In late January 2014 I was approached by a guy named Chip about joining a startup company it is infancy. Chip and his business partner, who is also named Chip, had this incredibly cool idea for an app. They came to me because a client of mine had recommended me. But there were some problems: 1) I had hardly any UI design experience and (2) they had no money. Chip was honest and told me up front that the company had nothing, no way to pay me, but that the rewards down the road would be great if this app took off. I told Chip I would need some time to think it over. I then fell back on my friends who were also designers, and who had been doing this a lot longer than me. I wanted to rely on their experience to help me in my decision-making process. Nearly all of them said to tuck tail and run the other way. But something inside me said otherwise, I felt a crazy urge to do this, even if it meant never getting one red cent for my work. Because I felt the idea behind the app, the concept, was sound. It was promising to do something no other app has done. That alone inspired me to become passionate about the product – and I knew it would be a good idea to accept his offer.
Here’s why: I felt that even if the app idea fell flat on its face, I would still come out on top because I will have learned more about UI design and will have built a sizable portfolio. So I accepted Chip’s invitation and joined his startup, to create his app which would eventually be called Unite.
That was over a year ago and in that time I have learned so much. My skills have grown my leaps and bounds. Several of my design friends have complimented me on how incredibly fast I learned this genre of graphic design and how beautiful the app design was overall. In fact, many people who aren’t even designers have applauded the design of the app – both in function and aesthetics.
But what they see is just pretty pixels. There’s a lot more to UI Design than just plopping down buttons, icons and making an app look slick. And this what this blog post is all about.
A good UI designer just rushes through the process, makes a decent design and hands off the assets to the code team. But in the end, there are flaws in the way the app functions because of poor UI design methodologies. The reason is, we who call ourselves UI designers, have an immense responsibility! It’s not just our job to make elegant interfaces, it’s our job as we develop and design the UI for an app to understand how this app is going to be used and to take into account that fact when we do the design. We have to make something that is functional and intuitive, not just pretty pixels. We need to step away from the design and become the user. This is the most important aspect of our profession! Many designers just don’t take that step, or just are incapable of thinking from the standpoint of a user. They rush through a design thinking that pretty pixels alone will win the day. They don’t! And any UI designer who doesn’t act responsibly and doesn’t take the needed time to go through the process, is not a great UI designer.
Look, we are all users! You, me, everyone! We all use apps in our everyday lives, so why not take that same stance when designing an app? I have sent app developers emails telling them, “Hey, I think this could be done better – maybe like this…” or “I think your design is good, but I find it cumbersome to access these features…” etc. We all have to behave like users! Before you pick up that pencil or grab that mouse – put yourself into that frame of mind. You are the user – how should this app function? Once you know that, then the pretty pixels can spring forth.
When I was designing the UI for Unite, when I was sketching with pencil in hand – I wasn’t just thinking about aesthetics, I was thinking about this: “If I am the user, how do i want this app to function – when I do THIS…it should do THAT. To achieve a particular goal, I need to make sure its a simple process for the user.” In my mind I played through the actions and thought processes of the user. And that is our job! We must strike a balance between aesthetic design and making the app easy to understand for the user and functional.
I can never stress this enough, and it is something I, myself, had to learn. When I came into this project, I was wet behind the ears. But over time I taught myself to understand this important responsibility, this vital methodology, to great user interface design. I hope that if anyone reads this who is just starting out in UI design, you can understand what it is I mean. Don’t just make pretty pixels, make something that is useable, user-friendly, clean and elegant in form, function AND design. If you don’t get that right the first time, scrap the sketches, trash the wireframes and start again. Never feel ashamed if you miss the mark, because you will learn from these mistakes.
I know I did. In the end, I created something I am incredibly proud of. When I look at the UI for Unite, I feel proud of the hard work I did, the hundreds of hours put in, the learning process I went through and how, at this point, I understand what it is to be a great UI designer. I am not perfect, I would never claim to be perfect – I still make mistakes, and that’s part of being human. At this point in my career, I have learned a lot and I feel blessed to have had the chance to work on such an awesome project as Unite, even more blessed to have been able to learn what I have learned and to be able to share that with others.