Experiment Like a Digital Design Expert

Find out why a trial-and-error approach is critical to producing your most compelling interactive design yet.

Design is both enormously broad and intensely specific. A designer must continuously zoom in and pan out, capturing the big picture while simultaneously grasping the smallest details. Interactive design—with all of its variables, complications, integrations and algorithms—makes this experience even more extreme. We sit in the eye of an information storm that churns around us far too quickly to be fully understood by any one person.

When was the last time you confidently said “I don’t know” in a meeting, knowing that the admission wasn’t conflicting with your expertise? Probably never.

In our culture, these are words rarely spoken— especially in the conference room setting. And perhaps never in the midst of interactive projects. If we’re being honest with ourselves, ultimately we’re afraid that admitting what we “don’t know” will undermine what we do, as well as the respect we’ve earned from our clients and colleagues.

But let’s be real: The longer you work—in any job or field—the more you learn about very specific aspects of that profession. This, in turn, reveals how little you actually do know. The digital design world is no different.

Here’s the truth about expertise in the digital age: It doesn’t really exist. At all. For designers, there are few words more simple and honest than “I don’t know.” We should say them often and learn to feel good about it.

I want to offer you a way to embrace this ethos in the midst of the most complex interactive projects. The solution is experimentation. I’ll share with you two methods that I guarantee will enable you to do your best, most informed work. But first, we need to better understand the relationship between expertise and experimentation.

The biggest secret in our industry is that designers are 50% unjustified confidence and 50% unjustified fear. But the ratio isn’t really the issue, per se. The real issue is that we pretend this isn’t true. We hide it. We deny it. Why? Because we’re afraid of losing our place at the table. Executives, marketers, project managers, engineers and plenty of other intimidating people stare us down and wait for our answers. So we smile and casually say, “I got this,” while inside we’re virtually paralyzed. Bluffing works every so often, but it’s a lousy way to live.

Expertise has nothing to do with knowing everything. The sooner we accept that, the better equipped we’ll be to do our best work. We must break the fear cycle and steady the meter between bravado and terror. The only way to achieve this balance is to start thinking of design differently. Design itself, after all, has a tension of its own.

Face The Reality of Design

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Good design is a blend of expertise and experimentation. In this arrangement, by “expertise” I mean the refined skill and knowledge that you bring to the table thanks to your experiences doing the work—the stuff you’re confident you know and are sure you’ll use.

Experimentation is comprised of the questions you’ll ask and the methods you might follow to answer them. Now that we all understand that it’s acceptable not to know things, what’s more important is knowing how to seek answers to your newfound questions. The approach will vary, of course, and just what method you use may be unclear in the very early stages. Hence all the “I don’t knows” you’ll need to say. (You can always add “yet” if it will make you feel better.)

Now, this approach sounds reasonable. It’s neat, tidy and theoretical. In business, however, no one really accepts experimentation. (That is, unless it’s part of some corporate coolness doctrine, like Google’s 20% experimentation allowance—which they’ve abandoned, by the way.) When it comes to real, deliverable-based, working relationships—the kind that bring people like us to those intimidating conference rooms—experimentation is practically anathema. For a designer, this is terribly frustrating. We need to be free to experiment.

Expertise and experimentation both exist along a professional spectrum. The shifting variable is the issue you’re working to solve. As the problem grows in severity, the necessity for experimentation increases respectively. Law knows this, and science knows this. But marketers typically want clear-cut answers and recoil in horror at the idea of trying something. Because designers work side-by-side with marketers and the distinction between design and marketing continues to be blurred, it’s important to recognize this resistance.

The process of experimentation—no matter how professional it is nor how stably executed—tends to induce client fear. I’m talking about their actual concerns, not those we project onto them. The client’s fear is often unspoken, but it subtly shapes the tenor of your communication with them and the decisions they make along the way. It’s composed of lingering doubts and questions that they sense but don’t know how to express. By anticipating these doubts and questions, drawing them out proactively and answering them, you’ll build more trust with your clients and arrive at a stronger end solution. This is experimentation that looks, to the observer, like the expertise they expected.

Experiment Like a Digital Design Expert

“Experimentation that looks like expertise.” It may sound like an oxymoron, but so far, I’ve built a case for experimentation as an integral component of expertise. So we can’t have one without the other and, in other words, all experts experiment expertly. (Try saying that three times, fast.)

Here are two methods of interactive experimentation that, if done well, will not only feel like the expertise your clients expected when they hired you, but will also be what they value most in their engagement with you.


It’s not uncommon for your client to hire you without having done much preparation. Many of the questions you’ll need to ask them will not have been considered, and ready answers won’t be available. This is why it’s so critical for designers to build in time to work through those details. A good agenda for an interactive discovery phase should include a strong mission statement, clear strategy and a defined scope of work.

Your client needs an official statement of purpose, a mission statement of sorts. Who are they? What are they trying to do? For whom? How will this be accomplished? Generalizations are OK at this stage; they’ll get fine-tuned in due time. Documenting the project intention forces everyone to think through the end goal and provides an accountability tool for the entire team.

Put yourself at the center of a strong team of differentiated experts within your client’s organization. Their input will be indispensable. Starting with the business objectives outlined in your mission document, moderate a group discussion about how to meet these objectives. Identify the audience and develop a content strategy that addresses their needs. Map out the entire marketing ecosystem. This establishes the site you’re designing as a platform on which integrations with inventories, contacts databases and marketing automation suites can be supported. Remember, websites don’t just display information; they gather and process it, too. Then, get an opinion on how long the work might take, and estimate costs. You’ll want to write all of this down.

Once the strategic objectives and a possible plan of attack have been worked through, you can home in on a detailed assessment of the scope of work for an initial phase (from start to launch), as well as a more generalized idea of a potential phase two (post-launch). Scoping is not about producing an exhaustive functional spec—with bulleted lists of functionality and pages—but to identify and prioritize key objectives in light of constraints, such as personnel, budget and timing. Scoping tends to force revisions to earlier estimates, which is a good thing. It’s why you do it—to get closer to reality. Make note of what’s changed, and use your documentation to guide your client through the decisions that need to be made to move forward. It’s your role to help them use their time and money most effectively.

This process looks a lot like discussion because it largely is. But neither you nor your client really know exactly what will come of it. That’s why it’s called “discovery.” What is experimentation if not a method of discovery?

Taking this approach gives your client the opportunity to discover truths about their business and customers that they hadn’t considered before. These epiphanies point everyone in the right direction. Without them, there isn’t a plan or protection for you from some of the common pitfalls of interactive projects, like indecision-driven delays or scope creep.

Remember: You’re leading the client through this, which is why you can confidently charge for it. After all, talking about work is work.

Usability Testing

The second major piece in the process, usability testing, is absolutely essential. It’s not a discrete thing we do sometimes; it’s an integrated discipline. It’s as necessary to our practice as Photoshop or even pencil and paper. And yet, few of us ever do it. Why?

Many people hear “usability testing” and envision labs, expensive equipment and trained technicians. While it could be like that, it doesn’t need to be. In fact, the more complicated you make it, the less likely you are to do it. “Complicated” is too time-consuming and too expensive. You need a simpler, faster way.

Consider finding a quiet space, a computer running screen-capture software, a volunteer and a moderator (that’s you). The key component is a task-based test plan designed to evaluate whether users are able to recognize, understand and do things that are central to the strategic purposes of the website. That’s it. If you do usability testing in person (avoiding remote testing services) and often—after discovery, during design and prototyping, after building, after launch and periodically ongoing—you’ll never stop learning things that will make your design stronger.

Offer The Best Expertise

Contrary to popular belief, the best expertise we have to offer is not a solution or craft. It’s the wisdom of asking the right questions, and the journey we take in answering them. Discovery phases are simply a stable container for experimentation that can properly align any project and team, while usability testing is a disciplined, but experimental, methodology that can be interspersed throughout any project. Together, they make for a reliable and valuable journey.

Hear how the top experts approach their experimentation in interactive design at HOW Interactive Design Conference this fall. 
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