In a recent article, designer Cap Watkins recounts an anecdote in which he was interviewing with Amazon. His interviewer asked him a very tough question: ’Would he change anything about the Amazon homepage?’ Watkins responded by deferring to the judgement of the internal design team, pointing out that they likely had very talented designers testing and exploring the possible design avenues for an optimal solution. Still, Watkins had some reservations:
I mean, the page did look pretty terrifyingly bad. There were modules everywhere, products on products on products, a crazy-long left nav that seemed nigh unusable. Why didn’t I just critique the design?
Ceding to the internal design team was a gesture of cooperation, and his insistence on investigating beyond his immediate reaction is the type of trait that is both necessary and desirable for anyone working on a team. Watkins is right, it is very likely there was justification for the way that the page was laid out—there might have been essential legacy code that needed to be maintained for site stability, or maybe there was already an internal redesign in the works. Still, what if there was value missed here? What if Amazon, and companies in general, would benefit from the thoughtful feedback that Watkins, and designers like him, often withhold? It is from this perspective that I want to explore the value of unsolicited redesigns.
The hesitancy of the design community to accept uninformed redesigns appears to come from several perspectives. The first of course, is the annoyance of amateurish or ignorant attempts, which criticize an original design without addressing its intended purpose.
Many have recently criticized what they see as a totally uninformed redesign of the Apple Store website by designers at Amber Creative. On Designer News, the Creative Director of Swirl, Benjamin Rogers, was upvoted 70 times for saying the following:
I’m sorry… I’m going to be frank (and probably get some flak for this). People who don’t understand e-commerce…the basic UX, acquisition best practices, etc need to stop doing these pointless, dibbble-esque [sic] redesigns that serve no purpose other than to look “pretty” in their own eyes…the result is something more akin to an art-school project rather than a real-world one…where you have certain requirements that simply can’t be swept away for the sake of a pretty screenshot in a portfolio…they need to focus on reality.
A second worry of internal design teams is that an uninformed redesign would wrongly distort public perceptions of their product, especially if the redesign seems superior. Their current implementation might be serving users' needs in the ideal manner, only to have the wider community wrongly criticize it, not knowing their design constraints. This is a valid position.
What I am skeptical of is a third perspective, an unwillingness to be open to feedback out of a fear of being seen as fallible. It is this closed-minded, fragile position that I am concerned is behind a good deal of the opposition to unsolicited redesigns. It’s understandable that after working for weeks, months or even years to build a design that one would be frustrated by an outsider criticizing their designs, but it is shortsighted to universally disregard the usefulness of an outsider’s perspective.
Given their nature, unsolicited redesigns cannot fully gather the context or rationale behind a private design decision that an internal team has made. Still, uninformed redesigns can be a very valid way for us to respond to the products we use everyday. Their value is precisely to point to new ways of thinking. Watkins very well argued for this in a subsequent post: “The most effective design critiques challenge our premises and assumptions.” In this way, even without knowing the full context of a design decision, an uninformed redesign can happen upon insightful and valuable feedback for a design team. This includes feedback that comes from the oft-dismissed perspective of aesthetics. If nothing else, an uninformed redesign demonstrates an attentive, helpful and appreciative user, one so engaged that they are willing to provide what could be hours of work to give what they hope is useful design feedback. I think that it is from this position that we should not only permit, but encourage unsolicited redesigns. In the same way, we would be wise to acknowledge that by inviting constructive criticism, we ultimately build stronger designs and products.
Feb ’15 Update:
It turns out that Amber Creative has been vindicated. Apple ended up redesigning their site and the prescriptions by Amber Creative now have become apt predictions in hindsight. This only serves to reinforce my point, that uninformed redesigns are often more informed than we might think.
It turns out there was indeed a major redesign in the works. ↩