Paul McAleer

Just a Simple Observation

Paul McAleer

Several weeks ago I was presenting work to a client. This was the first time they had seen a visual representation of the work we had done so far – these were wireframes, and we had been talking business requirements and information architecture and all that important stuff. Here then was the look and feel (although I had to caveat that it wasn't complete, because wireframes) and the way information would be laid out (although I had to caveat that it wasn't complete, because the IA and content weren't fully defined).

We walked through the individual screens and the problems they were trying to solve. When we were near the end, one of the clients said to me:

This just doesn’t feel like an ecommerce site.

After a pause, at which my internal dialogue and critic was saying, "Oooooooh sshhiiiiiitttt", I composed myself and asked why. Asking why is the single best thing that has helped me with somewhat cryptic observations from other people. And, to his credit, the client explained it. We conversed about it and I had a clear idea of what he meant.

And he was right. The things I put together didn't feel like an ecommerce site. Mind you, this was an ecommerce site, so I saw that as a failure of my design.


In that observation, that one-liner so plainly delivered and spoken, are a litany of questions and other observations. I was just reading Frank Chimero's superb "Everything Easy is Hard Again"  and this came to mind.

Because not everything had been prepared or prepped leading up to that wireframe review (for reasons), the simple statement about this not feeling like an ecommerce site had many ramifications.

It didn't feel like an ecommerce site because there were a number of elements that were in place to promote the brand. That's cool; that's there because the site had to do heavy-lifting in order to attract customers, many of whom will be new and completely unfamiliar with the company. But those elements are also there because there hadn't been an overall strategy in place around managing product information – it was always ad hoc, and as a result, the current site hadn't been updated in many years. Without that product information, parts of my work felt hollow: I could certainly make recommendations for content, but this wasn't final. So I could put in, say, a giant spot to talk about product X or Y but no one knows what the "talk about it" part is, who would write it, and how it would sound.

In short, the design wasn't working as hard as it could have due to a lack of content strategy and product detail. But, there were visual elements and components that we all now think of when we think "ecommerce site" and those weren't quite there.

It was easy enough for me to update my wireframes, and we did get to a place where the whole thing felt better because of changes to the visual hierarchy and potential content. But the questions remained unanswered in that meeting.

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There's a mindset shift that goes into redesigns and reworks that we don't talk about often enough. Although my collaborators who work in Change Enablement may disagree with me. The ways we worked before, when we didn't have this thing or approach a problem this way, no longer work. If you had one person running a 10,000 page website, maybe that worked – or maybe it's something that is a holdover from a time when this all was easier, simpler, less complex.

I don't want to introduce complexity just to introduce complexity; far from it. When I used to freelance with clients back in the days of "Webmaster" as a valid title, I just did all the things. I still am kinda stunned that I wrote a PIM for a client over a decade ago, totally custom and in PHP, and that was before I even knew what PIM stood for. Nowadays I might think, ah, I need to bring in a developer, and an architect, and a content person, and a change person. It's not just for the sake of doing so; it's because a) I don't have all the answers and b) these people are much better at those specialties than I am.

Some of this dovetails with my own career shift from UI to UX. I worked alongside amazing UI developers at Orbitz, but the thing they had that I lacked was a sincere passion. I started to get to a point where I didn't care about performance, or squeezing out that last thousandth of a second for a page load time. (I mean, I cared, but... not deep down inside. I'm saying this to assure myself it was okay.) UI was becoming more and more complex. I didn't enjoy it. IA and to an extent UX looked more straightforward and elegant. Those were wrong but I've come to accept the grey area that is my field while acknowledging its real boundaries.

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Still, it's all gotten more complex. And so, in order to make something feel a certain way, there is additional work that goes in to it; the work we cannot see.

Just moving black and white boxes on a page doesn't solve it all. But it does make us all feel better in the moment. And at that time, as we set aside the complexity, the questions, the worries, the fears, maybe that's what we truly needed.