A Technologist, on Design

Jason Stewart
5 minute read

The best app I've never used

The single most useful app I have ever used is also the least flashy. It’s a system that monitors the accounts at my various personal financial centers. It watches for trends and occasionally sends me a text message to let me know that something out of the ordinary or important happened.

But, there’s no “app". There’s no interface, per se.

There are no fonts. No biometric identification. No charts. No color palette. No margins. No headers. No footer. No hamburger menu. No swiping. Just an occasional SMS that says something like, “Last month, you spent enough on sandwiches to adopt 17 cats. You might want to dial it back a little.”

It’s incredible.

Designers have to think about the problem, experiment, and go a little bit mad-scientist.

Design! What is it good for? Absolutely Everything!

I’m a CTO. I’ve worked as a technical professional for almost 20 years. I’ve worked mostly behind the scenes in System Administration, DevOps, and Data Architecture. And although every project I’ve worked on has engaged designers along the way...how good design happens is way outside my wheelhouse. I don’t know why blue evokes feelings of trust and security. I don’t know why serif fonts make people read faster. No idea. I can talk all day about the cost-benefit ratio of partitioned indexes on MSSQL table storage arrays, but I can’t authoritatively say anything about color contrast or how people read down the screen or why the abstract brand marks create memory triggers. Traditionally, a technologist is unqualified on these topics and I am no exception.

But, as a human, I do know one thing: There is no faking good design. Good design should take the platform and get it out of the users’ way. This is true in branding, UI, automobile design, and even kitchenware. It helps me do what I’m trying to do while the aesthetics delight me in the process. It delights me without screaming, “LOOK AT ME AND HOW I AM AMAZING SRSLYOMG LOOOOOOOOOK AT THAT MAUVY SHADE OF PINKY RUSSET!!!”  It elevates the usefulness of the platform and does it in a quietly delightful way. Really great design almost shouldn’t be noticed. It should be almost invisible.

[Design] should deliver exactly the right experience at the right time. Nothing less and nothing more.

That’s what makes the app I talked about earlier so amazing. I imagine that the initial product meeting involved people talking about what it was for, what it should do, how it might visualize your spending and how it might highlight out-of-the-ordinary behavior and encourage you to stop wasting money. That’s certainly how I would have done it. We’d strategize about where the delight should be and how we could drive habitual use. We would talk a while about pie charts vs. heat maps vs. stacked bar charts and line graphs. Someone would probably throw in bubble charts, tree maps and histograms too, just so we covered our bases…we would most certainly all be picturing an “app” and all of its trappings...

Then a designer, whose job it is to understand the human need for the right balance of form and function, of aesthetic and accessibility, might step in and say something profound... “What if we leveraged other avenues of delight and could do this without having to build our own interface? That could be just as elegant, useful, and perhaps more cost-effective. It’s an unexpected solution, but maybe it’s the right one.”

Good design should take the platform and get it out of the users’ way.

Being an effective designer takes a lot of guts. Grit. Moxi. Chutzpah.

This, I think, is an example of design doing what design should do. Functioning well, it should challenge our assumptions about what the platform should be and it should deliver exactly the right experience at the right time. Nothing less and nothing more.

We take this tack at Anthroware in both technology and design. Overcomplicated tech, or the wrong tech for the job, makes it hard to build anything. Likewise, design that hasn’t been given the time or space to explore and find the right form:function balance will almost always lead to trouble down the road.

The Maze

Recently, we had a platform project (Cloud, Web, Mobile, Data, the whole 9). The web app has a nav menu. We designed a couple of options. In design, we were assured that the nav would only ever have maybe 3 or 4 top-level items in it. This made it a good candidate for being placed across the top of the UI in a traditional fashion that users are familiar with. Later, as development neared the customer acceptance phase, the client’s client asked for a few new features and the information architecture dictated that they live at the top of the nav structure. Ruh Roh. There’s no space for the new words.

Back to design to rethink the navigation. Design wears its thinking cap and shows us and the client that the information architecture is inside out…that there’s another way to do the same thing, just smarter. Boom. Design doing what design does: Challenging our assumptions and making the platform more elegant and easier to use.

When you work with Anthroware to build a product, you will have design on the project. There’s a better-than-zero-percent chance that some key assumption in the initial idea or solution is off, or that the dev team might misunderstand something, or that your stakeholders think one thing while you think another. Every product needs someone who can call those assumptions out  and present alternate theories of design and innovative solutions, so that the product you build delivers on its promise. As a project/product stakeholder, that is your job…Deliver on your promise. And the job of design is to create a path to that delivery.

The Devil in the Details

I rented a car in Spain once. The roads are top-notch and the scenery is beautiful, so I spent a little extra to get something nice. As we drove through the hills north of León, I found that I wasn’t enjoying myself. Every time I got in the car and started going, I would get stressed out. It took a while, but I realized that something was buzzing; a faint, tiny buzzy rattle. I finally figured out that there were two plastic panels that didn’t fit nicely together. Then I realized the road noise was super loud. Then I realized the pedals were one inch too far to the left. And the internal lights were blue. And the dash was a little too tall. And... This car had me positively jangled by the time I arrived where I was going. I even started to hate the font that they’d used on the speedo. I was trashed. And I was committed to never rent that make of car again. Half a dozen tiny details added up to a 100% terrible experience. A good designer driving that car after it was built could have resolved the few minor issues that were causing me major frustration.

Good design takes more time and costs more. It’s true. You have to put big brains on it. They (designers) have to think about the problem, experiment, and go a little bit mad-scientist. They have to try alternative ideas. They have to challenge all incumbent ideas. But when design is done right, the platform gets the hell out of the way and delights the user.  The app delights you. The car doesn’t rattle. You enjoy your drive. You get where you’re going in a good mood. You rent that car again.

Good design creates good moods. Good moods create trust. And good moods drive engagement. And you deliver on your promise.

Jason Stewart
Co-Founder/ CIO
Santa Rosa, CA

Jason Stewart is Co-Founder/CIO of Anthroware, an on-demand innovation force. Jason leads his team to identify the waste and rework in companies and creates beautiful digital tools that people love to use, while lowering overhead and increasing throughput.