...or do I just need new glasses?
I'm not a graphic designer. I find it hard to get into the mindset of excellence through beauty.
I understand user flow, interactions, happy paths, delighting the user, humane design, and so on - but when it comes to the art of making something look nice I'm all at sea. I understand that, as Aral Balkan so perfectly puts it, design is not veneer - but that doesn't stop my confusion.
This is a failing of mine - one which I'm trying to rectify - but recently I've had the sneaking suspicion that some designers may have a touch of "Emperor's New Clothes" about them.
I'm going to pick on two examples. I don't think the people behind them are bad or wrong - I just don't understand how their eyes and brains work 🙂
A Question of Scale
My first attempt at turning one of my 2x comps into a 1x version was to just decrease the image size in Photoshop. That was naive. Some elements don’t scale well when simply downsized; they require special attention.
Here is the image in question (used with kind permission):
I know I'm not a designer - but I simply can't see any difference here. Ok, one button is orange - but that's it. There's nothing here which screams "terrible design!" at me. I'm looking and don't understand what "special attention" either would need. Were that to be presented to me as a user, I'd know where to click and not be distracted by inappropriate design.
As a product manager, I'd ship either.
I've deliberately removed the naming on the screenshots - can you tell which contains the elements which "don't scale well"?
To better understand this, I've created an animation to show the difference between the two screenshots. This simply flips between the two images, there are no fades or anything else.
Ok... Now I see some differences. On one, the buttons are slightly larger, the colours slightly more nuanced, the shading is subtly different. If I zoom to an extreme level, the font on "ebay" in slightly smoother.
I get that there is a strong need for design. I understand the need for a clear and unambiguous environment. The desire for beauty is strong with some people - and I appreciate that.
But here's the thing. That design is going to be held around 50cm from the user's eyes, drawn on a screen which is caked in sweat and grime, which is reflecting the ambient light in the room, and is - in all likelihood - cracked.
Worrying about the exact scaling of a button, and the nuances of shadowing is what we in computer science would call "premature optimisation".
How Soon Is Now?
If a developer comes to you and says she can shave 5ms of every transaction, you have to decide whether this is a suitable use of her time, and whether it will cause problems later on.
For example, if this transaction is 5ms per user - it's unlikely to be noticed. If it's a back end process used millions of times, that optimisation may be worth it.
If rewriting that code to make it more efficient comes at the expense of readability and reliability, a call has to be made on where you want to make sacrifices.
Finally, if it will take her 3 weeks to make the optimisation - how long will it take to recoup that investment?
With design, it's no different. Will users notice that images aren't a bespoke designed for their platform? Will they care? Will you have to create an entirely new workflow to generate images specific to one platform? How will you manage image assets - especially when they need to be updated?
In fairness, Jack realises that this is a step too far and says:
Perhaps it isn't worth optimizing for 1x. [...] you're spending a lot of time catering to small group of users. The crudely downsized version isn’t pixel-perfect, but it’s still usable.
Again, I'm not trying to mock Jack or any other designers. I'm just trying to understand what drives the innate desire to be "pixel-perfect".
Ultimately, the question I'm asking is - does this even matter?
For You Blue
There is a (possibly apocryphal) story about Google engineers trying to think like designers.
Google is stuffed full of people who just love to experiment on its users. For instance, Google Mail uses a very slightly different blue for links than the main search page. Its engineers wondered: would that change the ratio of clickthroughs? Is there an "ideal" blue that encourages clicks? To find out, incoming users were randomly assigned between 40 different shades of links – from blue-with-green-ish to blue-with-blue-ish.
The Guardian, Wednesday 8 July 2009 18.00 BST
Here we have - supposedly - a quantifiable metric for how design impacts performance. If you have billions of interactions, and you can see a statistically significant uptake between designs, then maybe it is worth worrying about every last pixel.
In today's "ship it and see" environment, we may not have the luxury of thorough testing before launch. Even after launch, there are hundreds of large changes and features which could improve usability before we start to worry about whether #2A5DB0 beats #2A5DB1
Crazy or Misunderstood
Musically, I'm tone deaf. I just can't tell one note from another. That sucks.
Graphic design wise, it appears that I'm equally out of luck.
I know that most developers are not like their users. I am deeply aware that while I'll happily use a website in Lynx, many users need and appreciate beautiful design.
I'm I the crazy one? Is there such an apparent difference between the above screenshots that I should go out and buy a guide dog now?
Does determining the exact shading on a hyperlink sound like a good use of resources when compared to all of Google's other problems?
My brain doesn't work like that of a designer - I know that. But should I even try to think like them?