A forum for unique insights and authentic points of view on the practice, business and impact of design.
A forum for unique insights and authentic points of view on the practice, business and impact of design.
Most software projects have an established visual design: colors, layout, typography, etc. It’s typically one of the first things to be set up.
But the product is going to change and evolve. Maybe a new button needs to be added. Or a link, or a metric, or some other widget. While a designer often leads the initial design implementation, these smaller tweaks may not have their full attention.
So the developers are going to have to do it. Cue protests of, “Well, I’m not a designer, obviously…” Yeah, but…there’s just you. Go get it done.
Here are some pointers that I hope will make this situation less scary the next time you find yourself needing to do visual design work.
Most features are built on top of an (at least partially) existing product, so you’ll probably already have examples. When I try to decide what things should look like, I find that I can get 90 percent of the way there simply by stealing styling from things we’ve already built.
Here are a few things I look at:
Take whatever new widget or form you’re working on, and make those items match the rest of your app. Just getting those items in place will help keep the new feature from standing out like a sore thumb.
Shooting for perfection is often paralyzing. So… don’t. I usually frame the goal as, “What can I do here that will keep us from being embarrassed when we ship it?” That’s a much more achievable goal.
If you were building a house, you might not have an eye for the perfect painting to hang on the wall or know exactly how many inches up from the floor it should be. But it takes hardly any expertise to know that the drywall should be painted and not left raw with screw heads exposed.
Don’t make it look perfect. Just make it look like you didn’t forget to finish the job.
When I’m not sure what a design should be, I like to step away from the computer. This helps me focus on what I want a design to look like and not worry so much about whether I know how to implement it. Getting away from the computer entirely helps me get around those limits and focus on defining the goal.
You might well end up with a design that you don’t know how to implement. That’s okay! Hopefully, you now have more specific questions like, “How do I vertically center things in CSS?” Those problems aren’t always easy, but they are well defined, and you can search Stack Overflow for an answer.
Visual design is a muscle that gets better with exercise. It’s going to be awkward the first few times you try it, and probably for a few more after that. But as you get better at the implementation tools, you’ll be able to experiment much more quickly.
Keep at it. Try to spend an hour at the end of each user story to make things look a bit better. You’ll get more comfortable with it eventually.
Your designers probably don’t have time to provide pixel-perfect mockups for every single thing the team builds. But if you make a mockup or implement the first-draft visual design, there is nearly always time to get a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from your designer or your product owner.
By handling the easy stuff yourself, you’ll free up capacity to tackle the hard things and help polish the pieces that really matter.
Not everyone will be able to look at a half-finished product and tell you what has to be fixed. But afterward, almost anyone can look at the final product and know that it’s better—even if they can’t say why. People will notice the difference.
If you learn just enough to iterate a design quickly, use established styles, and put in a little bit of effort on every piece, you can dramatically increase the perceived product quality.
Do you struggle when asked to implement bad design ideas from your clients?
You’re not alone.
An experienced product designer (we’ll call him “Dan”) contacted me with some excellent probing questions about this fundamental design challenge. It created a deep back-and-forth discussion which helped me uncover the tricks I use to stop bad suggestions before they derail my design projects.
One thing I struggle with is when exploration turns into decision making. When it’s time to get the design approved, things too often descend into “how a web design goes straight to hell”. I manage an okay level of quality in the end, but have to fight hard for every pixel.
10% of the time my ego gets in the way, I’ll admit.
90% of the time it’s just bad client feedback.
I can wrestle clients back around to a better path most of the time. But is there a bettert way to avoid clients derailing their own projects, and me having to implement their poor ideas?
All of us, no matter what our level of design experience, are challenged by poor client suggestions. The difference between experienced and inexperienced designers is the way we deal with that feedback.
It may feel like clients constantly derail their own projects with bad suggestions, but let’s remember that they aren’t design professionals, and you are. If their creative ideas are as good as yours all the time, you’d have to question whether you’re still the design expert in the room.
Bad ideas don’t come at you like some uncontrollable outside force. You’re driving the design process. You have more control over them than you think.
The following tips will help you eliminate poor client suggestion from being expressed in the first place, and deal with them respectfully when they do surface.
Some clients simply suck. Sorry for throwing shade but it’s the truth. There are personalities that are difficult to work with, disrespectful, or downright destructive. No amount of hand-holding and relationship building will overcome their deficiencies.
These clients are best avoided no matter how promising the project sounds. They are the ones who will be more stubborn in their bad ideas and refuse to trust your expertise when you try to steer them straight.
Years ago I worked with a husband and wife team starting a new side gig: a premium dog accessory brand.
Part way through the web design process they began accusing me of creating designs that looked too “templated” and “cheap” even though those two words are polar opposites to the type of design I create. There was obviously a miscommunication about what they were expecting. The style was in keeping with the visual inspiration they provided, yet they didn’t like it.
I invited them to meet me and hash it out in person so we could all get on the same page. My only demand was that both partners were present for the meeting (because I had previously observed that they disagreed with themselves a lot and I wanted to make sure the two of them were on the same page as well).
That single, polite meeting request soured the relationship to the point that they wanted to cancel the project and not pay for any of the work to date. Clearly, they felt effective communication was too much to ask, and would prefer I read their minds instead.
Needless to say the project was cancelled.
I later found out that they’d been through a similar series of events with previous designers, all with the same poor result of unravelled relationships leading to cancelled projects. They were serial bad clients. The kind to avoid at all costs.
When clients are that bad, you can usually recognise the red flags early and avoid the project. But sometimes they deceive and charm you at the start, and their true colours don’t show until later.
The other side of the coin is that your personal brand and marketing must be attracting high-quality clients. If bad clients stop coming to you, you can lower your red flag radar and focus more attention on effective collaboration.
The more your client stakeholders trust your expertise and respect your opinion, the more likely they are to agree with your proposals and allow you to override their preferences when you have a strong case to do so.
Ideally, your clients come pre-loaded with this trust, because they’re repeat clients or come from word-of-mouth referrals. These are the best clients because your reputation has already built a trusting relationship.
When dealing with fresh clients you have to use your initial communications to demonstrate your ability and build that trust. So when the time comes to make those decisions they are less likely to oppose you.
Establish trust through professionalism, dedication, honesty, and over-delivery.
Never underestimate the power of listening and understanding. If your client feels you’ve deeply understood and empathised with their needs, they will better trust to you to meet those needs in your own way.
You try to frame the discussion around business impact and project goals. Client goes “yeah that’s nice, I still want [insert annoying request]”. What do you do?
That one bad decision could open up the floodgates to others — wave upon wave of bad follow-up requests. Is there some soft skills sneaky persuasion technique to avoid this?
When it comes time to present a design for review and collect stakeholder feedback, it falls on you to set the right expectations and ensure your client knows what feedback is useful and what isn’t. That means:
Read more on giving and receiving great design feedback:
If, after properly directing the critique process, you’re still receiving suggestions from clients that don’t align with your vision of a successful design solution, go back to the basics.
First, make sure you agree upfront what the goals of the project are — these legitimise all ideas considered for implementation. If they cannot connect their request back to one of those project goals, it has no place in the discussion. If you’re both on the same page is very easy to dismiss bad ideas in a way that’s not disrespectful or personal. Everyone has the best interests of the project at heart, and can allow that to overshadow their egos.
Second, your client isn’t their customer/user. As harsh as it sounds, their personal preferences are nearly irrelevant. Does what they want match what their user needs? Do they have any analytics or research to support that?
If the project goals are user-centric it makes it difficult for bad or subjective ideas to enter the picture.
But even if bad ideas align with the right goals, you don’t have to implement them. Come up with a better idea that satisfies the same underlying concern.
I struggle with face-to-face meetings. Sometimes stakeholders will throw such a weird curved ball request that you don’t even know how to react. I get overwhelmed by the stupidity of the suggestion and don’t know how to reply on-the-spot. In the meantime another two people chipped in saying how great that feature would be and then suggesting another two extensions to it. All while below the table my legs start shaking nervously while I watch the project derail in front of me.
Via email I have enough time to respond. In person I choke. I’m an introvert and I naturally try to avoid conflict and disagreement.
I hear you Dan. That’s why asynchronous communications (like email) can be far easier to deal with than live discussion, even for those of us who aren’t introverts.
When you get put on the spot to respond to a bad idea, defer the decision until later. Say that it’s an idea worth exploring, but you can’t assess how well it will work until you’ve had a chance to go do some design exploration. Stay polite and open-minded — put your best poker face on — even if inside you’re about to lose your marbles. Then you buy yourself time to compose a good rebuttal.
The more people involved in the conversation the better it is for divergent thinking (generating ideas) and worse for convergent thinking (evaluating those ideas and deciding on the best). So when talking face-to-face with a group, stay in the divergent mode and don’t stifle exploration, but make it clear that you will need time to assess those ideas before deciding which ones are worth pursuing. Don’t allow questionable ideas to expand too far unless they have unanimous support from the group, yourself included.
This strategy of deference is useful for all kinds of other essential client communication. Don’t allow yourself to get put on the spot when asked for a price quote. Buy time to compose your estimate the next day.
Any time you’re asked for a decision that you feel underprepared to make, there’s no shame in saying “I don’t know for sure yet. Give me a day to think about it and I’ll get back to you.”
That’s always a better option than blurting out the painful truth on the spot.
I’ll sometimes say “look, it’s my professional duty to steer you away from that decision because [logical reasons why it’s bad]. But given that you have your heart set on it, I can implement this for you”. I find this works. Most people back off. But that doesn’t leave the best vibe, so I use it sparingly.
Just like Dan, I fight hard for quality, and I use a similar line when I have to fend off bad ideas. Don’t be afraid to use it more than sparingly so long as you keep it polite and respectful.
Standing your ground shouldn’t be about ego. It isn’t “I’m right and you’re wrong” because I’m the design expert and you’re not.
That may be true. If a client is paying you for your expertise, they’re only getting top value out of you if they allow you to use that expertise with some level of autonomy. But…
You stand firm when any idea is doing a disservice to the goals of the project. You stand firm when you’re asked to do something that’s harmful to the end result. And you better be sure you’re right.
As the famous quote goes:
Strong opinions, weakly held.
Stick by your convictions, but stay open-minded. Offer opportunities for other stakeholders to disprove your idea and convince you another way is better. If you show them that courtesy, they give you the same in return.
I can be very direct when telling my clients that one of their ideas isn’t going to work. But I give that weight by backing up my position with research, analytics, best practices, or at the very least an explanation of the logical design process I took to dismiss the idea.
When I have a visually oriented client who has to see something to believe it, I show them a mockup of their bad idea presented side-by-side with my preferred design solution. More often than not, they come around to agree with me once they’ve compared the two rationally.
I have a long term client who I’ve been partnered with for 10 years. The company’s entire business is based around its website and it generates millions of revenue annually. We’ve had an awesome, trusting relationship, but it’s had a few trying moments too.
Six years ago we were designing the last version of their website, and things got off to a rocky start. Our egos were clashing. The client was frustrated because they thought I was ignoring their requests.
In fact, I wasn’t. I was considering every suggestion seriously and often experimenting with them in my designs, but then dismissing them internally if they didn’t pan out. I was presenting a better alternative to my client, but not the original request. They couldn’t picture things in their head the same way I do. They couldn’t agree with why I dismissed their solution without seeing for themselves.
So I did a 180 on my design process. I started showing them every suggestion they asked for (no matter how small or bad it was) and presenting my preferred alternative solution alongside it, with some justification for why I thought one would work better than the other.
In all but a few occasions, they sided with my proposal after comparing the two.
After a while, that process gained their trust, and we fell into a rhythm where I no longer had to mockup each suggestion. They trusted my alternative solved the underlying problem more effectively than their initial suggestion.
The process was frustrating for a few weeks, but we came out of it having a stronger relationship with more mutual understanding and trust.
Clients will appreciate you sticking to your guns and respect you more if you do so, as long as you demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about. I’ve had clients comment that my stubbornness for good design is one quality they like best about me, even if at times it led to creative disagreements.
Smart people like working with others who stick by their convictions.
If an issue is really fundamental and will have negative ripple effects across the whole project, I won’t back down until we find a resolution that everyone is happy with.
If the issue it small and isolated, I’ll stay firm on it once or twice, but back down if they persist. Move on to more important decisions. There are always higher priorities worth your attention.
I’ve had to tell clients “look, I’m not comfortable implementing that because it lowers the quality of this project and I am dedicated to my craft, and I don’t push out low quality work”. I’ve always have the client give in, but that only buys me a bit of time. It doesn’t fix the problem.
It shouldn’t be just buying you time. If you have a disagreement that big, use it as an opportunity to address the larger underlying problem. Get you and your client on the same page before you continue any more work.
You should only have to go through one or two large disagreements like that. If you haven’t been able to find common ground by then, the client is worth dumping (or you’re worth firing — are you sure you know which it is?).
Remember that most of your clients have never been through a design process like this before. They may not understand that their communication style isn’t productive until you tell them. The moment you realise you have a personality clash, or simply a disagreement over potential design solutions, address it head-on. Find out what about your current process isn’t working, and revise that workflow to optimise your client relationship and collaboration.
Clients just want the best result for their design project. When they make suggestions, it’s with good intentions. But intentions aren’t enough. They need the faculty to produce good ideas, yet they may not have any expertise or training in the creative problem-solving process. They want to be involved as much as possible, but they haven’t been taught the most useful ways to contribute. They revert to blurting out their preferences so they can feel like they’re in control.
As designers, it’s up to us to guide clients through the process, building trust and respect along the way. If we can make small course adjustment the moment we realise we’ve headed astray, we can avoid conflicts, inflated egos, and misaligned preferences.
If you find yourself continually working for “bad clients” with “bad design ideas”, chances are your process is to blame. Are you marketing to the right people? Have you set clear boundaries for communication? Have you set the right expectations for productive feedback? Have you even agreed on the right project goals?
Get your house in order, and you’ll find it becomes a fortress of trust that repels bad client ideas.
As a designer working in augmented reality (AR), one of the most difficult challenges I’ve grappled with is spatial in nature—figuring out how best to arrange my work in a three-dimensional scene. This challenge comes from knowing that whoever views my finished product may view it from a perspective I’d not intended them to.
When beginning to arrange elements of an AR experience, questions of ergonomics threaten to derail the process from the onset. Will the audience sit when they interact with my work? Will they stand? Kneel? Where will they center the experience? On a table? On the floor? On a wall?
This short list of questions should precipitate even the most conservative designers into second guessing themselves. After all, the answers to each will change how the designed experience is viewed by the audience. This also changes the requirements before we’ve defined them.
So, how do we account for these variables when we cannot control them in the moment during which the audience views our work?
Because we cannot control the ergonomics of how our work is viewed, we require a flexible tool or technique for designing AR experiences that adapt to the audience, instead of the other way around.
Like responsive web design adapts content to screen size, we need a framework for understanding how and when to adapt content to the ergonomics of our audience. We need a breakpoint mechanic—not based on the size of the screen, but the individual audience member holding it.
Without a clear standard or patterns for responsive AR content, designers may have turn to black magic, like this.
The good news is that we have the technology to begin designing and building responsive AR experiences, today. To understand the mechanics of responsive AR, we’ll need to brush up on some concepts of human perception and the sense of sight.
As we all know, able-sighted humans operate with binocular vision—two eyes, two signals, one sense of sight. With mobile AR, we reduce our view of the world by looking through the camera lens, which presents a monocular view of the space around us. This, in turn, diminishes our ability to reason about the spatial relationship of the objects in our view.
Binocular vision enables those with it to determine proximity very well. As we look out upon the world, the signals going from both left and right eyes to our brain are different. This relative difference—between the left and right signals—is sufficient that our brains learn to translate it into a measure relative proximity of other entities to our own selves.
The disparity in left-eye/right-eye signals is inversely related to the relative perceived distance between the object and its viewer. This is called stereopsis and is how we triangulate objects in space.
That’s great and all, if we have binocular vision, but, again, with mobile AR we do not—by limiting ourselves to monocular vision, we lose parallax, so we lose depth perception.
This isn’t much of a problem with objects of known size—we have no worry of forgetting the moon is large and sits far away. Regardless of what we know, however, our sensory systems still fall victim to optical illusions, which is how we end up with memes.
To further illustrate what happens when we lose parallax, consider two rubber spheres—both red and varying anywhere from the size of a marble to that of a baseball. Viewed through a monocular lens, it’s quite possible to position them such that they appear the same size.
Without parallax, we can just put the larger sphere further away from the observer and our job is done—observer fooled. Limited by monocular vision, it may be difficult, if impossible, for our observer to come to a definitive comparison between the two.
But with binocular vision, our observer has the upper-hand and stereopsis provides the necessary information to quickly determine that the spheres do not sit at the same depth. Our observer would then conclude that one sphere is larger than the other.
So, tying this back to AR, what useful, general principle can we draw here? Simply that, limited by monocular vision, perceived size is a function of physical size and distance. This is at the core of responsive AR for mobile.
All AR experiences have, at their core, some notion of planes and anchors. Planes are flat surfaces on which content sits, and anchors are spatial markers relative to which content distance is measured. That we can only ever measure content’s position in space relative to something else (the anchor) is the basis for our second big clue in designing responsive AR experiences.
Let’s say you are standing up, looking at an anchor that sits on the ground plane. Now imagine that there is a target floating in space, some relative Y value, such that your gaze makes a straight line through it to the anchor.
Without moving the anchor, you sit down. Would your gaze still pass through the target? By sitting down, you decrease the vertical distance from your eyes to the anchor. Because the target is positioned relative to the anchor, not your eyes, this effectively lifts the anchor in space. As a consequence, your gaze no longer passes through the target, but under it.
What if, instead of sitting down, we remain standing and lift the anchor up to a tabletop? Because the target is positioned relative to the anchor, we get the same result! The target’s Y value does not change, only the anchor’s position in space. Relative to your gaze, the perceptual effects of lifting the anchor and sitting down are the same.
This means that a tabletop experience viewed from a standing position will be (roughly) perceptually equal to a ground-plane experience viewed from a sitting position. With this we get our second core component of responsive AR: the perception of content is a product of ergonomics and content placement.
Responsive design creates content that responds to different spatial contexts. For screen design, this means device and screen size. In AR, we need to consider the distance between the viewer and the AR content.
To begin to understand how responsive AR design could work, we need to draw some general conclusions about the ergonomics of viewing AR content:
We can also draw general conclusions about the placement of AR content with respect to the viewpoint:
(There are exceptions to these conclusions, but, for general purposes, these will take us quite a way.)
So, we have two dichotomies: we can stand or sit, and we can place content on the ground or on a tabletop. This gives us four major combinations of ergonomics and content placement:
Taking what we’ve discussed up to this point, we can establish a graph that informs perceived content scale. It helps to add numeric value to these dichotomies, so we can establish a “scale factor” of sorts.
Human anatomy creates more variance in the sit-stand dichotomy, so we should give it more weight in consideration. Taking the sum for each of the four major ergonomics-placement combinations, we can derive three concrete values of camera-content distance. Keep in mind the “scale factors” here are only relative to one another, not to any real-world metric:
Flipping this on its head, and thinking about what effect each distance will have on our content, we can also say that:
We can use and treat these three camera-content distances just like breakpoints in mobile design, changing the content as our distance from it changes. To keep our content consistent at these three placements, we can make far-back content larger, up-close content smaller, and middle-ground content somewhere in-between.
And so, we have the final core component of responsive AR: by generalizing ergonomics and AR placement mechanics, we can establish breakpoints that govern how this responsive content is rendered.
This post has been framed around mobile AR, but the principles of responsive AR extend far beyond. Even with the binocular experience we get from Magic Leap, or the Hololens, the way content is viewed and interacted with can only benefit from being responsive to its audience.
As we design and build for more and more people, of varying cultures, abilities, and interests, we must account for differences. By ignoring the benefits of responsive design, we risk cutting off segments of the population who might otherwise benefit from our output.
This is a first attempt to spark conversation about how we can use practical means to achieve responsive content in AR. Feedback, conversation, and additions to any and all are welcome, without reservation. Join me on the Torch Friends Slack to continue the conversation. You can find me under the handle @blackmaas.
Keep an eye out for part two of this thinking on responsive AR design. In part two of this series, I show you the mechanics behind these ideas and how you can build them in Torch. We have also added a new template to Torch AR that will help you explore these responsive AR design concepts in a hands-on way—updating a responsive project with your own creative assets. Learn more about Torch templates with this guide.
Start exploring responsive content in Torch AR, today!