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What I Learned about Product Design This Year

2015 was a humbling year for me. In September of 2014, I joined a tiny but established startup called SproutVideo as their third employee and first designer. The role interests me because it affords the opportunity to see how design can grow a solid product with a loyal user-base into something even better.

The work I do now could also have a real impact on the brand and user experience of our product for years to come, which is a thrilling prospect in an industry where much of what I do feels small and temporary. I got in on the ground floor of something special: a small, dedicated, useful company that cares deeply about making video hosting effortless and rewarding for our users.

I had (and still have) grand ideas for what thoughtful design can do for a product, and the smaller-scale product design work I’ve done or helped manage over the past few years gave me enough eager confidence to dive in head first. Readers who have experience redesigning complex existing products probably have a knowing smirk on their face right now. As I said, it’s been humbling. A year of focused product design, especially on the scale we are trying to achieve with our small team at SproutVideo, has taught me more than any projects in recent memory. I’d like to share a few of those lessons.

Product design is very different from marketing design

The majority of my recent work leading up to SproutVideo has been in marketing design. These projects are so fun because their aim is to communicate the value of the product in a compelling and memorable way. In order to achieve this goal, I spent a lot of time thinking about content strategy, responsive design, and how to create striking visuals that tell a story. These are all pursuits I love.

Product design is a different beast. When designing a homepage, I can employ powerful imagery, wild gradients, and somewhat-quirky fonts. When I began redesigning the SproutVideo product, I wanted to draw on all the beautiful assets I’ve created for our marketing materials, but big gradients, textures, and display fonts made no sense in this new context.

That’s because the product isn’t about us, and it isn’t about telling our story. Product design is about getting out of the way so people can do their job. The visual design is there to create a pleasant atmosphere for people to work in, and to help support the user experience. Learning to take “us” out of the equation took some work after years of creating gorgeous imagery and content for the sales-driven side of businesses.

I’ve learned it’s very valuable to design both sides of the experience, because marketing and product design flex different muscles. If you’re currently in an environment where the two are separate, consider switching teams in 2016. Designing for product when you’ve mostly done marketing, or vice versa, will deepen your knowledge as a designer overall. You’ll face new unexpected challenges, which is the only way to grow.

Product design can not start with what looks good on Dribbble

I have an embarrassing confession: when I began the redesign, I had a secret goal of making something that would look gorgeous in my portfolio. I have a collection of product shots that I admire on Dribbble; examples of beautiful dashboards and widgets and UI elements that look good enough to frame. I wanted people to feel the same way about the final outcome of our redesign. Mistakenly, this was a factor in my initial work. I opened Photoshop and crafted pixel-perfect static buttons and form elements and color palettes that — when applied to our actual product — looked like a toddler beauty pageant. It added up to a lot of unusable shininess, noise, and silliness.

I was disappointed; these elements seemed so lovely in isolation, but in context, they felt tacky and overblown. I realized: I’m not here to design the world’s most beautiful drop down menu. Good design has nothing to do with ego, but in my experience designers are, at least a little bit, secret divas. I’m no exception. I had to remind myself that I am not working in service of a bigger Dribbble following or to create the most Pinterest-ing work. My function is solely to serve the users — to make life a little better for the good people who keep my company in business.

This meant letting go of pixel-level beauty to create something bigger and harder: a system of elements that work together in harmony in many contexts. The visual style exists to guide the users. When done well, it becomes a language that users understand, so when they encounter a new feature or have a new goal, they already feel comfortable navigating it. This meant stripping back my gorgeous animated menu into something that didn’t detract from important neighboring content, and could easily fit in other parts of the app. In order to know what visual style would support the users, I had to take a wider view of the product as a whole.

Just accept that designing a great product – like many worthwhile pursuits – is initially laborious and messy

Once I realized I couldn’t start by creating the most Dribbble-worthy thing, I knew I’d have to begin with the unglamorous, frustrating, but weirdly wonderful work of mapping out how the product’s content could better be structured. Since we’re redesigning an existing product, I assumed this would be fairly straightforward: the functionality was already in place, and my job was just to structure it in a more easily navigable way.

I started by handing off a few wireframes of the key screens to the developer, and that’s when the questions began rolling in: “If we move this content into a modal, how will it affect this similar action here?” “What happens if they don’t add video tags, but they do add a description?” “What if the user has a title that is 500 characters long?” “What if they want their video to be private to some users, but accessible to others?”.

How annoying (but really, fantastic) that people use our product in so many ways. Turns out, product design isn’t about laying out elements in the most ideal scenario for the user that’s most convenient for you. As product designers, we have to foresee every outcome, and anticipate every potential user need.

Which brings me to another annoying epiphany: if you want to do it well, and account for every user, product design is so much more snarly and tangled than you’d expect going in. I began with a simple goal: to improve the experience on just one of our key product pages. However, every small change impacts every part of the product to some degree, and that impact has to be accounted for. Every decision is based on assumptions that have to be tested; I test my assumptions by observing users, talking to the team, wireframing, and prototyping. Many of my assumptions are wrong. There are days when it’s incredibly frustrating, because an elegant solution for users with one goal will complicate life for users with another goal. It’s vital to solve as many scenarios as possible, even though this is slow, sometimes mind-bending work.

As a side bonus, wireframing and prototyping every potential state in a product is tedious, but your developers will thank you for it. It’s not their job to solve what happens when there’s an empty state, error, or edge case. Showing you’ve accounted for these scenarios will win a developer’s respect; failing to do so will frustrate them.

When you’ve created and tested a system that supports user needs, it will be beautiful

Remember what I said in the beginning about wanting to create a Dribbble-worthy product? When I stopped focusing on the visual details of the design (color, spacing, light and shadow, font choices) and focused instead on structuring the content to maximize usability and delight, a beautiful design began to emerge naturally.

I began with grayscale, flat wireframes as a strategy to keep me from getting pulled into the visual style before the user experience was established. As I created a system of elements that worked in harmony, the visual style choices became obvious. Some buttons would need to be brighter and sit off the page to help the user spot important actions. Some elements would need line separators to create a hierarchy, where others could stand on their own as an emphasized piece of content. As the user experience took shape, the visual style emerged naturally to support it. The result is a product that feels beautiful to use, because I was thoughtful about the experience first.

A big takeaway from this process has been that my assumptions will often be proven wrong. My assumptions about how to design a great product, and how users will interact with that product, have been tested and revised repeatedly. At SproutVideo we’re about to undertake the biggest test of our work; we’re going to launch a small part of the product redesign to our users. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I will continue to be humbled by the ongoing effort of making the best product I can, which is a wonderful thing.

Next year, I hope you all get to do work that takes you out of our comfort zone. Be regularly confounded and embarrassed by your wrong assumptions, learn from them, and come back and tell us what you learned in 2016.

About the author

Meagan Fisher is passionate about owls, coffee, and web design. In her ongoing mission to make the web a better place, she’s partnered with some of the best designers in the industry, such as SimpleBits, Happy Cog, and Crush + Lovely. When she’s not creating interfaces, she’s speaking, tweeting, writing on Owltastic, or posting coffee art photography to Art in my Coffee.

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