We Need Great Design

I’d like to add my extreme thanks to Brian Zeiders (on twitter at @brianspiders) for co-writing this response. He took my messy and poorly written gibberish and turned it into a cohesive response. He’s a damn good writer and an even better designer.

“You don’t need great design to have a successful design”
So says Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger, the web company that runs user-generated content sites I Can Has Cheezburger, FAIL Blog, The Daily What, Know Your Meme, and Memebase. During a talk at the GROW 2012 conference (which can be viewed here), Huh said that when Cheezburger considers design changes to web sites, he looks at four things: desired business outcome, intended user, data on the existing condition, and data on the new condition when the company retests for validity.

“What we’ve built at Cheezburger is to create a team of people whose sole focus is to get data,” says Huh. “We’ve built a company that is driven by data.”
Admitting, “We have one of the worst-looking sites on the planet,” Huh argues that the best-selling cars are not Ferraris or Bugattis. but Ford Focuses and Honda Civics. Therefore, a bad looking Cheezburger site can still be adored by the masses.

That’s why, he says, you don’t need great design to have a successful design.

Never mind that, removing cost barriers, anyone would likely prefer a Ferrari to a Civic. Let’s skip past the dubious metaphor and examine the underlying argument for “Un-design” Huh presents.

I think that when people like Huh promote non-design or bad design, they are essentially doing two things either purposely or inadvertently. One: they undervalue and denigrate design. They view it as a singular entity that has little worth in business.

Two: (and this is what I think their main argument is), is that content is king. Huh talks about putting product before design. I think by product he means content. Content is what the users are after. We are all users. Some are more skilled than others and may have the ability to navigate slightly more complex situations. Our goal is the same for all users though:
•    simplify complicated scenarios to enable access to content
•    help users make better choices
•    allow them to feel happier with their experience

All of the above encourages brand loyalty.

As you can surmise, this is where the argument for disposing of design falls apart. Promoting un-design in favor of content merely undermines the content and data you’ve worked so hard to assemble. Huh seems to be subscribing to the ethos that design is a random, frivolous collection of colors, patterns and fonts that make a site pretty or not. Something like dipping your content in a bucket of gold paint; design as that radio button you click before final purchase as optional insurance on your trip. A more apt metaphor might be this: design is a lot like the structure of the plane’s wings that enable lift to occur and, subsequently, fly and reach the desired destination. Without design, you have an assembled group of passengers (data) milling about angrily because they lack unity, structure and a flight plan.

Designers, or should I say good designers, do much more than just pick colors, fonts and slap a logo on a site. Design is a vehicle for creating, shaping, and guiding a product or entity through visual and social constructs to deliver content and communication to a targeted audience. And, if that’s not enough, we have to do it in a way that is creative, distinct and engaging while still being practical. This is not an art project. There are guiding principles, targeted results and actionable triggers

We aim to create things that are easy for people to use; that are innovative without being complicated; that inspire and touch other people; that make sense of—or give order to the little corners of the world within our project scope.

“Who cares about good design or bad design” Huh continues. The answer should be, you. You should care about good design and bad design whether you are a designer, an entrepreneur or some random dude who can’t get the plastic casing open on the pair of scissors he just bought. Design infiltrates every corner of our lives. When it’s good, it disappears. You don’t notice the design; you’re too busy being happy completing whatever task you set forth to do.

Adam Nash, of Greylock Partners tells us that the bar has risen and that users expect great design. His business partner, Matthew Hawn, adds “delighting people with design can be crucial to a product’s success.”

Delight equals making it easy for people to access the content/data/product they are searching for. Eliminating barriers and distractions that cause the user to second-guess or even forget why they are there. In an age of data bombardment, the delight comes from simplicity and ease. We want to say goodbye to convoluted sign up processes and endless form fields. Goodbye to confusing site structure and guessing where to click next. In 2012, guessing equals sayonara audience. We want things now and we want them to be intuitive. Undesign goes against our nature, our desire for order and our perpetual human impatience.

Good design is based in research, testing, and iteration. Bad design is what is eschewed in “The Lean Startup”: just throw things out there to see what sticks. Good design isn’t guaranteed success but its roots in research give it the edge to succeed. The “seeing what sticks” idea belies a lack of knowledge in your users and in your product. Your audience’s first impression isn’t that you’re lean and agile; it’s that you lack a coherent vision. Who wants to buy into a product like that?

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