Four things about design I learned at WebExpo

For the second time, I attended the WebExpo conference in Prague. There were, as always, many interesting talks and ideas to take with. Now, three weeks after the event, it’s a good time to reflect on the things, that resonated with me the most and stuck.

On 22nd and 23rd of September, WebExpo 2017 took place in Prague, Czech Republic. WebExpo is a conference for web professionals in design, development, and business. With 70 speakers in 2 days and over 2000 attendees, WebExpo is one of the biggest web conferences (if not the biggest) in central Europe. From my perspective, about 90% of the attendees are Czech, so the event is still quite unknown abroad. That's a shame, given the great location and often great speakers. Although there are some talks in Czech, it's only a few of them and the official event language is English.

Of course, I could sum up the talks I attended, but that would be rather boring, given the fact you can watch lots of them online. Instead, I would like to share, what I actually learned and what I think matters the most if you are a web designer, user experience designer or user interface designer. So let's get to it!

Do your user research

User research is a very mysterious thing to me. I heard clients talking about their customers, I heard project managers talking about the target audience...but I never can tell, if that's what they know or just what they think they know. The only way you can verify your hypothesis (or disprove your assumption) is to do user research.

Research doesn't have to be expensive. It doesn't have to be time-consuming. Just in contrary, it can save you lot of time and money, when done right.

Let say you are re-designing an online store. Of course, you have some idea, who your customer is. You hire a designer, he does his magic. It all looks great. Someone else implements the shop. Huge party. Some time goes by and you actually can't  tell a difference in sales. You just spent some money on a new web, because new is always better, right?

But what if you actually wanted to push your business? Then you would probably search for a way to engage more with your customers. Eventually, after talking to some real person, you may find out, that this person has different concerns and needs from what you assumed.

This will have an impact on your marketing strategy and might cost you re-designing the store once again.

The importance of user research was emphasized repeatedly during the whole conference. Moreover, Erika Hall held a full day workshop just on that topic! I am currently reading her book "Just Enough Research", so I'll hopefully be able to give you more insights into this topic soon. By the way, feel free to check out my book recommendations!

This is Steve. Steve did user research. Steve knew, who his target audience was. Be like Steve. Do your homework.

Web design project requirements and specification done right

Jan Řezáč and Jan Kvasnička are well-known web professionals in the Czech Republic. In their talk at WebExpo 2017, they focused on the difference between the product requirement document and the functional specifications document. Those two are being neglected, misunderstood or done terribly wrong in lots of case (why is that is a topic for another article).

The thing is, most stakeholders don't understand web design. Therefore they have naive expectations and no idea, how a web project should be done. They will come to you with requirements based on their false assumptions and ask for a screen design of a homepage. At this point, you have to recognize it's a trap! The moment you start designing what your customer wants, rather than what he really needs, you will become a mouse cursor trapped inside of Photoshop, being shout at.

To save yourself the trouble and to do the real design work in first place, you have to get the requirements and specifications right:

Product requirement document (PRD) (translates as Lastenheft in German) is the intent or purpose of the project. It describes, what the stakeholders want to achieve by launching or re-designing the website. This may be increasing the sales by 10%, increasing the traffic, getting newsletter subscribers and so on. The PRD is done by the client (a businessman) and takes approximately a day to create. The most important thing is, you can't put a price on it.

Functional specifications document (FSD) (translates as Pflichtenheft) on the other hand is done by a designer (design team) as a response to a PRD and describes how to achieve the specified requirements. In FSD you should define the strategy first (are we addressing the right problem?) and then define a solution (is our solution right?). This may contain user research, sketches, wireframes, information architecture or keyword analysis. It can take months to create a functional specification document. Once you have it, you can put a price on it.

Or you can screw it and make decisions based on a qualified view from the window, which was the title of the talk at WebExpo.

Cheating is a choice, not a mistake.

The most influential talk at WebExpo 2017 for me was the talk by Anton & Irene. After leaving Fantasy Interactive, Anton and Irene decided to start their own design studio in Brooklyn. They wanted to get back to designing (instead of leading a design team) and decided to embrace a new approach: spend 60% of their time to work on client projects and dedicate the rest 40% just for personal projects.

This creates a room for experimenting, investing in own ideas, stepping out of the comfort zone and boosting creativity. In their talk, Anton and Irene covered some of the personal projects they accomplished during the last two years. You can read the case studies on their website.

For me, it was very interesting to see, how top designers with such a great experience work. Showing the whole process and not just the pixel-perfect, polished results really can motivate you, instead of putting you down by questioning your poor skills. Guess what – they also watch tutorials by 14yo kids on YouTube on how to create an After Effects animation! They also spent a ridiculous amount of time in Photoshop trying to figure the things out.

Nobody has figured it out. Every designer feels like a hack sometimes. They just don't admit it.

Anton and Irene at WebExpo2017

It's ok to steal, but only from other disciplines

Another extremely valuable lesson to learn from Anton and Irene is to do everything by yourself. On the web, everything looks kind of the same, nowadays. There are sites like Behance, Dribbble, Pinterest, where people submit their work and get inspiration. In the end, everybody is doing the same stuff.

This creates almost a paradox – if you don't follow any of the trends, you almost automatically become unique.

By doing everything on your own, you will come up with solutions, that nobody has explored yet. A great example of this approach is the One Shared House. Even though Anton and Irene had no idea, how an interactive documentary is done, they got right into it. They had to learn plenty of new things on the way and get to different disciplines as well. By doing so, the result is unique and something that stands out.

Getting into other disciplines like architecture, visual arts, video, illustration, you will gain inspiration and new insights. You also may discover, the disciplines have more in common than you thought they had.

And the best part is you can steal from other disciplines. It's not a crime. Just in contrary, it's appreciated. But you should never steal from your own discipline. If you are a web designer, don't steal from other web designers. Steal from typographers. Steal from graphic designers. You get the idea!

So the next time you're about to download some mock-up of an iPhone or some photos for a website, try thinking about doing the extra work and make your own. It really makes a difference.


That's all!

Have a great week,

Filip Pižl

Filip Pižl

Filip is a Czech interactive designer, living in Dresden, Germany. He focuses on UX/UI design and strategic web design.