Do you ever stop and wonder if what you do really matters? What if the things you do day in and day out had no impact on people? What if it turned out that all this time you’ve been missing the goal by a mile?
If you’re a firefighter saving lives, or a scientist inventing newer, cleaner power sources, there’s probably little doubt in your mind that you’re making a difference. But as a designer, I must confess that I often start doubting myself. Would it really matter if those text blocks weren’t aligned on a grid? Aren’t my clients wasting good money paying me to spend 10 minutes getting a tab’s gradient just right?
Unlike artists who create whatever they feel like (those useless bums!), designers like to think they’re solving real problems and contributing to society. Every choice we make is a step towards a well-defined goal. So we’d better be sure that we’re actually useful and making a positive impact.
Big redesign, small impact
So what to make of this post by Jason Cohen that states that the recent redesign of his company site barely impacted his conversion rate? Does that mean design is useless for startups? Is his case representative, or just an outlier?
To answer this question, we first need to define what “design” actually means. I think we can broadly separate design in three parts: user experience, visual design, and branding. Or, to put it another way, design is how it works, how it looks, and how it feels.
How it works: User Experience
Although I dislike the term “user experience” (I prefer “interaction design”), I’ll use it for now so that we’re on the same page. What I mean by it is the general way things fit together: Is the site straightforward to use? Can the user build a mental model of the way your app works? Do things make sense?
I think we can all agree that UX is important. Although “UX” has become somewhat of a meaningless buzzword of late, at its core “good UX” just means “a good product”. I can’t think of many examples of product with bad UX that are still successful, except maybe the ones put out by behemoths like Microsoft that can mitigate their product’s suckyness with other factors (then again, Vista was a good illustration that you’re never completely safe from a backlash…).
The poster child of this idea is Hipmunk. Instead of prioritizing ad revenue or affiliate clicks like many of their competitors, the Hipmunk crew has simply tried to build the best product they could. But this shouldn’t seem like a new idea: in the “real” world, there has always been companies that value product quality over other factors, and some of them have even become very successful doing so.
How it looks: Visual Design
In comparison,visual design is more straightforward to grasp: does it look pretty? Are you using Helvetica, or just Arial? Do you have rounded corners, or boring old sharp ones?
It pains me to say it, but visual design is probably not that important in most cases. Unlike a car, clothes, or a big flat-screen televisions, websites are not status symbols and are mostly utilitarian. This explains why a big majority of people just don’t care how your app looks as long as it gets the job done. Hacker News or Stack Overflow are good examples of very successful sites that have horrible visual design.
How it feels: Branding
Before we can answer that question, we need to look at the third element of the equation, branding.
Branding is the way people perceive your product and relate to it. If your product was a person, branding would be their personality: is your product warm and friendly? Or is it serious and reliable? Or maybe fun and a little bit out of control?
Thinking about your branding is important because there is no such thing as not having a brand. As soon as people hear about your product, they’ll start forming an opinion about it. You might as well control that opinion and align it with your own goals. Sometimes that involves having a slick logo, sometimes it means not having a logo.
Craigslist’s lack of branding is a brand in itself, it communicates that the site is free (it’s easier to believe something is free if it already looks cheap), low-tech (if it looks simple, it must be simple to use), and reminds people of their paper’s black and white classified section.
Design is all three
To make matters even more complicated, it’s important to realize that those three aspects of design are strongly intertwined: good visual design will make you more credible, which impacts your brand. Bad visual design (small fonts, bad contrast, etc.) will make your site harder to use which impacts user experience. And great user experience can be a selling point in itself, which can in turn become part of your brand.
But does it matter?
So in the end, does design matter for a start-up? Well, let’s look at a real-world example again. If someone was freezing to death in sub-zero weather, he’d gladly accept any coat even if were old, ugly, and didn’t fit. But when doing their winter shopping in Macy’s, most people will take the time to compare brands, colors, and price.
So the lesson here is that as their basic needs are fulfilled or alternatives appear, people start looking for new criteria on which to base their decisions. When you’re the only soft drink in town you only need to worry about taste and price. But you have competitors, that’s when you start redesigning your logo and spending millions on ad campaigns.
Similarly, in the beginning stage of its life, a startup probably won’t be hurt as much by bad design. After all, there are a lot of far more dangerous things that can kill it first. But as it matures and competitors emerge, it will need every advantage it can get, and can’t afford to let bad visual design hurt its credibility, bad user experience confuse its users, or bad branding pollute its message.
Of course, the hard question is not if design matters, it’s when it matters. We can all agree that it’s probably better overall if your site does not look like a 1999 Geocities homepage. But a start-up has little resources (well, most of them at least) and can’t afford to waste them on factors that have no impact on its success.
When it comes to making sure your app’s code scales well for large number of users, there are two schools of thought: you can either spend time from the start optimizing your code, or you can cross that bridge when you come to it and wait until you actually have scale problems to fix them (if they don’t kill you first, of course).
The thing is, just like with making money, there is no switch that you can flip to instantly become good at design. The take-away from studying companies like Apple is that for them “design” is something that’s embedded in the core of the company, not something tacked on at a later stage. You can’t deny that by valuing design from start to finish, Apple has been able to consistently put out great products for the past couple years.
So when should you worry about “scaling” your design? Well, there is no good answer to this question, it all depends on the project, on your goals, and on your resources. But I hope at least that this article gave you a couple elements to help you decide.