I have built and designed apps and websites, and helped scale products at companies small and large, from my own startups all the way up in size to Google.
I have learned about digital design best practices through a mix of trial and error, development cycles, successful launches, product failures, user feedback, and the inevitable iterations that have followed.
I want to pass along what I have learned.
My experiences can hopefully enable you to better understand how digital design works and the role of the designer in conceptualizing products.
Through these lessons you will be able to bring products to market in a more timely and efficient manner and better serve your users.
What is Digital Design and Why Does It Matter?
The formal definition of digital product design is an iterative design method employed with a formal approach to solve a practical problem. Sounds somewhat complicated, right?
It doesn’t need to be.
Using simpler language, a digital product designer discovers a current problem, proposes the best solution possible using a mix of technologies, and introduces it to a market.
Digital design is considered a subset of product design because digital design is all about the building of products - but via software.
The skills you are learning and developing on freeCodeCamp will help you think strategically and technologically about how to solve problems. This is closely tied to the practice of digital design.
In order to implement digital designs you will need to identify opportunities and know the desires of your consumers.
Digital Design and The Real World
Digital design focuses on users.
Customer obsession starts with the user and works backwards.
If you are new to digital design there are a few tactical steps you can take to learn what customers value and how you can leverage a mix of UI, UX, and design thinking to solve tangible problems.
What problem are you solving?
Firstly, work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust by understanding what your product and design are meant to solve. Answer the following questions: why does this product exist? How will it be used?
Digital design done well can have a profound impact on users.
Bringing together intuitive user experiences and simple user interfaces can help your customer best understand how your product works.
A friend of mine worked to help build the iPad reading experience. One story he shared with me is how digital designers made it effortless to “turn the pages” of digital books.
The action of swiping a page, much like moving paper in a real book, evidences how design, UX, and UI efforts can come together to create delightful user experiences.
The next time you swipe a page on your iPad, think about why the experience feels entirely natural and simple. Digital design, done well, is magical.
Innovate and simplify
Secondly, digital designers expect and require innovation and invention and always find ways to simplify. As with your focus on customers, you need to be externally aware, look for new ideas from everywhere, and cannot be limited by a “not invented here” mindset.
When designing websites, for example, it's important to do a few things really, really well. I learned this when building and optimizing my own websites.
I had a mentor who advised:
“Know what you do well, and how you can do it better. If you are designing your website, you know that time is valuable and every additional second your user’s stay on your page, the better. Strong design can shave excess latency from pages and increase the efficiency of the serving environment and that is something to strive for.”
Notice that this advice is specific (i.e. design for speed) yet also broad (improve your user’s experiences in the best way that you can).
When thinking about digital design, take time to deeply understand the levers you can pull and how those levers will yield better experiences and results for your users.
Experimentation is key
Digital design, unlike the designing of physical items, can be improved rapidly through sprints and code deployments.
Software is adjustable.
By starting with your customers and working backwards, seeking to simplify, and constantly iterating, you can be insure that your design will eventually stick. If you haven’t reached that point, keep trying.
Here is a mental experiment I like to play with my friends.
Think about the last time you purchased an airline ticket online. How many steps did it take to navigate from the landing page to the confirmation of the payment page?
Why do you think airlines make users go through this check-out flow? How would you improve and simplify the process?
A great way to improve your digital design skills is to practice on another designer’s property. See if you can improve upon it.
Digital designers see being great at something as a starting point, not an endpoint. Through iteration and experimentation, a digital designer can take things that work well (or poorly) and improve upon them in novel and unexpected ways.
If you are new to the field of digital design, that should excite you.
Examples of Digital Design Done Well and How It Helps Users
I want to conclude with examples of digital design done well. I provide examples and images and explain why the digital design is intuitive, simple, and relevant.
If you want to develop your skills in this field, take time to not only think about how you would improve other’s sites but also learn from what leaders in the field do, and why.
Elemental Labs provides an incredibly intuitive graphic to help users understand the difference between their product and a competitor’s product. Without reading anything else you intuitively understand that their product is marketed as cleaner, purer, and simpler.
The contrast between colors helps the eye visually understand the message and is an example of great digital design.
Also, notice how grams - a common unit of measurement - is replaced with milligrams. This makes the user feel like there is more sugar (29,000 mgs of sugar feels like a lot).
Woven is a fun calendar app that makes group polling easy. I have used a variety of software tools to coordinate groups and it's always a bit messy.
Look how clean the infographic and call to action are. Without thinking deeply about the product you can clearly understand how the product works and why it will benefit you: simply pick a date, poll people, and see which date is best for the group.
I love products that combine compelling design, UX, UI, and are incredibly easy to navigate.
For those that want an example from the world of digital and physical design, a particular favorite of mine is LFA Machines.
Their product set is complicated: they offer both semi automatic and fully automatic capsule filling machines. For many people, this technology is abstract as they have not seen machines like this in person.
So what does the site do? It offers a video that is automatically playing when you visit so you can see how the device works and what benefits it provides. This digital design brings together simplicity, clarity, and customer obsession all in one.
Here is one final example.
If you want to start a podcast you might experiment with different digital podcast software. One that combines simplicity with easy usability and a terrific digital design standard is Buzz Sprout.
When a user visits their site for the first time the user is prompted with compelling and straightforward guidance, tutorials, and advice on how to create a podcast.
These radio buttons say it all: they make the selection process very user friendly and expedite the podcast creation process. In just a single button the design brings together strong design and product aesthetics and usability.