I’m working on building an elaborate marketing and e-commerce system. I just don’t feel like anyone has done it right, so I’m taking a stab at it.

Here’s why I think the other software vendors have done such a poor job: lack of design in their process. I intend to make a system that’s pleasant and easy to use, that “gets out of the way” of users’ tasks. And I’m not going to get there without design.

The real definition of design

Here in the web development world, most people think that design is “putting a pretty face” on interfaces. Making things shiny and aesthetic. Most people think of it as something you do at the end of the process.

Those people are wrong.

Design is about building the experience of your product or service or website. Sure, it can be about graphics, but it’s more broad than that. A designer is concerned about choosing whether or not to use a graphic for something, and how a graphic may aid a user in performing his or her task. A designer can also identify when using a graphic may actually create a poor experience.

I hadn’t done any design

Last week, I wanted to build a small piece of the system for a need of my own, and it didn’t have much to do with the rest of the system. I sat down to begin designing this piece and hit a wall. It was very frustrating because the piece was very simple, yet I couldn’t see it in my head.

My problem was that I didn’t have a blueprint of what the rest of the system would look like. I knew what I wanted for it to do, but not what that should look like. So I sat down for a couple nights with a graphics program open and mocked up what a screen from this system should look like.

(If I weren’t so high maintenance, I could have just used a pen and paper, so don’t get discouraged if you’ve never used Photoshop before.)

Now my head is actually pretty clear, and it doesn’t seem so troublesome to write the software. I’m actually looking forward to doing it now!

Here’s how this applies to you

I think that design should be involved in creating strategy, and vice versa. You need that vision of what things will look like, and you need to find a way to make it tangible. If you don’t know where you’re headed, you’re just going to create a mess of things with any decisions that you make.

This shouldn’t be confused with putting your creativity on lock-down. If you have a creative day and think of a new way to approach things, then update your design and get on with it! If you don’t have time to do it the right way, then you’re definitely not going to have time to fix it in the future.

You should know what the next step looks like before doing any work, and you should know what everything will look like 5 steps down the road. All with the willingness to change those future steps if need be.

Design and communication with teammates

I was lucky to have not been managing someone else. If that were the case, I can’t image how frustrated another team member would have been with me. You’ve heard it before: “I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it.” Nobody likes that.

Think of situations where you weren’t sure what the real end goal was. Your (bad) manager gave you a project. Later on, he flew in and scrapped your hard work without really explaining why.

As it turned out, no one had really designed a vision in the first place, so that communication wasn’t there. A rapid design of the end goal would have taken less time than how much time it was going to take you to redo it all.

This same principle has applied with myself and my clients. I’ve worked long hours on something and then had it rejected. Again, rapidly iterating over a proof of concept would have cost everyone less in actual production time.

How can you become a designer today?

How can you set forth on building a strategy for your task, project, and overall business? Have you really thought about it much? In an ideal world where you have infinite time, what would your business look like? What can you do to start down that path today and end the misery of wasted time?

If you’ve thought about this, please share.