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What every programmer should know about design

Matthew Heusser | July 16, 2013
What does a lead designer for a Madison Avenue technology firm think every programmer should know about design? Sneak preview: Interfaces actually matter less than you might think. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

With software, it's too easy to try to do everything. Yet, in general, most applications benefit from a push to do one thing really well," Right says. "At Liquidnet, we started with a crisp, clear vision-to help large asset managers trade safely at the size they need. That's still the most important thing we do. We've added other things but never lost sight of that core."

The way Right frames all three of these questions-discoverable or efficient, broad or specialized user base, one excellent tool or a toolset-there are no correct answers. Rather, it's a conversation he expects to have all the time with the whole team over lunch, at the water cooler, in requirements meetings-and, yes, when creating actual designs.

From Design Theory to Execution
When asking about design work, I had expected Right to talk about CSS, HTML5, palettes and color layout. Is part of his discussions on design as well?

"Not really, no," Right answers quickly. "Those details matter, they really do. I love discussing type, font, layout, color, visual effects, all that stuff. The thing is, if you get those wrong, they are easy to fix. The icons in iOS are like the paint color of a house; you can just swap them out."

Basic interactions and features, on the other hand, define the application itself. Teams that get that wrong will have a lot of spade-work to do to fix them. That's why Right focuses on things that apply to the whole team and that matter, such as the user base, the discoverability of the interface and the purpose of the software. That's what he means by design literacy.

"Think about making an MP3 player or CD player. There were a lot of companies doing that in the 1990s. These companies were early to market and had products with all the right features, but they weren't simple or beautiful," Right explains. "Today, most of those companies are gone or at least radically different. It was Apple that made the iPod. Creating a beautiful product is more challenging than most people realize." For evidence, he simply points at all the companies that failed while trying.

Bringing Attitude to Design Theory
After an hour, I ask one last question: After people understand these three questions, where can they go to find out the next three?

While there are some classic books on design-Right is a fan of The Elements of Typographic Style-but he's more likely to recommend books about attitude than user interface design. As his first examples, Right mentions Alan Cooper's About Face or Steve Krung's Don't Make Me Think!

"Krung's work makes the point that your user doesn't care about your application; he just wants to get something done," he says. "A good application gets right to the doing-If your users don't even notice your interface, you are doing something right."


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