Why and how designers can draw the attention of multi-functional partners to designing good visual aesthetics and turn that into a team effort.
In a digital product, a well-designed screen or component is a screen or component that embodies the personality and brand of the product. It guides users without words to achieve the desired result. It also elicits an emotional response, such as “I’m a serious, reliable, but affordable banking app,” or “I’m a language learning app, but I’m pretty fun.”
A well-made product can stand out from the competition. While other products help users “get things done,” yours lets you “get things done, and somehow you like it.”
When designers work on visual design, they use the building blocks of their profession – visual material. Space, shape (shape, image, typography) and color. They creatively and cleverly compose them using the principles of gestalt (similarity, continuation, completion, proximity, figure-ground and symmetry), information hierarchy (based on the intended purpose of the screen) and visual hygiene (perfect pixel alignment). This is, of course, a simplified representation of the process.
Designers are experienced in this process and are naturally the right people to provide visual excellence (among other things). But they shouldn’t be the only ones working on it. I’ve often seen hastily crafted presentation decks and internal builds handed over to designers, asking them to add “design magic.”
While this is almost always taken as a compliment, the responsibility for the visual prowess of a product rests solely with the designers.
Joint ownership requires no experience
Designers are experts in visual craftsmanship through years of training, practice, iteration and analysis of other well-designed products. But they don’t supervisors… By empowering your colleagues to learn what good and bad visual design looks like, your team will be better able to create good products. The team will also more confidently share responsibility for design and move faster to collaborate on more complex problems.
Knowing good visual design practices helps the cross-functional team in their day-to-day work. Many interface bugs will never be logged because they have already been fixed. Developers and product managers’ work will become clearer and more efficient, and product reviews will be more focused.
Below are 7 tips for how designers can instill a culture of visual design in a product team.
1. Answer as many questions as possible before they are asked
Treat the handover meeting as a storytelling exercise. Proactively communicate user context, business needs, and the rationale for how you approach them. Thus, in the minds of the audience, you bring the story to a seemingly natural conclusion – your design decision.
In order for everyone to speak the same language, you need to present the statement at the very beginning in the form “Work to be done“.
It’s a great tool that helps people put themselves in the shoes of a specific user in a specific situation who hopes to get a specific result. Many questions will disappear even before you start your talk.
2. Justification of decisions ≠ their protection
As the creator of the design solution, you gathered context, understood the nuances, and performed a due diligence of options in the form of iterations before finalizing the proposed solution. You’ve also likely had a lot of debriefing with fellow designers and mentors. So when handing over your design to a product team, it’s natural to get impatient when asked, “Why this color?” or when you hear a colleague share an idea for 5 minutes that you’ve already tried it out and abandoned for a good reason.
I advise you to be patient and repeat the answers. Avoid jargon, state the obvious, and provide examples in which your approach has worked. Also, be open to change if it makes sense and is valuable.
While it sounds challenging, it helps build the team’s trust in your process. Questions and discussions also mean that the team is genuinely investing in creating a product that they believe in. After all, one day you may see your developer or product manager enthusiastically and correctly explain the reason for the design decision to stakeholders or management. It’s worth it.
3. Tell your teammates to trust their eyes
Find nifty ways to build your team’s confidence in their craft. For example, I told my developers that I would review the interface as soon as they were sure they had found and fixed all the obvious visual bugs in the current build. This makes them mindful of visual inconsistencies and confirms their involvement in the visual quality of the product.
4. Communicate out loud with collaborative error recovery sessions
Towards release, I suggest taking the time to sit with the developer to find and fix styling errors. The key is that you both say out loud what you see and think. As long as you learn about the technical constraints and learn to solve them smarter, the developer will be able to better see visual inconsistencies and fix them themselves in the future.
5. Encourage constructive design discussion
You can add a design discussion to your lunch discussions if you haven’t already. You can mention the recent redesign of a competitor’s app icon and ask what anyone thinks. By listening without judgment, you create a safe space for colleagues to voice their opinions. You can also help them form a more informed opinion by asking them, why they focus on the choice of color or shape. Suggest possible reasons for them if they find it difficult to answer: “Is it because the contrast is too low?”
When you express your own opinion about someone else’s design, always give reasoning. This means that visual design is not an act of self-expression.
6. Share design literature
Keep sharing articles and books on design processes and best practices with your cross-functional team. Someone is bound to find this interesting and read them. In the product group at Microsoft, we had a Teams channel where developers shared technically challenging reading material. Now there is also design material. And it is gratifying to see how some people start such conversations in the team.
By sharing design nuances with non-designers, you facilitate collaboration, increase ownership of the product, and help colleagues appreciate and use design methods to their advantage.
As with any cultural shift, don’t let the “radio silence” confuse you. Someone is definitely listening to you.