It’s Easy

by Matt Brown

This is the rope we use to hang ourselves: “it’s easy.” It’s the first thought running through our heads when we see the slick surface of a problem — I can do that, just give me a few hours. Read a little behavioral economics and you’ll soon find that being consistently poor judges of our own abilities and situations (all while being highly critical of others’ talents and self-awareness) is nearly a fact of our existence.


We’re largely wired as under-estimators.

The polite and professional among us keep these thoughts controlled, while others blurt them out publicly. Benjamin Pollack had a really great article on how this “it’s easy” impulse manifests itself in the development community (Brent Simmons also had an equally great piece).

Benjamin’s assertion was that technically-minded people tend to imagine web applications as simple programming and DB logic problems: “it’s just a few queries and some view code.” But the problem with this armchair analysis is that it leaves out all the details — and if one thing is true about user interaction, it’s that all those details are what makes something work well.

That no one bothers to tackle the design details is, of course, why so much user-facing, opensource software is half-baked.

Admitting is the first step

What’s interesting is that excitement for quick solutions isn’t unique to just developers. Designers do it all the time. Recently, two great designers Dustin Curtis and Andrew Wilkinson of MetaLab posted unsolicited re-designs of popular websites (American Airlines and Zappos, respectively).

It goes without saying that both takes are marked improvements over the current sites. But are they real design solutions?

Take Dustin Curtis’ re-thinking Shortly after posting his rant and re-design, someone at American Airlines got in touch with him over email. It’s not for lack of design talent that site is the way it is, he said—it’s a matter of corporate approval. While I think there’s truth to Dustin Curtis’ interpretation of why this is (he thinks it’s a matter of lack of taste), I think it’s more nuanced than that — no one at American Airlines has designed and implemented a corporate design process that works.

With no rigorous, systematized workflow to help designers experiment (while protecting business interests), good design just can’t get out into the wild. I’d argue that it’s our responsibility, as designers, to design a workable process for our clients — and see it implemented.

We don’t go far enough

This hints at a much larger issue with interactive design– we don’t go far enough. We make elegant, wonderful deliverables (strategy guides, designs, templates, full websites) that solve goals at a fixed point in time, but we rarely stay involved after those items have been delivered. It’s not often that we see agencies becoming deeply involved and entrenched in their client’s success after the work is complete. We deliver them the shiny new car (so to speak), and then let them figure out how to drive, maintain, upgrade and care for it all on their own.

Of course, much of this is due to the economics and relationship between agency and client. Running a successful agency is about scoping fixed deliverables tightly — and then getting those projects completed, on time and on budget. To do truly exceptional design however, a LOT of work is needed. Far more than we, as designers, ever expect or adequately scope. Even the most successful design projects will still need constant iteration, testing, and re-thinking. The web is a fluid, flowing medium — the sooner we stop treating it like we’re designing print pieces, the better off everything will be.

Stop pretending it’s easy

How can we solve this seemingly untenable problem. Simple — we stop pretending design is easy. It’s a labor that requires far more than just producing great deliverables. Really, it’s about strategy, process, communication, and designing more than just webpages. As professionals, we have to be equally concerned with our clients’ business strategy and their internal structure as we are with the design comps we pass them.

The real value we provide is educating our clients on how to be successful on the web. Design, as we traditionally define it, is just a small piece of that puzzle. You can’t succeed without it, but you can’t be great with just great design.

Besides — if it was all easy, it wouldn’t be any fun, right?


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We packed up shop in early 2011 to work at Facebook. Tiffani now works at Pinterest and Matt is working on secret projects. To keep up with us, check out the Brown Blog or follow @brownthings and @ticjones!