iOS7 and the importance of visceral UX design

Over the years, Apple has been shipping superior products. My mom loves her iPhone. I loved all my MacBooks. And then, something happened. I was really disappointed by the screen of my iPad Mini, especially compared to my wife’s Nexus 7. After this slight disappointment, iOS7 came around. The new gesture interfaces are a piece of art. Visuals — a great example of failing at visceral sense of design.

Johan Ronsse wrote on his blog: “My initial reaction to iOS7 was that it was ugly.” My initial reaction was: it’s probably going to be great, but it looks cheap. Everyone I talked to so far reacted similar after the original keynote or installing it on their devices. The web delivers even more extreme reactions. From emotional UX design perspective, Apple — for the first time in years — utterly failed at grasping the visceral part of design, the part that makes you want to lick it. A lot of my friends, after using it for a while, are saying “I hated it, now I got used to it”. That’s the behavioral and reflective part kicking in. That was expected, too, that’s how easing into design works — your instincts and first impressions make place for more refined reflections. Unfortunately, since Apple is known for releasing very visceral products (new iPhones are a great example), I’m still not sure if the seventh iOS won’t backfire.

One might argue that usability trumps visuals. That’s true, but not necessarily. Donald Norman already knows that people prefer things that work and look great over things that just work great. And it’s not about flat vs skeuomorphic. It’s not about ornamented vs minimal. It’s about “meticulously considering”, as Jony Ive puts it, every little detail, making it feel well done, no matter if it’s one or the other. It’s about not using cheap gradients. It’s about users’ gut reaction being “this looks amazing”, rather than “quite ugly but guess I’ll get used to it”. It’s about importance of visceral.

The fundamental question

During the last couple of years, I have been bouncing between solid, well established job in an agency or a startup and less stable position as a freelance user experience and visual designer. Working with different people in different environments, I have learned one thing: being a good designer is all about asking questions early and often.

A lot of clients come to me asking to do some kind of design work for them and some of them don’t understand when I ask the most important question: “Why?”. I also met a lot of designers that don’t ask enough questions during the project or would like to do so, but don’t really know where to start.

“Why?” is the first and the most fundamental question that you should ask when starting, because it’s really simple to ask and - from my experience so far - really hard to answer. You can ask a lot of follow up questions later, but people usually respond to early “Why?” with a gut reaction answer that gives you a head start of bringing you really close to their goals and ambitions. It also puts them out of the comfort zone a bit, since most will expect you to jump straight into drawing instead of asking awkward questions, often yielding unexpected answers and reactions.

Asking “Why?” is a great conversation starter and the answer can be a beginning of a great story - about the business, objectives and ideas behind the entire company. And since every great product starts with a story, go ask awkward questions and design amazing things.

Becoming a (better) designer: A guide

Recently, I have been asked by a couple of people through different means — how to become a designer and make it your day job? For those who don’t know, I was a full-time developer with a passion for good design and drawing a couple of years back and one day I have decided to go back to the roots and start doing design for living. Here are a couple of steps that I did to make the transition.

Step 1: Start doing it

You will never become anything if you don’t start. For me, it was starting a side project, designing my blog, redesigning my blog, redesigning my blog once again, designing my logo, redesigning my logo… you get the drift. I spent most afternoons drawing, reading, improving, iterating and getting feedback from more senior designers. Fortunately, thanks to Twitter, Dribbble et al, it got stupidly easy to network with other designers and networking means feedback, feedback means improving and you’re becoming a better designer one step at a time.

Step 2: Don’t start with Photoshop

You’ve decided to become a designer, so you fire up Photoshop/Sketch/Fireworks/GIMP? Wrong. Start with the basics. Learn to see. Learn the principles. Learn what a grid is and how can it help you. Learn how to gather feedback and iterate on it. Learn how the typeface pairing works. Learn to draw. Whatever you choose, your “design” application of choice is probably the worst option. As a designer, you need to remember that it’s only a tool that you use to do your job and tools change – principles don’t. Ninety percent of good design is not about the pixels. At the end of this post I’ll link to a couple of good books to get you started on the basics.

Step 3: Inspire yourself and ask questions

A lot of good design ideas are stolen. Well, not exactly stolen, but a lot of good ideas come from watching others and how they do their craft. Every time you see something that’s well designed, dive into how it works, how did they do it and how can you do something similar. If you chose to become a web designer, don’t be afraid to look at other fields of design and development - I got a great idea for a poster from colors that I saw on a vintage typewriter. I habitually look for color scheme inspiration for my next design in nature photography, interior design and industrial design. I study how websites are built and I try to learn how to build things that I liked.

Step 4: Work hard

Let’s be honest, most of the things you will make now will be crap and you’ll laugh at it in a year, but being a good designer is a lot like being a good woodworker - on top of all the theoretical knowledge, you need to go through a lot of designs to get better. Every time you make something, put it out there - whether you use Dribbble or show it to your friends, gather feedback. Remember that design is working for your potential user, not yourself. Learn to see, learn to gather and act upon feedback, learn to improve. Build and destroy, remove things until there’s nothing left to remove, iterate. Sleep on it and try again tomorrow. Show it to friends, show it to your mom and show it to that nice guy with laptop next to you in a cafe. Try and fail.

Step 5: Get interested in related sciences

This one helped me a lot. After meeting a bunch of really cool people at one of the coolest Berlin startups, I got really interested in cognitive science and behavioral economics, so I started reading up on those. I learned a lot about how human brain works and this knowledge has impacted how I design, even though I’m mostly doing it subconsciously (as in: not looking through a psychology book before I start).

That’s it. Hopefully this will help you become a better designer. Or a better developer. Or a better gardener. However this helps, I’ll be glad to hear it helped, so you can ping me on Twitter

Books

List of books that can help you get started:

Graphic design theory

Layout

Typography

User experience

Psychology & Cognitive Science