What is Designing in the Open?
Designing in the open is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The basic idea is to include as many people as possible in the design process by publishing some or all of the steps along the way. Obviously, if executed poorly, this idea could get messy quickly. However, in the hands of experts, designing in the open can lead to great results.
For a perfect example, check out the Redesign Mozilla Project from web design legend Jeffrey Zeldman’s company Happy Cog. They started by presenting three completely different design concepts and asking users to comment on each. Enough time has passed that you can see how these comments influenced the project in a significant way.
#1 Constructive Feedback
The big downside of designing in the open is the waves of completely unhelpful comments you’re likely to garner. You’ll no doubt spend some time sifting through nasty insults, ridiculous ideas, and conflicting suggestions. However, amidst all of the chaos you’ll find plenty of intelligent people providing thoughtful feedback.
If you’re open to exploring ideas that directly oppose your own, designing in the open can provide you with a much needed critical examination of your designs. As the owner of a design, you are the least likely candidate to point out its weak points and shortcomings. Only an unattached third party can truly objectively examine the merits of your designs.
After you’ve progressed significantly into the project, you’ll hopefully be able to look back and see how invaluable the feedback has been in developing a successful finished product.
#2 User Insight
Another major benefit of designing in the open is to gain insight into the minds of your potential users. Years of experience and education in user interface design are great for predicting how users will respond, but nothing compares to seeing what users think firsthand.
As annoyingly as they may sometimes seem, pay close attention to responses from commenters that don’t seem to be designers or developers. If you’re creating a site for the general public, this is your target audience. Their impressions of the functionality and intuitiveness of the layout are very valuable to the overall success of the site.
The biggest thing to keep in mind is that many people, especially non-designers, won’t be great at expressing their issues with a design. If they present a problem or idea, examine the core underlying issue that the statement addresses. For instance, if someone says there are too many links in your dropdown menus, interpret it as a suggestion that the dropdown menus might need a little more polishing. The user suggestion possesses only one possible fix: removing items from the menu. However, the core interpretation leaves many possible fixes that may include changing the size of the text, creating clear subcategories, or reordering the items so that links the users view as important are closer to the top.
#3 More Pressure to Do It Right
Designing out in the open forces you to think about the fact that everything you do will be scrutinized well beyond what would be the case if you simply launched a completed site. You’ll quickly learn that the process could just as easily be called “designing under a microscope” as participants will no doubt comb over every scrap of code and closely examine even the smallest of images.
Becoming painfully aware of this scrutiny will make you much less prone to taking shortcuts with the excuse that no one will notice. This will drive you to develop cleaner, easier to read and more standards compliant code as well as imagery that really reflects an attention to detail and regard for solid design principles.
#4 Help Spotting Mistakes
Aside from keeping you accountable for intentionally sloppy work, designing in the open helps you spot mistakes that you simply would’ve never noticed. These mistakes come in two exciting flavors.
The Little Kind
The first is the slap yourself on the forehead kind of mistake. This includes things like obviously misspelled words and broken links. All that stuff that you would know is wrong if you had actually spotted it. Developing a site is no small task and there are definitely times when you just need some extra sets of eyes because you’ve stared at something for so long you’ve lost the ability to notice little mistakes.
The Big Kind
The second kind of mistakes participants will help you discover are more revelatory in nature. This includes breaking semantic rules you didn’t even know existed or realizing that your page is completely unusable for a colorblind visitor. Remember that you’re not just sourcing the analytic skills of your participants but their vast combined pool of knowledge as well.
#5 Diversity of Ideas
Designing in the open can be similar to a giant brainstorming session. The benefit of adding extra brains to the mix is that you’ll see an exponential increase in the number of ideas presented; far beyond what you could’ve come up with on your own.
Again, expect lots of unusable suggestions but force yourself to be open to something that is completely different that than the direction you were headed. Examine what, if any, added benefit each idea could bring to your design. Change for the sake of change is pointless, shoot instead for changes that will significantly improve the experience of using the site.
#6 A Confident Launch
Launching a website can be an incredibly stressful event. Despite the fact that you’ve probably done tons of testing to make sure everything works and sifted through every little area of text or images to make sure you’ve covered all the bases, there’s still plenty of uncertainty as to how the public will accept the design and usability of your site as well as what they will notice that you didn’t (as stated above).
Designing in a way that makes it possible for users to see and interact with your site in every step of the design process can reduce launch date stress significantly. You can be confident that your design has been thoroughly put through the wringer and that most major glitches have therefore been addressed or at least brought to your attention. This makes it possible for you to be infinitely more more confident that there won’t be many unpleasant surprises or emergencies when you finally choose to officially announce your site as live.
#7 Forming Lasting User Connections
The final reason to try designing in the open is that it’s a great way to build connections with your potential users. Including them in the design process can have the psychological effect of tying them to the site in a very personal way. Rather than simply being a visitor, they feel a degree of ownership in the site and how it progresses. If you’re looking to build or take part in an online community, this sense of belonging can play a huge role in creating and maintaining a consistent and growing user base.
The purpose of this post is to encourage you to take the leap and at least experiment with designing in the open. You don’t have to go all out at first, in fact, starting slow is probably better. Try posting the occasional “in-process” design or idea and ask for some feedback. If it doesn’t seem to work well for your particular audience, you’ve lost nothing because you haven’t structured your entire project around their feedback. If it does work well, you can slowly start introducing more and more interaction to find the optimum level of outside involvement.
Let us know in the comments below if you agree that designing out in the open can be a beneficial experience. Tell us your thoughts on the pros and cons and about any projects that you know of currently looking for user participation.