Category Archives: Better design

Squarespace logo

Feeling threatened

Watching how a company, industry, or individual responds to a threat tells you a lot about how much they understand the needs of their customers.

Recently, Squarespace announced a new feature that allows users to self-create their own logo, online, with simple tools.

The announcement generated criticism from professional designers:

“Hey Squarespace: Impressive how eager you are to destroy your standing with graphic designers. I have to ask how this is a good idea.”

“This really bothers me. These guys should know better than to devalue what others in the same industry do for a living.”

“At first I kind of thought everyone was overreacting about #squarespacelogo until I saw how much of a mockery it makes of my profession.”

It’s natural to feel defensive when something threatens your livelihood. I understand that; it’s scary to think about.

But we really need to look at things from the customer’s perspective: the customer doesn’t really care about the design industry, it’s ideology, or it’s problems. They only care about their own problems.

Ultimately, if the customer finds a different approach to solve a problem (like Squarespace Logo), and it gives them the outcome they want, it doesn’t matter how we feel.

Really, the key to being successful is to eschew your own self-focus in order to stay hyper-focused on what the customer needs. If you’re good at finding (and solving) pain you’ll always be in business.

Squarespace originally built their brand by disrupting two industries: web development and web hosting. Instead of spending thousands of dollars hiring a web developer, a customer can create (and host) their website using self-serve tools, starting at $8/month.

Now they’re doing it again with logo design. Maybe the people who use these cheap, self-serve logos will experience adverse effects: maybe they’ll lose business, or lose the respect of their customers.

Or maybe… they won’t. Maybe these new Squarespace logos will fit their needs perfectly. Ultimately, that’s up to the customer to decide. If they like the results they’re getting from cheap self-made logos, they’ll keep using them.

If you’re going to rally paying customers around your cause, you have to show them what’s in it for them. You’re going to need to show them data: “a professionally designed logo will improve your brand’s perception by 150%”, “according to this study, a well designed logo increases the pride felt by employees”, or “a designer can save you money, by providing an identity that can live for decades.”

But instead of focusing on the customer, and where you might be able to offer more value, I hear rallying cries that come off as defensive and self-focused:

Shop local!
“Don’t outsource programming work overseas.”
“Hire a real designer to create your logo.”

Meanwhile, the customer is staring back at you and asking: “Why? What’s in it for me?”

I think we, as designers, developers, and business people, can ward off most threats by getting to know our customers intimately – and finding places where we can offer legitimate value. No self-defence necessary.

Justin Jackson

Further reading

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Pretty stylish sexy design for web apps

Pretty doesn’t sell

I was fed up.

After suffering with my low-cost web host for years, I decided to switch. I was fed up with poor up-time, slow load times, and bad customer support. The price was cheap ($5/month), but I needed something better. So I started evaluating other providers. Anyone who’s tried to compare managed hosting providers knows what a pain it is: spammy review sites, 100 item feature lists, and cheap looking marketing pages.

Finally I found a provider that stood out from the crowd: they had a beautifully designed website and promised speed, reliability and support.

Did I mention they were pretty?

There was a time when most web apps looked bad. They were cluttered, noisy, littered with icons, and had little in terms of cohesive design (here’s a good example).

But then companies like 37signals came on the scene. Their products were beautifully designed; they believed that software should look good. Soon new SaaS apps emerged with a similar design aesthetic.

For those of us buying this software, an unspoken rule emerged: software with a nice design = better software.

And for a long time, the rule held true. Software that looked good often was better than it’s uglier counterparts.

Back to my story

I chose the web host that had the prettiest design. They were 4x the cost of my low-cost provider, but I was confident that any company that cared about design also cared about building a great product.

I was wrong.

As I started to use their service, the pretty veneer faded away and revealed an ugly truth: they weren’t reliable. This meant frequent downtime, slow customer support, and an interface that “looked nice” but was cumbersome to use.

After a few years of using this new provider, I finally bit the bullet and switched again. This time, I chose a web host recommended by a friend. They were a bit more expensive ($9 more per month) but they delivered on the things that really mattered:

  • they were blazing fast
  • they had almost perfect uptime
  • they could handle a lot of traffic
  • they had great customer support

Notice that “beautiful design” isn’t on that list. The design of their website and their back-end is basic, utilitarian, and (dare I say it) a little ugly.

We’re in the post-pretty era

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m not saying that the principles of design don’t matter. They do, especially when applied to structure, flow, readability and navigation. Good interface design helps users get things done, and creates great experiences.

What I’m focusing on is the “look”. It’s the philosophy that we need to create gorgeous looking screens. It’s the desire to emulate the pretty designs we see on Path, Mailbox, and Pinterest. It’s wanting to have an app that is the most “stylish”, “sexy” and conforms to current design trends.

The era of stylish design being a competitive advantage, or a marketable feature, is over.

Pretty doesn’t sell (anymore)

Like I mentioned, there was a time where I’d pay for a new app just because it looked great. Not anymore. Here’s why:

  1. It’s easier to fake a nice veneer – using frameworks like Foundation, Bootstrap, and other UI libraries, it’s easier and easier to make an app “look nice”. For marketing pages, there are dozens of cheap templates available that look good. 
  2. I care more about outcomes – I’m use software to achieve tasks. What’s the use of a pretty design if it doesn’t help me get my work done? Apps should focus less on making it “look good”, and more on making it “work good”. Help the user get from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible.
  3. What’s under the hood matters – speed and reliability matter. I want the software I use to be fast, whether it’s on the web, on my phone, or on my desktop. I also want uptime: anytime an app crashes, is down, or unavailable it’s a disruption to my day.

Essentially, a good looking app is no longer a good measure of quality. These days, most apps look pretty good. Customers aren’t as easily wowed by a stylish design.

What impresses B2B buyers now? Apps that solve a pain, are efficient and reliable, and have support when you need it. Focus on those things first; don’t worry about flair.

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A VIKA BYSKE standing desk

A VIKA BYSKE standing desk

It’s been almost 2 years since I built my standing desk at work. I built it with parts available from IKEA:

Why I switched to a standing desk

I didn’t switch to this setup because I wanted to stand all day; rather I wanted to avoid sitting all day.  With my standing desk, I can choose multiple working positions: standing, leaning, sitting, standing with one foot up, etc…  When you sit, you’re limited to one posture; when you stand, you have more flexibility.

Furthermore, there are health benefits to a standing desk: studies have shown that sitting at a desk all day causes a number of health problems, and that folks who use standing desks burn more calories.

A review of my experience; 2 years after switching to a standing desk

It’s been great, and I’m not going back. I genuinely have more energy with this set-up. I find I’m able to maintain my focus throughout a full workday.

I also feel less stuck. When I was sitting, I would continue sitting, even if I wasn’t accomplishing anything productive. Now, if I find myself stagnating, I can step away and do something else: I go make a pot of coffee,  or do some stretches.

The VIKA BYSKE set-up is not for everyone. First: you’ll have to be fairly short to use the legs (they have a max length of 42″). Second: the table can be quite wobbly if it’s not anchored to the wall (see a video of me shaking my desk here).

Why some people quit; and how you can avoid it

I know a lot of people that made the switch, but quit shortly after. If you’re going to switch: be prepared for a transition period. There are 3 keys to success at the beginning:

  1. Purchase an anti-fatigue mat and a bar stool. Don’t skip this step!
  2. Take it easy: don’t try to stand the whole day! Use the bar stool to sit and lean on, and give your legs a break.
  3. Raise your monitor off the desk. Again: I’m 5’8 tall. My desk is 42 1/4″ high. I raise my monitors an additional 6-7 inches off my desk. Here’s a good diagram.
Terrible Apple products

Terrible Apple products

Generally, I like Apple products. But some of their stuff is just the worst. Here’s my list of stuff I’ve used that I really dislike.

The worst Apple products

Ranked from worst to less-worse.

  1. iMessage: sending a text message should be quick; really quick. You should click Send and it should be sent. There are days where messages will take 1-2 minutes to send. For a product I use hundreds of times a week, this is downright painful.
  2. iPhoto: storing image files in a single Library file is a terrible idea. The Library package makes it difficult to access originals (to do so you need to find the Library file, right-click and select “Show Package Contents”), and can easily become corrupt. iPhoto itself is bloated, and annoyingly slow to use. For me, the best way to organize photos is place the actual image files in old-fashioned folders (date stamped with the year: 2013, 2012, etc…)
  3. Podcasts App: this Apple product is currently sitting at 1.5 stars in the app store (Canadian). Slow, slow, slow. Barely works, frustrating to use. I’d recommend Stitcher or Instacast.
  4. Magic Mouse: Bluetooth has always been finicky with me. On every machine: old iMac, new iMac, Macbook Pro, Macbook Air it’s consistently flakey. This is most pronounced with the Magic Mouse. There are times where the mouse simply won’t pair, and it takes repeated steps of turning it off, rebooting, etc… to get it to pair successfully.
  5. Airport Express: don’t buy it. If you do, you’ll be constantly turning it off and on again in order to restore WiFi connectivity.
  6. Numbers: spreadsheets is one domain where Microsoft wins. Every time I’ve used it, or spoken with others that have to use it, I’m struck by how much you can’t do. Functions I use all the time (like Save as CSV and Text-to-Columns) are difficult in Numbers. Also: I’ve had customers tell me that large datasets are practically impossible to work with in Numbers.

Those are my six. What did I miss?

Kathy Sierra is brilliant

In the end, all that matters is what happens when the clicking/swiping is done. What do they NOW feel? What do they now SHOW for it? How are they now better in a meaningful and — better still — OBVIOUS way? It is those moments that create a reliable, sustainable result in both WOM (word of mouth) and WOFO (word of obvious) that is the heart and soul of authentically “viral” and lasting growth. ~ Kathy Sierra’s comment on this post.

Kathy nailed it.