23 February 2010
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different
Eliot, T.S., Philip Massinger, The Sacred Wood, New York: Bartleby.com, 2000.1
It’s a good time to be a designer. In recent years, the appreciation of good design online has skyrocketed; these days, any client can list a string of inspiring sites that cover the range from beta-only social networks to supermarkets. And, thanks to greater recognition of the value of design in big companies, as well as the swarm of ‘hot design trends’ lists that pop up, our clients are more aware than ever of cutting-edge design elements.
But there’s a difference between being aware of good design elements and being able to create a good design, and that difference is a problem I’ve faced again and again in my projects. When I start a piece of competitive analysis with a client, the sites that I’m asked to look at often feel like a trend list; sites are added to the list because they do something visually special and not, necessarily, because they have faced and overcome similar business challenges.
If I were to plot my average set of competitive analysis sites, the graph would look something like this:
And my clients will generally spend their time looking here:
I call this the Megan Fox zone. It’s nice to look at. It’s where the cutting-edge design elements hang out. But if you spend all your time in the Megan Fox zone, you will create the online equivalent of Transformers 2; a site with bells and whistles but no substance. Bad poetry. Decoration.
A good design is not one that steals all the items on the hottest design trends lists and blindly applies them. And it’s not one that mimics whatever elements push the client’s buttons. A good design is thoughtful; it addresses the unique challenges of a client’s business and delivers value to their customers by understanding what they want. It’s visually appealing and engaging because it’s valuable, not the other way around.
We won’t get to that level of thought with competitive analysis and trend lists. In fact, I’m finding that competitive analysis is making it harder for me to deliver something valuable; as soon as a client tells me about Site A’s task-based navigation and Site B’s account dashboard, I have to struggle to pull them away from designing interfaces. We rush to pretty too quickly to get to right.
And so a plea: steal right. Don’t ask clients for sites they like. Instead, ask about their problems and their plans. Speak to their customers. If Site A’s task-based navigation system really is what’s needed, it will become clear soon enough, and you can make it into something better.