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Diversifying Your Design Strategy

It’s the number one rule for any consumer who wants to start investing his or her money: diversify and balance the portfolio. Sure, buy some of those hot stocks you’ve had an eye on, hoping they’ll triple in value over the next year or two. By all means, take on some of those funds featuring emerging markets, which could be the future of investing. At the same time, though, buy blue-chip stocks and safer bonds that will help ensure that if things go badly, you’ll still have something left when the dust settles.

While the same reasoning applies, for some reason, most of us don’t take the same sort of balanced risk approach to our design work. We tend to fall into one of two camps: the safe and risk-averse design investor, relying on patterns and surefire design elements from a usability perspective; and the risk-seeking designer, looking to hit a home run by doing something no one ever has before.

The Sound Designer

Now that we’re largely past the point where professional web designers are spending most of their energy just figuring out things like HTML and CSS, we have the luxury of paying attention to the actual interactions we are crafting for users. This has led to a mostly-awesome trend toward documenting and using design patterns, creating a bit of a shared spoken and visual vocabulary among interaction designers across the interwebs.

If failure scares the bejeezers out of you, these pattern libraries are the ultimate Snuggie, protecting you from the biting cold of complete design failure. Your users will generally figure out how to use your UI without too much trouble, and while you probably shouldn’t expect instant celebrity, awards, or widespread praise for groundbreaking design, you’ll get a nice pat on the back at the end of the day.

The risk averse designer lays up before the water hazard on the golf course, steals second base only with a man on third, drives a reliable four-door sedan with great gas mileage, invests in CDs and Exxon-Mobil, and is the office captain in the event of a natural disaster.

The Audacious Designer

If you’re thinking to yourself, “but patterns are often not the best way to solve those design problems!” you might be a bit more risk-friendly. You’ll invent new interactions in an attempt to not only make the site work well, but work amazingly. Your unique data visualization might fly or completely flop. You might have a hit project one month that takes off largely due to the design work you did, and follow it up the next month with an abject failure.

The risk-friendly designer goes for the green in two on the par-five, always tries to score from first on a hit into the gap, invests in penny stocks based on tips he gets from an online forum, has been injured multiple times trying to get that 1080 on his snowboard, and chases hurricanes looking for big surf.

Finding Balance

The daring designer says things like, “shoot for the moon, land among the stars,” which not only suggests that the designer missed that astronomy unit in fourth grade, but doesn’t reflect the risk of the complete and total flop. The cautious designer will spend the next few years designing the same websites everyone else is making, contributing almost nothing to the field in terms of progress.

For most designers, finding a balanced strategy is the key to success, and that balance means using things like predictably safe design patterns in some areas, while forging into new design territory elsewhere in the same application. The patterns throughout the app ensure that you have a fundamentally usable core, while the design inventions help push the experience toward something more than usable, toward being convenient, pleasurable, or even meaningful.

Deciding to diversify your strategy is easy — it just makes sense if you want a truly successful product or business. Deciding exactly how to diversify can be another matter entirely. A few tips to help guide the process:

  1. Don’t invent interactions for the sake of invention. If an existing pattern or recognizable interaction does exactly what the user needs, then by all means use it.
  2. Conversely, recognize when patterns aren’t actually solving the entire problem.
  3. Assess the investment required to innovate. Are you spending lots of design and engineering time improving a minor feature, where a design pattern could cheaply get you 90% of the way there? If you have unlimited resources, that extra 10% might be worth pursuing, but if not…
  4. Get a clear picture of the risk and rewards involved. Is this feature your big differentiator, and innovation is required if you want to be a successful product? If your new take on a signup form fails, will the business be able to take the hit while you fix it?
  5. Try to think one or two steps ahead about unintended consequences. Will using that design pattern popularized by Gmail make everyone feel like the rest of the app should act like Gmail? Will your design solution resonate with your intended audience?

Valuing Realism

Many people dismiss a realistic perspective, valuing the dreamers and those driven by emotion, but forgetting the unnecessary wars, the major market recessions, the layoffs after a blue-sky idea tanks — many of which could have been prevented with foresight and the strength to see the world as it really is, personal inadequacies included.

The best designs are produced by men and women of imagination in close contact with reality, standing firmly on the shoulders of other great designs, then reaching ever higher.

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Avatar of M. Jackson Wilkinson

I'm M. Jackson Wilkinson, a technologist, designer, speaker, educator, and writer in San Francisco. I'm the Founder of Kinsights. I'm from Philadelphia, went to Bowdoin College in Maine, root for the Phillies, and love to sing.

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  1. Thanks for providing a clear path towards balance, rather than just calling for a middle ground - this is a great post that's sorely needed in the design community.

    Your article makes me think that there's not much place for interaction innovation in hand-off client work - it seems like responsible designers should lean heavily on patterns for anything they're a) creating with limited time and resources and b) unable to support and revise post-launch. Gambling with your time and energy is one thing, gambling with a client's business is another entirely.

    But, like you said, pattern-focused designers don't contribute to the community or gain that all-important Design Cred, which I think makes a strong argument for working on personal projects alongside client ones.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Doug.

    I think you're wrong, though. One need only look at agencies that do in fact innovate on a regular basis to know that the two can indeed coexist. Even when we move away from the iteration-friendly confines of the web, we see folks like IDEO and Frog creating consumer products that innovate in their design and interactions. That can be some high-risk stuff, but they back it up with testing and research before things go into production.

    I think the key is to do one of two things — test the hell out of your innovation if you're genuinely in a “hand-off” client relationship, or extend the relationship past the initial delivery and bank on a couple phases of iteration.

    But yeah, if a client doesn't want to spend time or money on testing or iteration, the best bets come in the form of patterns and standards.

  3. Good points, I think I left testing out of the model I was imagining - it seems like a key step in innovating responsibly is getting (or simulating) real-world feedback and then having the resources to appropriately respond. If your design handoff is missing this loop, I'd still say that innovation is gambling, but that just makes a stronger case for securing testing and iteration time from clients.

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  8. Hey very nice points covered in your article regarding designing. I will surely jot down these points for my own designing project. I have recently worked on an interior designing project and the information is really helpful for the project.

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