Interactive Web designers need to start thinking more about the long-term strategic goals of their clients. That’s because good design is more than aesthetics. Good design is forward thinking. And as the online space continues to change every day, the designer’s role is changing with it.
If we reconsider our approach we can help to shape the Web of the future.
In the last few months, there have been several articles on the evolving nature of the Web: from responsive design to new terms like future friendly. All of these articles point to a central thesis: the Web is becoming a more fluid, adaptable place where content is going to be consumed in every format imaginable. It’s only a matter of time before this becomes a reality. As such, we as designers will be looked to more than ever in influencing the lifecycle of products as content is accessed across multiple devices.
The Web is changing and designers can help change it.
Here’s a few ways how.
1. Get Involved in Planning
Much of the fate of a website’s success is determined in the planning process. Designers, and the project, benefit immensely from involving themselves as much as possible during this phase of work to iron out goals, desires, expectations and other variables. Designers adept at creating visual order out of a mess of information will be the most successful. We are, by nature, problem solvers and by being involved in planning designers can help focus the project so that it delivers the best solution possible.
Let’s face it; we often know exactly what is needed to move a project forward.
So, in this sense, being involved in the planning process from the beginning allows clients to get on board with the designer and share their vision in the earliest phase of the project, establishing a clear communication and exchange of ideas that is beneficial to all other team members.
Designers must be proactive about involvement in planning, not only to educate the client about the process, but so they can make better decisions and learn from other team members.
2. Do Research
As nice as being a part of the planning phase is, it doesn’t always happen. When this is the case, designers should perform their own research in order to truly understand how to best execute a design successfully. As part of a collaborative, specialized team, it is the designer's responsibility to know what works best visually. This means performing due diligence to understand the competitive landscape of their clients. Your research should uncover insights into what other sites are doing so it can be matched, and what they do not so it can be surpassed.
Also, meet with those stakeholders in order to solidify a unified direction on projects. This kind of approach will help narrow the field of variables while creating a design. It also allows the designers to make decisions based on facts and helps keep the project focus on meeting business and client needs.
3. Justify Decision Making
While this is an obvious point, it can be easily overlooked. It’s easy to forget that, as designers, our work should be end-goal and action oriented as well as beautiful. Design should be purposeful and powerful.
Designers must be prepared to justify design decisions, and the deeper the justification the better. As an example, consider how Sabina Alder, in an article on Designing Emotion into websites, lays out clearly how people experience websites based on levels of consciousness. This is a relatively new approach also practiced by Aarron Walter and Don Norman and is helping to arm the design community with ways to satisfy client needs and creative urges through an understanding of human psychology and decision making.
It points out that well designed websites have elements that serve specific psychological needs for users that we should always consider in order to make better products. Approaches and frameworks like this - or others you may appreciate in your own process - enable us to check work against specific goals and benchmarks. Remember, while we are paid for our creative capacities, the client wants that creative output to produce some sort of ROI.
4. Think About Content
Content will always be king. Websites cannot exist without it. One of the major trends of the moment is a move towards “future ready” Web design practices where we fully acknowledge that content will literally go everywhere there's an end user waiting to consume it. Strategists are pushing ideas such as content like water, where content is so fluid and malleable that it can easily move into any glass (translation: browser or device) that the user is operating.
A great example of this is the NPR Music experience. Their content is accessible via website, smart phone, iPad apps, newsfeeds, podcasts and traditional radio. There is a seamless experience across devices. How content would be shared across these devices was clearly an up-front consideration for the NPR design team and the result is one of the best content driven user experiences I can think of.
It’s obvious the designers really thought and researched how their work supports content in a very contextual and specific manner. This is a great example of how designs can be truly strategic instead of being developed with generic content in mind. Instead, it is dependent upon and influenced by the content that lives there so as to never constrain it. It supports and makes access to content easier.
Design is all about assets and content is the most important asset of all. The earlier this is discussed and formulated, the better the design will be. The last thing you want is to spend weeks on an aesthetically inventive, beautiful looking site only to have the client's demand a redesign because it didn’t get their desired results.
As we can see, the Web is changing. It’s going to be everywhere before we know it and there is an opportunity to be involved heavily in steering it in the direction we want it to go. As designers, doing this means contributing beyond the aesthetic level and thinking about the full lifecycle of products. There are a myriad of ways for us to work more strategically and I have only scratched the surface here. However, this proactive design attitude is good not only for a designer's careers, but will lead to better client/agency relationships, and more successful projects with higher rates of ROI. It will also help facilitate a more successful online experience for everyone. Not to mention, a more strategic approach will position designers to become more influential in the decision making process, and conversely the future of the Web.