“The strategy is right, but I’m not feeling the design.”

Scene: the visual design review

The design project has gone well so far. The researchers have delivered confidence-inspiring data while uncovering new opportunities. The interaction designers have balanced function and persuasion with poise. The team feels excited because they see a working product coming into view. It’s time to look at the experience in full color, as the user will see it. And there are no surprises. It’s clean. Effective. Then the boss — the big boss — at the end of the table speaks. She’s been half-following the meeting so far, distracted, eyeing her screens. She’s not feeling the design. It’s hard to say what’s missing. It just needs to be more … dynamic? It doesn’t pop.

What this team is discovering (too late), is that the boss harbored an unspoken ambition for this product that had not been captured. Yes, the boss wants it to work as promised. But she also wants a particular sort of flair and appeal that she can proudly take to market.

She wants screenshots that sell.

When the feels become a factor, where do software teams even start? Visual design and copy decisions throw subjective obstacles into an otherwise linear design process. Because humans see color, shape, images, and words through personal and cultural filters, two intelligent people can disagree on creative aspects and they may both be right.

Aesthetics still matter.

Powerful, easy utility is a key facet of branding in our app age. But unattractive software communicates low value to customers, no matter how useful the tech may be. Even well-functioning but drab experiences rob a product of potential goodwill among users. An inspired product experience endears users to shop, adopt, revisit, and share a product. Software teams who make creative decisions by taste alone are just guessing. Even worse, they miss opportunities to craft a strategic product story.

Consensus doesn’t happen by luck.

Reasonable people disagree over aesthetics because they lack common context. The color orange, a curvy font, or a playful call to action invoke disparate gut responses from person to person. Among a team with broad tastes and experiences, creative decision-making doesn’t have to be stilted by miscommunication. Harmonious discussions flourish when the team members articulate the creative parameters before they design. The tool for fostering that shared understanding is the creative brief.

A creative brief lays the early foundation for the product's persuasive goals. Judgement will always attend the creative conversation, but teams working from a brief begin their process in a collaborative mindset because they share a narrative. The team that defines their intended feels early can look forward to a productive critique later.

Stop. Don't design yet.

When design ideas come from thin air, feedback is equally ethereal. Teams that skip the brief enter the design review without a foundational story to pursue. Brief-less reviews feature plenty of cajoling, speech-giving, negotiating, and sometimes bullying. Imagine a boat without a sail or a navigator. Each crewmember is paddling in his or her own direction, according to his or her own mental map.

Now imagine that same boat under a clear north star with a single map and a big sail. Charting a course with a creative brief can be a simple exercise. While some briefs fill entire books, a one-pager is often enough. Just get something in writing.

Crafting your story.

  • Find your voice. How do you want the user to feel when they engage with you? What is the character and tone of your brand? How does the software experience express that personality? A clear characterization of intended perceptions guides the designer's creative choices.
  • Define your differentiator. How does your product fit in the market? What unique place are you staking in the customer's mind? Pinpoint your position in context of other brands. Use that awareness to know when to follow design convention and when to chart your own course.
  • Plot your narrative. What is the origin of your product? Is it a continuation of an established tradition, or a break from convention? Does your product have some history connecting it to an aesthetic heritage? Or are you leading users to the future? Your answers will determine the fonts, colors, images, and words you choose.
  • Understand your promise. What will customers tell their friends about your product? Acknowledge the pre-purchase context so you can address customer expectations directly. Those expectations will guide you toward particular aesthetic choices.

Know that creative considerations will always feel uncertain. That's why visual design and writing is thrilling work. Encourage debate. Expect passion. Make that discourse count by laying the groundwork first. Happy designing.