Writing it Down Forces You to Think it Through

by September 9, 2005

Lesson two from the 9 Lessons from 9 Years of Interface Design retrospective: Writing it Down Forces You to Think it Through.

Within my proposals for Web application design projects, I always include the following clause when outlining project deliverables: “Accompanying text will be included with each set of screen designs to provide a high-level overview of the design decisions made.” This portion of the project deliverables not only gives my clients an understanding of the research and rationale that went into my designs, it also forces me to rationalize the decisions I’ve made and explain them in a clear and concise manner.

Writing down my design decisions enables me to:

  • Solidify my design approach: Within application design, there is a tendency to locally optimize (per feature, per screen) interactions and information displays. When you go back and articulate why those decisions were made, application-wide patterns often emerge that enable greater consistency.
  • Articulate my rationale: Designers need to explain how their solutions address business and user needs as well as how they address technical opportunities and limitations. Writing out your design rationale requires you to compose the story behind your product vision. That story is invaluable for communicating your design to stakeholders.
  • Ensure clarity: If you can’t easily describe how an interface or feature works, chances are users will have a hard time understanding it.

At a higher level, writing about what you know or don’t know is also a useful exercise. Authoring Site-Seeing required me to take what I knew about Web interface design and articulate it to others. That process of compilation, review, and reassessment strengthened my understanding of my discipline and skills and has become I process I try to repeat regularly with my posts on Functioning Form and my articles about interface design.

As an example, a few months ago Frank Ramirez and I both realized the Web application solution space was extending beyond our areas of expertise and our clients were turning to us for help understanding this expansion. In order to strengthen our knowledge, we researched and wrote a white paper that compiled the advantages and disadvantages of many popular Web application solutions. The process of writing down what we knew and what we learned re-established our knowledge of the medium in which we work.

Whether communicating the drivers behind a design direction, articulating your domain knowledge, or learning about new areas, writing things down always helps to focus your message and strengthen your understanding: two key components to successful interface design.