Facebook AMA Recap: Shay Howe, VP of Product Design, on Usability and Design

Shay Howe, VP of Product Design
Yesterday, we invited Shay Howe, our VP of Product Design, to answer your questions on usability and design via Facebook Live.
A dozen questions later, we had some insights we knew were worth sharing. You can watch the full, half-hour Ask Me Anything on our Facebook page (and we highly recommend you do)—but we’ve also distilled Shay’s answers into the key takeaways you can find here.

What makes a design timeless?

When you think about making a timeless design, you have to ask: what do you think isn’t going to change? What is it about a design that’s going to make it last over time?
There are big design waves and trends that happen. And you can get involved in those trends, but if you go too deep into them your design is going to look outdated in a few years.
If you focus on the things that don’t change, your design will always be functional. If nothing else, you can’t go wrong by focusing on simplicity.

How do you know when and where to place the right investments in design?

Largely, it’s “what problem are you trying to solve.” That’s what’s going to help you figure out your level of investment.
We think about design in three phases:

  1. Why – Why are solving this problem? Who has this problem, when do they have it, and how important is it?
  2. How – How do we begin to solve it? What does the workflow or interaction of the design look like to accomplish our goal.
  3. What – What should the design visually look like? Once we understand the user experience, we focus on aesthetics and general look and feel.

Take Craigslist as an example—they never really invested in step three of the design process, visual design. But they don’t need to. They know what problem they’re solving and they designed a good process that helps people use their site. The site isn’t pretty, but it doesn’t need to be.
Not everyone needs everything.

When do you know to hold back in designing and start by researching?

I think you should always start with research. Do enough research to get to a decent hypothesis about how people will use our design and behave, and then let’s test that.
We’ll start with that hypothesis, based on a foundation of research, and then iterate on top of it. We’ll keep doing as much research as we need to solve the problem.
Doing too much research up front can be a mistake too—you can’t always anticipate every problem. At some point it’s faster to have a problem and solve it than it is to try to solve for everything (a lot of what you think matters might not).

What’s the biggest mistake to avoid in product design when starting out?

Not getting your work out there. Trying to perfect what you’re doing rather than getting it into the hands of a customer or user.
I used to be guilty of this too. I would try to solve for everything, but it was based on guessing. And I would be wrong! And if I had started with the customer, we could have tested my assumptions right away.

What kind of problems that you see that designers will encounter in a year? Two years? 10 years?

How do you predict the future? You can’t. Not really.
The way I think about it is that rather than trying to predict the future, think about the things that won’t change. Some things are going to stay the same, and if we focus on those things our design will always be effective.
Things that don’t change:

  • People reading your website are distracted. Format for scanners.
  • People don’t want a ton of choices. Keep things simple and focused.

No matter how technology or trends change, we’re always going to need to solve these problems. We’ll always need to present information in an accessible way.

What book or resource should every designer read?

Wow what a tough question. I read a lot. I’m a huge nerd, so there’s a lot to choose from.

How do you manage listening to customers on visual design, versus customers not always knowing what they need?

That’s tricky. That’s the ability to read between the lines.
One of the best ways to dig deep into what people need is to keep asking why. Whenever you get an answer, ask try to go past the surface and figure out why they want things.
I think you can be iterative in this approach. As you try things out, talk to more people, get a more diverse set of opinions, you start to get a grander sense of what’s possible.
Again, I think this goes back to “what doesn’t change.” The problems in our lives never really change—the solutions do. The problems are the same, but we have to ask what’s going on in technology that lets us solve an existing problem in a new way.

Why is it important that your website isn’t only aesthetically pleasing, but easy to use?

Have you ever gone to a website to see how beautiful it is?
Really, I just want a website to solve my problem. I have questions that I need answered, and I want a website to answer my questions quickly. I don’t necessarily care if a button is green—I want a website to solve my problem.

What’s the difference between having a navigation on the top instead of the side?

In our situation at ActiveCampaign, the top navigation was growing. There were a lot of components and submenus. It was getting harder to use, and a little bit confusing.
Moving that navigation to the side gave us more space to show the full menu. It eliminates a lot of clicks between pages, so it’s easier to figure out where you need to go.
That’s not the “right” way to do it necessarily—but it made sense for us. If you only have one or two elements that are important to your users, by all means put your navigation on the top. That might make more sense for you. Test it and see what happens.

Where would you say the primary call to action should be on a website?

It depends. The easiest answer is above the fold. The page loads, and the CTA is visible right away.
At the same time, that answer is more biased towards lead generation, ecommerce, and the like, and that isn’t always the goal or the best way to go about it.
You might actually have a lot of information on the page that someone needs to read or complete—and it’s only after they go through the whole page that they’re willing to take action.
So it depends, but you always want to make it easy for people to understand what they should be doing. Clarity in your CTAs is important.

Do you have an example of a feature that wasn’t used, until design highlighted it and changed user behavior?

I actually have an example that happened just in the last few weeks! We have a CRM in the product, and our users can create deals that they mark as either won or lost.
People knew about that feature, but it wasn’t the most visually prominent. It was a bit difficult to find within the app. Then we realized—what if we made the boxes to mark deal status more visible?
Quick and easy change. Just a few lines of code. All we needed to do was unhide something that was already there. But we’re already seeing more deals marked as won or lost.

Any parting thoughts or wisdom?

One of the core things we talk about at ActiveCampaign is iteration.
It’s not the goal to be perfect all at once. It’s very unlikely that one big thing you do will change your world. But the accumulation of hundreds of small decisions—that can have a major impact on your design.
Keep iterating. Keep trying new things and testing them.

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