The terrifying idea of designing in public

We’re designing the university homepage differently than we have before. Here’s a look at what we’ll be doing.

Hi, I’m Colin. I work in Web and Collaboration Systems. It’s our job to help groups and individuals on campus achieve their goals on the web. Usually that means helping them make a website.

I want to talk a bit about how those websites get designed and what we’re doing to make that process better.

Let’s start six years ago.

Summer 2010

A new website is born

The university decides it needs a new homepage. The current one is looking outdated and stale, like it hasn’t been touched in years, which is true.

A small group convenes to tackle the problem. Everyone in the group is smart and great at their job. Everyone’s energized to do great work on a great project.

The group meets regularly and discusses requirements. Nobody really agrees on anything other than that the homepage is important (it is!). They make a list.

The “designer” in the group puts together a homepage based on the requirements. The design is presented to the group and met with lots of debate. The designer refines the design, followed by more debate, more refinements, more debate.

Eventually the group agrees to disagree because the project deadline is looming. They gotta get this thing out the door.

They put the homepage online as a “beta” shortly before launch and let their users know via email that a new homepage is coming.

They go live with the new design. A link is there in case users want to provide any feedback. Plenty do. Plenty are frustrated.

Surprise disruption

It's really frustrating

Remember the hundreds of times Facebook redesigned your news feed without telling you and then just forced you to adapt? That sucked. If you’re like most Facebook users, you carried on using Facebook despite being really frustrated by the sudden change. What choice did you have? Snapchat didn’t exist yet.

Sometimes designers are too convinced that change is for the greater good. I’m guilty of it, certainly. I tend to think each redesign will make people happier than they were before.

Unfortunately that’s just not the case. Redesigning anything means user behaviour needs to change accordingly. No matter how attractive, clean, and supposedly intuitive a new design is, users are still disrupted and need to adapt. That can be really frustrating.

Show and tell

Alpha, Beta, Blog

Designing in public is one way that we’re hoping to reduce disruption with the usask.ca homepage upgrade.

Users need to see what we’re working on as we’re working on it in real time. They need to be able to get hands-on with prototypes, validating or invalidating the assumptions we’re making as designers. Otherwise we have no idea if we’re on the right track.

Users also have a right to know what goes into design decisions. That means sharing data. It shouldn’t be a secret what the most clicked-on links are (PAWS is right now, fyi) or what kind of feedback we're getting.

We’re looking to accomplish this by releasing public alpha and beta versions of the homepage. And we’ll be blogging about it the whole way through.


Testing ideas early with real people

We’ll be releasing “alpha” versions of the new homepage very early on. An alpha is basically a prototype that we can use to test the assumptions that inform design choices.

The alpha will be available online for anyone to see, try, and discuss. It will not replace the existing homepage. Both pages will exist in parallel.

Because an alpha is a prototype, it can be any of the following at any given time:

  • Broken
  • Attractive
  • Ugly
  • Useless
  • Useful
  • Fast
  • Slow
  • Good
  • Bad

The great thing about making alpha designs public is we can find problems early and experiment with alternative solutions quickly. The alpha will change regularly—and potentially dramatically—over a period of weeks as we continue to test our design choices with users. Alpha designs that fail to meet user needs are opportunities to learn and improve.

Once we zero in on something relatively stable that’s meeting user needs we’re ready to move on to a beta.


Creating familiarity through stability

The “beta” version of the homepage will be similar to the alpha in that it will be publicly available for anyone to see, try, and discuss. It will also exist in parallel to the current homepage so that users can try it voluntarily without having their routine forcefully disrupted.

The main difference between the alpha and the beta is stability. The beta gives users a chance to really get to know the new design. The experimentation that featured so prominently in the alpha is not at play here.

This consistent exposure will unearth new bugs and new problems to solve that were not discoverable in the alpha. That’s a good thing—it’s a major reason why the beta exists.

The public beta will be available for a number of weeks at the minimum to allow users to get familiar and provide feedback.


Continuing to improve

Once a solid sense of familiarity and user satisfaction exists, the current homepage (www.usask.ca) will be replaced by the beta. It will be “live”.

The live homepage will have been the result of a series of iterations informed by user testing. There is no reason to stop that testing once it’s live. The homepage will continue to change incrementally as needed as we continually strive to improve the experience.


Sharing everything along the way

The whole design process for a new usask.ca homepage will be blogged right here at web.usask.ca/design. Some of the things we’ll be sharing include:

  • Analytics data
  • Sketches
  • Feedback highlights
  • How we’re addressing feedback
  • Phase outlines (alpha, beta, live)
  • Iteration summaries
  • Meeting summaries
  • Core design concepts

These ideas aren't new or ours. Lots of organizations around the world, both public and private, design this way.

But applying these ideas to what we do on campus is new. We're going to make mistakes. Learning from those mistakes is critical. We've learned from our past mistakes and that's why we're doing what we're doing here. Hopefully through designing in public we can learn from mistakes in real time and improve quickly. It's a little terrifying, but it's exciting, too.

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