Paul Boag launches web methodology series

Digital strategist and speaker Paul Boag has started a new series on his blog in order to provide clients (and also designers) with more idea into what goes on behind designing a website.

The initial article explained that designers “love to emphasise the creativity of designing a website", but design is more effective when done in collaboration with clients. Additionally, he noted that business objectives need to be carefully examined before even considering design.

The series kicks off next week, so .net spoke to Boag (PB) to find out more on his thoughts about design methodology and what we can expect from upcoming articles.

.net: Why are you writing this new series?
PB: I’m mostly writing it for clients, many of which have a naive attitude towards design. They think we go into a darkened room and wave our magic stencil, and then beautiful designs appear. Alternatively, they think it’s a completely subjective thing and their opinions are as valid as ours. Either extreme is not particularly healthy, and so I want to demonstrate there are processes and tools we use and go through to produce a design — it doesn’t spontaneously appear. I want to talk everyone through the options that are available.

.net: Presumably the series will also be of use to those creating sites, beyond enabling them to educate clients?
PB: Oh, I think it’ll also help designers, because a lot of them sit down with a blank canvas and feel overwhelmed, whereas actually there almost never should be a blank starting point; there are always things that are building up to a design and that contribute to it. It may help them to understand the kind of processes you can work through.

.net: Do you think designers and clients too often get caught up in aesthetics — “What should the site look like?” — and almost finish the conversation at that point during a site’s initial phase?
PB: Yes — and there’s so much more to it than that, because aesthetics shouldn’t be the overriding concern. Let me give you an example: years back, I did some work for a university in the MySpace days. We produced a design that frankly I hated and, worse still, the client hated. But we went with it, which seems absurd, but that was because it was right for the audience.

It was a gaudy grab-the-attention undergraduate kind of thing that wouldn’t win a design award, didn't make the client particularly happy, and wouldn't have impressed my peers, but damn did the audience love it! We did design testing on it, showed it to loads of people, and put it through the wringer. That shows how a process can be important. To be frank, that design wouldn’t have been produced had it not had an objective process behind it.

.net: And that’s rolling the business considerations directly into the project, as you note in your first article…
PB: Exactly. You need to ask those things. What are your business objectives? What is it your audience wants to achieve? What do you want the audience to achieve? How do you want to project yourself from a brand standpoint? There are so many elements that you have to go into, and so we must break down any perception website design is a load of magic that happens in a room.

.net: You also talk about collaboration making for effective design, but how do you strike a balance? Is there a risk of designers just doing their own thing or clients trying to take over?
PB: I wrote a whole book on that (Client Centric Web Design), and the basic principle is a successful website has to be a collaboration between the client and designer, as peers working together. There can’t be a situation where the client dominates and you’re the mere pixel-pusher. Neither is it right that the designer says: “I’m the artiste and you have what I give you’!”

A successful site comes from a balanced, collaborative relationship between both parties, so designers and clients must work together throughout the project. For example, you need the client’s expertise in terms of business objectives. They understand the target audience and interact with them more than you ever will. So, from that point of view, their input is vital, but also there’s an element that the client has to go away believing in the website. They need a sense of ownership, or it will never get maintained and developed.

The only way they’ll get and understand the site is if they’re involved in its creation. The other truth is if the client’s actively involved in the design process, they’re much less likely to reject the design. What too often happens is a designer slaves over a beautiful design, and does a ‘ta-da’ moment with the client where they suddenly reveal the work. But because the client’s not fed into it, they reject it. Iterations are then required and everyone gets demoralised and pissed off. But if they see sketches and mood boards, and look at inspirational sites together with the designer, they’ll, on seeing the final concept, find it’s pretty much what they expected.

.net: What else are you planning on covering in your series?
PB: The next part, which should come out next week, will look at how you approach the visual aesthetic if there’s no existing brand in place. The following week, I’ll look at what happens if there is a brand in place — how much you can change it and whether you should. Then I’ll start getting into the wireframing side of things and maybe incremental design. To be honest, I don’t entirely know where this is going to go — I’m just taking it one step at a time!

.net: So it’s a flexible series about a flexible design process?
PB: Yeah — that’s precisely it. It’s how the design process adapts to individual situations. I think we’re great believers in, and terrible as a web design community for, going: "Right! Moodboards are the way to do things! No, they’re not now — style tiles are the way! Wireframes! No, wireframes are dead. We’re not doing them any more — now it’s prototyping!" But really you have this huge bundle of tools, all of which have their place, and so that’s really a big part of what I’m trying to get out of this series — when you should use certain things or skip a part of a process.

Perhaps I’ve presented the title a little wrong in the initial piece — it’s more about the methodology than the process behind designing a website, because the word 'process' implies a linear progression from one thing to another. As I said, the reality is you have this toolkit of things you can choose between that adapts to the situation.

Photography: Joseph Branston

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