Sorry coders, graphic design is 75% of the game

We spend a lot of time making our software well architected, maintainable, bug free and well written. It’s important to us that we build software that we can be proud of and that we can scale and maintain (alternately, you can take Fred George’s extreme position of building everything on throw-away microservices, but that’s a different post). In fact, in a survey of my team we found that companies we have worked in often have five to seven developers per graphic designer. That implies that it takes a lot more development effort that graphic design effort to get the job done.

My experience is, that from the customer’s perspective, great graphic design can cover a multitude of sins. A site that looks great will have customers apologizing for bugs. A site that looks ugly or unbalanced will have people looking for bugs. Whether we like it or not, customer opinion is predicated more on graphic design than all the work we spent making the software fast and robust.

Here’s a story I tell to illustrate this (I’m sure you have your own similar experience).

When I bought my house I knew I had to replace the furnace — it was a gas furnace from the 20’s that took up more square feet than a bathroom. I had a company install a top-of-the-line energy efficient gas furnace, inside the crawlspace, which meant re-building all the duct work in the basement. When they had completed the job, I saw that they had used three different types of duct tape throughout the basement. This immediately got me looking at other issues — such as the dampers they had not installed, seams that were either not taped or not sealed, and other minor issues. I had them come back and complete the job; but if they had been consistent in their duct tape use, I probably would have let it go at just having the dampers installed and maybe even let that be. The fact that things were inconsistent made me concerned about the quality of the work and look for more problems.

The corollary to this story is when I had my house re-plumbed with all copper pipes. The plumbers did a beautiful job, sweating clean, perfect joints and getting into the tight areas in the house with a minimal amount of holes. I was very impressed with the work. (As was the inspector: “Ken did this job? Ok. You’re all set, then. Bye.”) Even though it took two days to really flush the flux out of the pipes I didn’t mind because it looked so pretty.

That doesn’t mean we’re not putting a lot of effort into robust, responsive, maintainable code. But it does mean that we try to have damn good graphics design.

Why your back-end tools should be sexy, too

If your internal tools aren’t the same quality and sexiness as your client-facing tools, then your employees aren’t going to be as excited as they could be and won’t be selling your company as well as they could.

While working at Bookr, our design motto was “dead simple; dead sexy.” It’s something that I think is a great, simple goal that most everyone in the company can eat least target. We applied this to our product and customers loved the way it looked. I’ve carried that through (internally) for Blueprint, although I don’t think that “sexy” quite fits our brand here as it did for Bookr.

On almost every project I’ve worked on, we put a lot of effort on client-facing parts of the product and tools that are used internally (often called “admin” screens) just don’t get the same treatment.

Have you ever called up a company on the phone and had to wait while the representative has to navigate an extremely complex system or set of systems to get your information? Ok, have you ever called a company at not had that experience? Doesn’t that frustrate you as a customer? Quite often, I’ve had representatives apologize for the poor quality or capabilities of their software. As a software developer, I don’t want this ever to happen with my products.

So in the last two companies, I’ve been working to promote as much, or nearly as much, effort on the design and thoughtfulness and usefulness of “admin” screens as I do on the client facing stuff.

For Blueprint, not only are our clients using the product directly, but account managers and analysts use the product for consultative services. They get the benefit of client-facing tools, but when they cross into the “admin” parts of the site I don’t want them to feel put off.  We are constantly looking at the tools we have built for managing, tracking and maintaining client accounts and client information — tools that clients don’t have access to — and they way we use those tools to try to make sure they can be simple and sexy.