Giving Away UI Design

Published 2008-04-04

Jeff Atwood blogged recently about UI-first software development. I’m a UI designer primarily so this is the only kind of development I ever do, really, but it definitely struck a chord. Atwood makes a pretty strong pitch for paper prototyping, a process I think a lot of people unjustly associate with user testing and not UI design

I’ve had tremendous luck designing UI prototypes with a mix of static HTML (OK you can use PHP templates or something similar to save a little labor) and paper prototyping. If you’re really handy with HTML it’s a lot easier to nest and align elements than doing so by eye or in a drawing tool, and you can fake interactivity with anchors for workflow purposes. If your HTML is clean you get a certain headstart on building templates as well. I’ve kind of grown away from this particular practice in recent years though since web apps have grown in asynchronous interactivity.

Most importantly, you can print out the screens and use scissors, pens, etc. to edit the interface. Which lowers the artistic barrier to sub-Pictionary levels, drawing in lots of players who don’t usually involve themselves in production, such as project managers, account execs, or even the customer. This is the most powerful selling point of paper prototyping: it pushes out the UI design, sometimes to the users themselves.

Another method I've used for almost a decade now is detailed whiteboarding: drawing and erasing interface features with the team or users as you step through a workflow. Capture your UI changes with a digital camera and voila! instant wireframe.

Funnily enough, the more I’ve involved non-techies and non-designers in UI design, the more my UI design business has grown. I think this is because good UI design is ultimately about two things: documentation and communication. Everyone communicates their intentions and desires with everyone else, and everything gets documented.

The method also highlights what has become a key business principle for me: the more I give, the more I have. Since leaving Curiosity three years ago, I’ve basically never needed to show anyone my portfolio, and I regularly turn business away. And yet: I take every opportunity to involve my clients in what I do, hell, I’ll teach them how to do my job.

A lot of people in the software or design biz have this kind of “golden ticket” mentality: “if I just learn Hot Technology X or acquire Important Job Skill Y (i.e. get a golden ticket), I’ll be able to grow my business.” This line of thinking has an important corollary: if lots of people have golden tickets they won’t be worth as much, because the supply of golden tickets might outstrip demand. Which makes my philosophy of “let everyone see how nonmagical my job is” baffling to some people.

What makes me good at my job isn’t that I’m handy with PHP or know how to use OmniGraffle. I’m good at what I do because I use my brain. The more transparent I make my brain-using, the better. This is also why I don’t (yet) fear that my job will be outsourced.

For example: most of my Chinese subordinates at Ports had, by traditional definitions, more job skills that I have. At the very least, they spoke at least two languages. And yet: I made five to ten times as much money ... and I was in much greater demand. It turns out my “soft” skills like planning and design are more valuable than the “hard” skills of programming Java applications or drawing Flash animations.

Jake the SnakeOne last story: about four years ago I was replacing the bottom bracket on my Kona bicycle. I had stripped the frame down to just the bracket and headset, but I didn’t have the right tool for the (ISIS style) BB. I took the naked frame to Fat Tire Farm, where I’d bought it. I’d never seen an ISIS BB before and needed to know what kind of tool to buy to remove it. The mechanic delivered a massive lecture about how unqualified I was to strip a bicycle and that I was basically stealing work from him. I told him to, in so many words, shove it.

I promptly took the frame to the Bike Gallery, where the mechanic not only told me what kind of BB I had, he showed me which tool to buy and how to use it, and diagnosed the problem. Fat Tire Farm, because they didn’t want to lose a $50 repair sale, drove my tool-purchasing business ($25) to the Bike Gallery, and lost me forever as a customer. Bike Gallery, on the other hand, traded the $50 repair for a $25 tool purchase. And now every time I need new socks or shoes or lighting systems or pedals or cranks or cables or tools or helmets I buy them at the Bike Gallery.