Wells RileyBlog


Holistic Design

Sep 17, 2013 6.5 minutes

I think it’s natural for designers (and engineers, gardeners, chefs, etc.) to silo themselves into one particular profession or title that they know best. Over the years I’ve called myself Web Designer, UX Designer, UI Designer, and Interaction Designer. I’m sure there were other titles I used a lot less often (like gestalt ingenieur, yeesh) but they all basically accomplish the same thing – they describe the particular skillset I’m using today, as it compares to what I used to do in the past. When you think of it that way, it’s actually quite restrictive. Do I now lack web design skills? or UX knowledge? Of course not. I still use those skills every day.

I’m constantly learning new things that traditionally fall outside the ‘design’ profession. Last week I did a crash-course in optimizing App Store search keywords. The month before I spent three weeks learning how to perfect mobile checkout funnels and build product for retention. I’ve also set up ruby projects and committed code to an iOS repo. These are all just little pieces of what makes up a great product, and understanding those pieces helps me do great design to that end.

When I talk about design, I usually say how design isn’t just about how something looks – it’s the whole package. Holistic design is a problem solving exercise that coalesces the needs of many different stakeholders into a product that makes sense, utilizing knowledge and expertise gained from a variety of complimentary disciplines.

Stakeholders can include the company’s business, dev, and design teams, customers, as well as investors and strategic partners. I believe the running meme of non-designers ‘ruining’ otherwise good design with retention features, oddly-placed promo offers, and endless sharing options is backwards. It’s the fault of bad designers that customer retention is not carefully crafted, promos are seen as gaudy ads, and social shares are presented with no privacy reassurance or context whatsoever. These are just some of the many ‘unsexy’ parts of creating a successful product – many seemingly great products have failed due to poor execution, and it’s a very difficult battle that I fight every day. This is where the holistic design mentality shines.

Holistic designers must be able to parse the needs of a product’s stakeholders without sacrificing the quality of the overall product.

A year ago, if our CEO approached me and told me we needed to redesign the checkout page of the Kicksend mobile app to increase conversion by 200% or more, I’d be at a loss for words. “Are you kidding me?” I’d have balked. “The design looks and works fine, we need to do something else to increase conversion.” But I would have been dead wrong.

Setting pride aside, it’s easy to see just how ineffective my design was by watching over a user’s shoulder and looking at our KISSmetrics numbers.

So we began testing. We added credit card logos and lock icons to the credit card screen. We also added a 100% Satisfaction Guarantee with a phone number, right at the top. We also re-organized how we led customers through checkout so the whole flow felt more familiar. At times, it felt wrong to me. I looked at some notable e-commerce sites and didn’t want to be like them – their flows are unintuitive and the visual design was uninspired and dated. I realized that, by picking and choosing those things that actually help the customer, I could create a more familiar and trustworthy experience without hindering the overall design.

Originally, we showed a credit card prompt before the user could actually view what it was they’d pay and how quickly it would get there. In our minds, it reduced the step of having to click “Add payment details” but, to our customers, it actually made the whole experience downright frightening.

Finally, we changed the wording of our calls-to-action to set prospective customers at ease. After only a month of testing, we were not only able to reach that 200% goal, but we also managed to increase the overall volume of people going through the flow because suddenly the whole product made a lot of sense.

The bottom line is that I couldn’t do my job effectively without understanding why customers were uneasy shopping with us and how advanced funnel analysis worked. I could have half-assed the whole thing, shrugging off conversion rates and e-commerce best practices as “not my area.” I’m guilty of doing such things in the past, but it’s absolutely insane how diving into these areas made my design work measurably better. I felt way more proud and confident in my work too.

Holistic designers spend a lot of time doing “non-design”

I think I spend about 30% of my day just trying to understand what the hell is going on around me. Whether that’s looking at metrics, talking to our community manager who’s out on the front lines, or vetting ideas with engineering and our PM. The ability to parse all of this information is necessary to prioritize features and refine the ones we’ve already got. A design is only as good as how useful it is and, with customer and internal needs always changing, it’s absolutely critical that I’m never working in a vacuum.

When I finally do sit down and sketch or create mockups, All of this stuff floats around in my head and helps me create better product in fewer iterations. I am by no means a polymath (“unicorn”), but I understand enough from the complimentary disciplines around me to do my job better. For that matter…

Holistic designers don’t have to be Unicorns

Unicorns garner a lot of envy and attention from the tech world, but you don’t need to be a genius coder or have serious business savvy to be an effective holistic designer, though. Even just an interest in working with those types of people and a willingness to learn skills outside your typical duties make you infinitely more valuable than someone who isn’t.

Maybe you can’t code, but you have a general idea of how HTML/CSS/JS works – so you know how to design a site or app that’s easier to implement with those technologies. Maybe you know a bit about e-commerce UX flows, which helps you make effective design decisions in your mobile app. (hey, that’s me!) The list goes on.

How to get started

We’re all people first and designers second – don’t let the title on your business card define what you learn and how you work. I don’t think of holistic design as a title – I see it as a mantra that describes how I work and what I aspire to become. Effective communication is what distinguishes good design from bad, and the ability to speak the language of your stakeholders is just the first step.

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