Going into our 3rd year, I am amazed at the number of interface challenges Wufoo’s created for me. So far I’ve created over 50 interfaces and designs for our little web app and it feels like a portfolio in and of itself. I never really thought about how exciting creating a tool could be in college—where assignments had definitive beginnings, middles and ends. It’s always weird to think about how my great plan in life before getting into the startup life was to teach digital art to hippies. I may still go into teaching some day (I do love to share), but I think I’ll probably be a very different teacher now that I have some “real world” experience under my belt. The start of a new year is usually a good time for reflection and so I thought I’d take some time to write out some surprises and lessons that’s shaped me so far as a designer.

Web application design is surprisingly organic. I’ve never designed something so volatile and delicate. In college, web design always felt cold and distant. It was the least exciting medium for me. I preferred anything else to it: print, paint, sculpture, mixed media, video, performance. I was addicted to eliciting emotions and I couldn’t imagine anything farther from my audience than the Internet. But Wufoo has showed me that software can have personality and feel more alive than anything else I’ve ever created. Because thousands of users are using something I’ve created in realtime, it responds almost immediately to the slightest modifications. Moving a button, changing a color, rewriting copy. All of it matters and in different and surprising ways. This is so different from creating framed art work for a gallery where feedback and the possibility of response and interaction is difficult and mostly non-existent.

On a web application, the design breathes and exhales through customer support. I’m so glad we have Chris on our team. He’s our customer evangelist. Through him, I’ve come to believe that there’s nothing more important than to monitor and man those incoming emails and respond as quickly as possible to every single inquiry, request and comment. It’s the pulse of not only the application, but the business as well. It’s in support requests that Wufoo lets us know when something isn’t working. It’s there that she lets me know when I’ve done something right.

And I can’t talk about Chris without talking about his brother. Here’s what I’ve learned from Ryan: If you want remarkable results, feed a good programmer a diet of good design. It’s like Wheaties for them.

The only piece of wisdom I’ve learned while working on Wufoo concerns what separates good designers from bad designers. For most designers, the relationships they care about most are the ones they have with the design. They seem to love only the design and more often than not, a bit too much. These designers focus on their legacy at the expense of the audience. The user can suck it. You can hear it in the way they talk about the design and how they talk about their users. They’re arrogant and defensive.

Good designers, however, are more like matchmakers. They design for the relationships between the tool and the user. If you know anything about relationships, then you know that this is extremely difficult maintain a healthy one. To be good at relationships you have to not only be selfless, but listening…constantly and carefully. When I started working on Wufoo, I was definitely one of these bad designers cultivating bad relationships. I thought I knew all the answers. I thought I was hot shit. And I saw the user as a wild beast that needed to be tamed. He got in MY way. Use the tool the way I designed it, fool—not the way you think it should work. Thinking back, I remember being angry all of the time.

I think all I really had going for me then was a nice aesthetic and the ability to look at something in a surprising light. After awhile, I’ve slowly come to see that successful designs augment a good head start with constant iteration and deep observation. I now believe a sense of humility is probably a designer’s greatest asset. Designers, on their own, can only get you 1/3 of the way there. Your users and your ability to adapt helps you create the rest.

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Kevin Hale

Reflections of an Interface Designer by Kevin Hale

This entry was posted 3 years ago and was filed under Notebooks.
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  1. Chris Blow · 3 years ago

    Brilliant post. Spot on recommendations. Et Cetera! But thanks especially for that Flickr gallery.

  2. sn · 3 years ago

    Good post… The part which stands out the most for me is:

    .. [h]e got in MY way. Use the tool the way I designed it, fool—not the way you think it should work. Thinking back, I remember being angry all of the time.

    As a back-end developer I still see quite a few re-epiphanies in my future before the lesson about client relationships and how they should work will finally sink in in stick. Too often still I get defensive about my work and upset with clients that don’t “get” how things work when it’s really my fault for not listening enough or adapting sufficiently or coming up with a solution that doesn’t require explanations or training of any kind to use. Ah… “be water, my friend.”

    I’m loving those interfaces and designs for Wufoo.

  3. Matt Faus · 3 years ago

    Very interesting. I love the analogy of building and maintaining a relationship. It’s so easy to care more about what your making than why or who you’re making it for. In the end, it’s just a tool to get something done, and it will probably be obsolete tomorrow anyway. :)

  4. Jason Long · 3 years ago

    Nice post, Kevin. I consider myself a generalist and from my perspective I tend to see the damaging effects of each discipline only caring about their little bubble. Many designers only care that their work is polished enough to appear in Communication Arts (or the like) while many developers get buried in the minutia of testing frameworks, code coverage, automation, etc. Each side obviously needs to have a deep knowledge of their craft, but if you don’t take a big step back once in a while to think about the fact that real people are going to be interacting with your software, it’s all for not.

    BTW, your Wufoo work is outstanding - keep up the good work!

  5. Geoff A · 3 years ago

    Great post. I agree 100%. When I stopped just caring about the look and started listening to the user, my personal satisfaction, and the relevancy of my work, increased immensely. Keep up the good work.

  6. Chris · 3 years ago

    Excellent post. While I think most web designers recognize that we design for users, it somehow seems to never truly take heart with many of us. Sometimes this is a factor of time, money or resources but ultimately we should be working back to this central point.

  7. Julius · 3 years ago

    I miss those days in art class. You know, when it seemed like the point of art was to illicit a response, whether it be positive or negative. But after working so long in interface design, I now want my design to be invisible to the user. Rather than the user focusing on my graphics, I want them to flow from element to element, enjoying their experience, rather than enduring an art piece.

    Also, I don’t even know where to begin on how important the developer/artist relationship is. I’m definitely a hardcore right-brainer, and the code side has always been a pain in the butt. Being handed a .fla with “programmer art” and being able to just go to town visually is probably the most gratifying part of my job.

    This post brings me back. Thanks, Kev.

  8. Thunder7 · 3 years ago

    Sure beats dule boring GRAY Thank you :-)

  9. Zach · 3 years ago

    It is refreshing reading this post since it sheds light on the idea of agile interface design. The same things you find that make you a good designer are some of the same core practices that I find make me a good software developer. Thanks for sharing Kevin.

  10. mark rushworth · 3 years ago

    those wufoo forms accessible… im sure theres an issue with labels following input boxes etc? you could possibly remedy this with some abs positioning to visually place a preceding label below the inputs or at least add title attributes to each form element? hmm gonna need to think about that one.

  11. AJ · 3 years ago

    Design is about conventions, stick with those and the application will succeed.

  12. John D. · 3 years ago

    Hi Kevin,

    Thank you for this useful stuff!

    Kind regards,

    John D.