t necessarily mean you were wrong, but that your understanding of how digital products are used can always be improved. Besides, we’re all designing for a world which is constantly in a state of flux. What was true yesterday need not be true today.
But perhaps the most important thing I want to highlight here, is that the answer to most questions is it depends, and very often in the grey area between black and white. Try not to take extreme views on things, and perhaps see that there is always another level of complexity to be discovered in any decision you make.
When I think about what it means to be a craftsman, I think about my friend Jon; he builds houses. He’ll probably do that the same way for the rest of his life.
Thinking about his craft led me to a question about our industry: have humans ever had to change up what they do as fast and often as we do? Our craft exists in a never-ending state of flux. It won’t settle down for a while, if ever.
If you work on the web, and you’re not changing it up constantly, you’re probably not doing it right. This can put a barrier between us and others we work with. Who’s not encountered a client who’s uncomfortable with <insert latest web trend>? Who’s not had a colleague who just can’t see how something will change their work?
It’s not that I think we’re superior; far from it. Sometimes I dream about being able to master something without the ground constantly shifting under my feet. The status quo feels like a warm blanket sometimes; who wouldn’t want their world to act more or less predictably?
With this thought in mind, I’d like to propose a new attitude to our clients and colleagues who struggle to keep up; they need us to keep them going sometimes. Thinking about them empathically, as we would our users, offers us a more collaborative mindset.
What are they feeling? Fear. Uncertainty.
What are they needing? Knowledge. Reassurance. Safety.
Give them these things, unconditionally. Walk into those meetings with no expectations that people should ‘just know’. That is the price of being comfortable with a never-ending headwind of change, rushing into your face.
We live in a world of instant gratification, so is it any wonder that clients expect their projects to start yesterday and ship tomorrow, irrespective of how long the work actually takes? Clients usually don’t know—and often don’t care—about the intricacies of our business, and why should they? Instead they rely on our feedback to assess their schedules.
Unfortunately we’re in a market economy so there’s always somebody willing to work harder, work faster or cut more corners. It’s hard to sell a considered solution when everybody is saying it’ll take half that time, so projects inevitably skew faster than we’re comfortable with. It’s not a race to the bottom but it’s definitely against the clock.
I remember reading about an artist who would get paid for commissions but only do the work when the mood struck. The paintings took as long as they needed and some patrons waited years. Sometimes I daydream about this level of freedom, but in truth it would be a curse.
Good design takes time—more time than most of us are allowed. In fact I’m often shocked in interviews by how little time people are given to do their work. Sometimes as little as 5 or 10% of what we’d allocate. This allows you to keep costs down and win the work, but at what price?
Sadly we see too many potentially amazing designers stuck by the glass ceiling of time. So they settle on the first solution that looks viable and are never allowed to sweat the details. They are forced to rely on 1% of inspiration without the benefit of perspiration.
So this is the dirty little secret in our industry. The best designers and developers rarely have more talent. They simply have more time.