One of the most valuable aspects of 2011’s FileMaker Developers Conference in San Diego was a far-reaching discussion about the role of design in the FileMaker world. Design wasn’t the official theme of this year’s conference; but it was certainly among the most popular topics. A large number of sessions focused exclusively on design issues:
- Ernest Koe of The Proof Group offered two sessions on Interface Design Patterns in FileMaker (Go and Pro), providing numerous examples of innovative, inspiring real-world FileMaker interface design.
- Don Levan of Vanguard Solutions presented a detailed session evaluating form design, and a groundbreaking session, “The Fundamentals of Exceptional Interface Design”, an overview of formal design-centered development methodology.
- Heather Winkle and Ryan Shelby of FileMaker Inc. led a hands-on “Guerrilla User Research Session” demonstrating real-world techniques for testing user responses to design.
- Heather and Ryan also moderated the “Panel of Design Enthusiasts”, offering a lively round table discussion of design issues from the standpoint of 7 accomplished FileMaker developers.
- 11 additional sessions in the Design track explored an ambitious array of design issues across the FileMaker platform.
These sessions presented valuable techniques from a broad range of perspectives. Even better, by the end of DevCon the discussion coalesced into a new, inclusive view of design that opens this essential aspect of our craft to all of us, developers and users alike. Echoing the official DevCon tagline: How can we “Go Farther” with design?
Varied Approach, Broad Agreement
At DevCon, there were clear differences in how the session speakers articulated their approach to design. Some developers focused more on “philosophical” meta questions of design’s goals, purpose, and even meaning; others took a more pragmatic, business- and results-oriented path, explaining how good design is simply good business, benefiting their costs, profitability, and ensuring long-term client satisfaction.
But it was interesting to see these surface differences give way to a deeper sense of agreement. The more I listened, the clearer it became that these speakers share a deep belief that good design is central to their development practice and their business.
Design as Central
Amidst this consensus was a shared sense that design lies at the very heart of our work as developers. For example, Don Levan’s session “The Fundamentals of Exceptional Interface Design” described a formal development process in which design is present from the very outset of the process — from initial client conversations and early and ongoing sketches of design possibilities shared with clients — all the way to the final delivered product. This approach was reiterated by a broad range of developers.
Design was also seen as essential to how solutions are conceived, refined, and communicated.
“Design is so closely wrapped up in every solution I build that it is not a separate conversation.” — Bob Shockey
Design was again at the heart of how we create satisfying solutions our users will love to use. Even profitability was directly tied to design.
“Design is a differentiator. It shows well. It leads to user success. It attracts more business. Every company in Silicon Valley has seen a strongly positive ROI on hiring designers and improving their design.” — Heather Winkle
A Polarizing Issue?
The audacity of these developers’ claims was initially surprising. Design, after all, can be a contentious subject, and has often been cast as expensive eye candy or simply unnecessary “fluff”. This raised some interesting questions:
- Are these speakers elevating design-oriented developers above “serious” developers (i.e., coders)?
- Are they suggesting that every solution needs an “additional” overlay of design to make it “prettier”?
- Are they placing surface beauty ahead of “real” programmatic issues, like performance, speed, or data integrity?
- Are we expected to spend all our time worrying about pixels, colors, and fonts?
All We Are Saying…
The more I reflected on these sessions, the more confident I became that the old battle lines don’t apply to this new conception of design. In some ways, this is because the industry itself has changed, and many of the old “rules” have changed with the ascendency of web and mobile technologies.
“A minimum level of design used to be enough … The overwhelming success of iOS, the growing acceptance of web standards, and the sophistication of the user base has significantly raised what is considered acceptable. Indeed, applications and websites that look amateurish or are broken are viewed with contempt and distrust.” — Don Levan
On a deeper level, the old battle lines between “design” and “code” may no longer apply because these speakers are in fact suggesting something more profound than at first meets the eye. Yes, design is now brought into the heart of our process. But at the same time, design itself is fundamentally changed in the process. The “design” at the heart of this new process is not the same design we thought we knew.
Listening to these speakers, I heard several good examples of what this new conception of design is not. Design is no longer:
- A solitary activity based primarily on a “designer’s” individual inspirations, likes, and tastes
- A product to be “presented” to users as finished and complete at the end of a development cycle
- An optional “nicety” that can be “added onto” a project a la carte
Instead, the new definition of design points towards something much more conversational, informal, a shared process of exploration between developers and users. A new kind of process was described that is:
- Flexible and adaptable
- Inexpensive and “lo fi”, with drawings providing “only as much detail as we have certainty”
- Based directly on established design patterns
- Aimed directly at well-defined user personas, scenarios, and requirements
- Encouraging refinement, changes of direction, until we arrive at exactly what meets our users’ needs
“Design is the business of creating an optimal user experience within a set of constraints.” — Ernest Koe
FileMaker as a Craft
It was particularly intriguing to hear FileMaker design described as a craft. This wasn’t a mere figure of speech: As described by Don Levan and Ernest Koe, FileMaker design is a genuine craft. FileMaker development can — and should — be conducted through a formal methodology, using defined tools and a known, repeatable process. This vision of formalized craft offers several benefits:
- A repeatable way for a developer to design satisfying, effective solutions
- A known process that removes the mystery from the design process
- A means of recasting design from a product into a process and conversation with users
- A core discipline offering developers and users a common language and a framework for achieving success
“If a potential client doesn’t want time spent on the design of the project, it’s not just that we don’t do the project, it’s that we wouldn’t know how to do the project.” — Doug Gardner
We Are Designers
One final aspect I particularly liked about this vision is how it seeks to democratize design. In DevCon sessions, there were constant, explicit reminders that design is all around us — in our architecture, our food, in print, in the natural world. And, of course, design is present in the computing tools we use and build daily.
“Design is everywhere. Good, excellent, bad, horrifyingly bad. I can learn from any of these.” — Bob Shockey
The most revolutionary claim of these speakers may be that, as developers, we cannot avoid this simple fact: Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are designers. Every solution we create is already a design. The question is:
Will our designs create beauty and solve our users’ problems beautifully and elegantly? Or will we develop solutions based on our own long-established preferences and habits, expecting our users to just “get it”?
This vision removes the capital “D” from “Design”. Design ceases to be a product, and becomes a process shared by developers and users alike. And the result of this transformation, as several DevCon speakers frequently reminded us, is empathy for our users: The pursuit of design excellence becomes a pursuit of creating solutions that fit our users’ real-world needs as closely and simply as possible.
“Design is an intentional process in which you elicit, derive, decide, clarify, and plan the solution to a given problem. Sketches, prototypes, technical plans, and finished solutions are the artifacts that result from a design process.” — Don LevanSan Diego Harbor – via @PDPhotocom
The Road Ahead
The conversation about design begun at this year’s DevCon was exciting and full of inspiring possibilities. I left with several questions to ponder:
- How will this vision help us develop solutions that are more transparent, intuitive, and effective to our users?
- How can we merge FileMaker’s strengths and the insights of the wider design and web communities?
- How will the application of these principles affect the evolution of the FileMaker product line itself?
In the weeks and months ahead, I anticipate that my fellow developers at Beezwax and the broader FileMaker community will continue to explore many of these ideas about design and ask how we can integrate them into our development process to “Go Farther” with FileMaker. What do you think?