Now that I’m doing the ‘my-own startup’ thing, I figured I should start doing a bit more blogging. I’m not sure this qualifies as a ‘smart’ post or not, but I think design standards for websites have gone up lately… I’ve been wrestling with it and noticed a few patters, interspersed below with probably more information about my own problems than you’d care to know. (Enjoy the new site layout, by the way; although the decision to ditch my awesome burning guitar city header banner was an unrelated decision that’s been a long time coming! #professionalism). Anyway, on to the blog!
Just kidding—brief digression. So I’m cofounding a startup called GitSET. There ultimately will be some fancy hacker news blog post with some hopefully impressive stuff. For now suffice it to say that we’re turning Github into a sort of white pages for developers; we think we’ve solved people search for the open-source network. We finished the algorithms/back end/data science stuff necessary quite early in the startup process and have been focusing on monetizing and bd stuff in order to be able to finance our little adventure. However, I’ve wanted to build a web experience to showcase the awesome social potential of this data for a while. The only problem—lack of a designer/ front end guy on my team—leading me down to the DIY frontend design/css hell I’m sure so many of my readers call their day job. If you’ve spent a 6-hour stretch coloring buttons—I’m talkin to you!
At least to me, it seems like there are 3 points on a spectrum of pain that almost everybody finds themselves on.
- Poor design—typically results from having a data scientist or someone not artistically inclined be in charge of implementing the entire front-end experience!
- Overdesign—dressing up a questionable page concept in ridiculous over the top design hoping to win your eyeballs over with prettiness.
- Flat out #DesignDesperation — Ripping off other sites, or constantly monkeying with minor UX, as an escape from thinking about product at all!
I’m definitely dealing with the first one personally. Typically I learn best when my immediate circumstances shove my ignorance right in my face, forcing me to recognize that to accomplish what I need, I have to learn. I’ve always had that need for a little kick of fight or flight to really accomplish anything notable—and almost every challenge I’ve forced myself to look at this seriously has tended to work itself out in a hurry. Except for one—unfortunately, I’ve had a mental block around drawing and visual art since about the second grade when I’d eagerly trade writing the whole assignment for a 2-minute monochrome crayola illustration in any combo writing-drawing assignment. And maybe it’s because I’m bad at this, but wow, what a time suck illustrating pages is, even with bootstrap, assets, and a wireframe. I’ve never felt more deeply that I’m falling into the RUINATION of ’I'll know it when I see it’ development than when designing visual elements solo. Seems like a truly orthogonal skillset and makes me appreciate all the great designers I’ve been privileged to work with who made this look easy at previous gigs!
For #2…. When I look around at the most fashionable startups, there’s this veneer of effortless elegance, like Steve Jobs and Michelangelo collaborated via time machine, caked onto even the shittiest, most pointless product concepts! And indeed, I feel that a certain level of design flash is now an expected part of the startup launch experience. Like Google’s patronizing , albeit vaguely educational #ParallaxPorn pop-out-storybook of an infographic explaining that search engines work by reading the internet, is emblematic of the typical publicity play exploitation of art. And it looks stunning.
Of course, a little excess can be appropriate from time to time, especially for companies not known for great design experience. But none of the above can compare to what I’m calling true #DesignDesperation. This is when your startup is failing and you can’t face it, so you waste your whole team’s energy away on silly design tweaks. Or you plagiarize other sites designs hoping it will somehow paper over the core deficiencies of your business model. Shoutout to Taskrabbit’s new Zaarly-esque look— and if you want more examples, try clicking through Crunchbase for an hour, because that stuff is pretty myriad.
I guess I’ll cap this off with the sort of half-assed conclusion that weak PM’s will continue to obsess over page design because it’s the only part of the experience they can viscerally understand and control, designers will continue to raise the bar across industry, and this will only cause increased heartache and business FAILURE going forward for inexperienced managers. Recognize where you are on the spectrum, keep perspective on what’s important, take a shot, and ship.