What we mean when we say a bad site is a site with an obvious design debt.
Design debt is not about how it looks. We’re not talking (necessarily) about what platform it’s built on.
What do we mean by debt?
- It’s difficult to update (if you need to update). (technical debt)
- It’s difficult to maintain. (technical debt)
- It’s difficult to use as a customer, or as an internal user. (user experience debt)
- It’s difficult to debug. (technical debt)
- It’s difficult to use for differing abilities. (design debt)
- It’s difficult to use for different emotional states. (user experience debt)
- It’s difficult to understand what point the site is trying to make. (content debt)
Debt Free the way to be
Building responsible websites and applications starts with basic, disciplined planning and focuses on the system for making decisions, not on the artifacts. Here’s how that process might look:
- Set constraints – time, budget, function, performance. Design is an applied craft and thrives when constraints are recognized. Here’s when you’ll figure out really quickly who is responsible for hosting and maintenance. This is also the time to schedule evaluations – 7 days after launch, 30 days, 90 days, 6 months, 1 year, and 2 years. Adults make plans and follow through on them.
- Set hypotheses for success/failure – how do we know we’re done and how do we know we did well? This is a research question. Remember, data simply exists. It’s not information until our brains put it into context. And it’s no use to anyone else until:
- Organize content – oh man, this is it’s own article. Or book. Or field of practice. Suffice it to say, most bad sites skip this step and end up bloated messes as a result.
- Create mark-up and set source order – this gets all components of a good site into the right medium as fast as feasible. This is the blueprint, if you were building a building. Even functionality can be addressed here – if you need a form on your site, for instance, you should decide what fields you’ll need, and you can create the reusable mark-up now. This saves time later!
- Sketch ideas – this could be any thinking medium. If a designer “thinks” in ink, then it should be illustrations. If they think in Photoshop, then .psd. If they think in mood boards or style tiles, then it can be those. It’s a step where we’re creating lots of ideas first, and then critically evaluating and iterating until it’s right. This is the artist rendition, again, if you were building a building.
- Design a custom grid – this fits the design (the container) to the content (the substance). The drawback to using a framework off the rack, or a WordPress theme is you need to work the other way around. This is why everything looks the same (because they all use the same 3-4 grid layouts). If you want to look special, you need to think about layout.
- Apply Styles. This is where a framework can really come in handy, IMHO. Sensible defaults and battle tested components help immensely in speeding up this process. I’m never writing the CSS for a button again. ZURB’s done that for me.
At every step you’ve got a chance to come up with something novel and evaluate it critically. Business and user needs are considered from the very beginning. Development starts with all of the raw materials and plan it needs to be done well from the get-go. It’s collaborative, and it’s iterative, and progresses from conceptual to concrete.
Macro vs. Micro
Borrowing is a tool for growing an economy faster than income allows. On the whole, credit is almost miraculous for building societies. But we’ve all seen the downside too: people take on too much to pay back, or take wild risks that they wouldn’t otherwise take, and at some point they do have to pay it back to the lender.
Design is about decision making and so, when you’re evaluating designers, or a design project, you need to start with risk. Maybe you’re comfortable taking a lot of risk to get your name out there faster. Maybe you’re comfortable betting your company on looking like everyone else, sounding like everyone else, using technology that the company across the street is using, or just collecting stuff to impress people you don’t even like. Design debt is a lack of clear thinking; not technical ability.
But if you’re not comfortable with those risks, and you want to truly serve your customers, the best thing you can do is to change your decision making behavior and not borrow for the sake of convenience.