Finding a Web Design Process That Works

By Todd Chambers in Creative, This I Know To Be True on August 2nd, 2017

website development, UX, Todd Chambers

A web design process that works.

Chasing design fads, test driving the latest development methods and jumping ship each time a new CMS hits the shelf is a great way to keep busy, but it’s a horrible way to create valuable products for our customers. Yet every day thousands of wicked-smart designer types do just that. We just can’t seem to leave those bright, shiny objects alone.

But let’s be honest. If we want to create exceptional products for our clients, we need to resist the urge to be an early adopter of all things digital and opt instead for a proven method of creating delightful websites. How? I’ll describe a simple 5-step process that will keep us focused on the things that matter most and guard against our urge to chase trends.

Building a website is easier than ever.
Building a great website is still darned hard.

I’ve been building websites for nearly 20 years. I often joke that during those early days my cohorts and I were simply making things up as we went along, but it’s true. We were running on instinct, HTML hacks and dangerous amounts of caffeine. Every day was a new challenge and there was little in the way of published processes or standards to light our way. We slogged through as best we could, leaning on each other for feedback, code snippets and news from the front lines. We were learning on the job, and it was a blast. We cranked out our fair share of successful websites; the clients were happy, and we won a few awards along the way. Not a bad gig if you can get it.

We were running on instinct, HTML hacks and dangerous amounts of caffeine.

Ah, but that was then and this is now. And my, how times have changed, from an information desert to a universe of intelligence at our fingertips. Today most of us receive more actionable intel in our inbox before breakfast than we know what to do with. If we’re looking for a new process for onboarding clients, a quick Google search will yield 700,000 results. Or maybe we’re interested in making the switch from Agile to Lean. No problem, grab the headphones, dig into any one of the thousands of online courses and we can be ready to pitch the boss in a matter of days. Want to propose a redesign to a favorite client but need access to the latest design materials? Fancy layout packs, templates and themes are literally a dime a dozen. UI kits, packaged fonts and color combinations are available for the asking as well. And the quality of off-the-shelf development apps and collaboration software is impressive.

Let’s face it, making digital products is easier than ever. And that’s a good thing, right?

Yes, of course. The ability to do our jobs better and with greater efficiency is a huge part of what drives our industry forward. Producing quality digital products quickly and introducing them to the market with minimal resources and infrastructure is fast becoming table stakes. Our clients expect results, and they demand we produce them without emptying their bank accounts along the way. I don’t question for a second the value of the tools and processes we’ve come to rely on.

Ay, there’s the rub.

Now that we’ve admitted the myriad benefits and efficiencies, let’s not fail to recognize the danger associated with such ease of production. Namely, that access to all the drag-and-drop software in the world will not magically generate superior digital products. Nor will open source code libraries and on-demand video tutorials be enough to turn a mediocre website project into something great. These tools certainly make designers’ jobs easier. They continue to save developers countless hours of coding. They make collaboration and project management easier, and I’ll even wager that budgets and timelines are in better shape these days.

But this I know to be true: making great websites is still a darned hard thing to do. And, as is usually the case, the difference between good and great digital products doesn’t rest on the tools but with the craftsman. So, here’s the good news: once we realize the responsibility for making great digital experiences resides with us, with designers, developers and storytellers, we can confidently chart our course to success.

Let me offer a simple formula. If we want to create outstanding websites, stop worrying about showcasing the latest design trends or building on the newest CMS. Fuss a little less about the social media plugins and influence marketing plans, and focus instead on understanding customers and providing content that adds meaning and value to their lives. This may sound too simple, but I promise, it ain’t easy.

As UX professionals and visual communicators we have two huge responsibilities. The first, we must commit to crafting people-centric products designed to solve real problems as simply as possible. Products that provide useful and delightful experiences. And second, we owe it to our clients to build rock-solid websites that get results. In today’s marketplace, a website is the lifeblood of our client’s business, and it’s our job to ensure that they resonate with customers, advance the brand and convert passive shoppers into raging fans.

Okay, I promised a simple recipe for building great digital experiences, so here it is. Focus on these five critical components.

1. Solve the Right Problems

Getting to know our customers means walking a mile in their shoes and helping them walk a mile in the shoes of the audience they are serving. That’s what it takes to uncover real needs and identify pain points. Only once we are aware of the real problems can empathy occur, and it is that empathy that empowers us to craft solutions that add value to people’s lives. Only after the right problems are solved can we hope to delight.

2. Understand and Communicate our Unique Value Proposition (UVP)

Do we know what makes our products and services unique? Why would someone choose our brand over the countless alternatives? Discovering the difference we bring to the party isn’t as easy as it sounds. It takes dedication, courage and focus. But if we can do this–if we can crystalize our message and communicate it clearly–we’ll have a distinct advantage over the competition. It’s the key to the success for every brand and business.

3. Tell a Good Story

Humans are hardwired for storytelling. Stories have the power to move us; they can remind, redirect and persuade. Good stories can bring us together. They can drive change. Crafting a narrative that connects our brand to our customers is the surest way to grow a following. And remember, the best crafted content in the world is useless if it doesn’t invite customers into a narrative they want to be a part of.

This is harder than it sounds. To tell a story that resonates, we must resist the urge to position our brand or solution as the hero. That role is reserved for our customers. The brand must be the guide, the sage, the Yoda to young Skywalker’s adventure. Our brand’s sole responsibility is to help the hero win the day.

4. Design for Engagement

Keep the palette simple: contrast, harmony, dissonance, repetition and visual hierarchy. Knowing when, why and how to apply these basic elements of design can mean the difference between signal and noise, between intrusion and connection, between distraction and persuasion. New product ideas aren’t rare. The market is crowded with them. Design often makes the difference between connecting with customers or getting lost in the crowd. We can’t skimp here and expect stellar results. In fact, we must do just the opposite; sweat the design details and pay particular attention to micro interactions. Users will thank us with their time and loyalty.

5. Play the Long Game

Digital products are not meant to be built and forgotten. They require ongoing maintenance and upkeep. Fresh content, new ideas, offers and promotions. It’s easy to celebrate the launch of a new website and quickly move onto other projects and initiatives. But doing this is akin to working all spring and summer in the garden only to abandon our efforts when the harvest arrives.

Content becomes stale quickly, old references are obvious and clients can easily misinterpret our change of focus for neglect. One-and-done product launches are a rare thing these days. We may have put a ton of effort into designing a best-in-class website, but that’s just the beginning. It’s only after the lights have been turned on and we have new visitors that we get real insight into what we did well and what needs more attention. Our customers are our source of truth. Their traffic patterns, buying habits and sharing behaviors will tell us where we still have work to do.  

The challenge.

So there it is. A 5-step process that promises to make great digital products. Yes, the steps are simple, but they certainly are not easy. Each requires a great deal of focus and restraint. Entire careers can be dedicated to getting just one of these right. As designers, marketers and digital communicators, we must be willing to resist the shiny distractions all around us. We must insist instead on doing the hard work that will make our efforts stand apart.

So let’s get started. Our clients deserve nothing less.

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