There has been a lot of finger pointing at frameworks such as Bootstrap for an apparent depreciation in design standards lately. But, I think that Agile methodologies have something to answer for as well.
I get the idea (and like it) of developing something quickly that can be pushed out, bit by bit, to a wider audience, testing all the while and tweaking based on user feedback.
But, the problem I think is that Agile production methodologies don’t put enough emphasis on the character and personality of a design at the start of the process. So, you can end up tweaking and tweaking something that is lacking in both these traits. Trying to add them later just looks like decoration.
There is a desire when working in sprints to build something quickly, to get it working, to test it on real users. This desire to test something that works, i.e. something that’s coded that users can interact with, skips testing the character and personality of the design with those same users.
Some things just take time
Unfortunately, design testing takes time and, it seems to me, is the area of waterfall development that is often missing from the Agile process.
Testing moodboards, mock-ups, design alternatives, asking questions about whether a design fits with user expectations of a brand, needs to happen before you build something. And that goes against the idea of an entire team – researcher, designer, developer, copywriter, business specialist – all sitting down together and working in sprints together. Sure, that process works brilliantly once a design is in place but it doesn’t if developing the look and feel of a site is meant to be part of the project.
Are you really a designer?
Another reason why design standards appear to be going down is that people like me are making too many design-related decisions. I’m perfectly capable of developing an effective information architecture. I can work with clients to really home in on what their content should be and how it should be prioritised. The problems begin however when I start to create wireframes. It’s ok to a point, as long as I allow the designer to interpret my wireframes and then test the designer’s approach with real users. And that is what I think isn’t happening. Wireframes are being taken too literally.
I’ve spent years working with really good designers and I’ve learnt to appreciate good design when I see it. I can see when something isn’t quite right and I can suggest the odd tweak. But develop something from scratch? Not a chance.
Good (visual) designers are born, not taught. I’m not comparing interface design to great illustration or musical virtuosity. That’s a leap too far. There are many people in the world that can do great design. It’s not the domain of a tiny minority, but we do need to recognise that it’s something you need an eye for (as well as a great deal of experience and knowledge too, of course).
There are two types of people in the world…
I can hear some people grumbling that I’m just talking about frills. Function is way more important than form, if you like. And, I accept, there are many millions of people in the world who genuinely feel exactly that. But equally, there are millions of us that appreciate form just as much. It matters. Not to everyone, but it does. We only have to look at the products Apple makes to highlight the point (and remind ourselves that they are the biggest company in the world while we’re doing it). If my Macbook Air had a badly designed exterior (but with exactly the same spec) I wouldn’t have bought it.
So when it comes to form and function, there are two types of people in the world. My leaning towards form is possibly somewhat akin to the fact that every grammar and spelling mistake I see makes me wince when others – often, considerably more intelligent others – breeze over them as if they don’t exist. To them, the content is the only thing of real importance. But, to me, there is beauty in a well-constructed sentence. Word craft adds considerably to pretty much anything I’m reading. It tells me something about the author’s character and personality. It might not actually be true but isn’t that what brand is all about? Trying to project aspirational attributes?
To conclude, I think we should be creating look and feel ideas and testing them with users before starting to build anything. Not doing so risks safe, utilitarian, characterless design becoming even more predominant.
Also, a significant number of people will make decisions about your product (whatever that may be) based on the aesthetics you use on your website.