Since moving to Manchester just over a month ago now (just one benefit of having multiple offices across the UK), I’ve been out meeting loads of new people, getting settled in and making new friends. People ask about family, Glasgow and what brings me to Manchester. Then it comes to my career; “So, what do you do for work?”.

The question to start or end all conversations. Mostly, because I’m so passionate about my job. I can talk about work until I’m blue in the face, perhaps at times, killing any chance of further conversation.

I’ve often discovered that when talking about my job, people get confused and don’t actually grasp what I do. Then it dawned on me, even my family don’t really know what I do. My mum tells people I’m a graphic designer, “he designs posters and logos and things like that” I guess it’s easier to explain. My grandparents probably think I just draw pictures all day, like when I was a child sitting at the dining room table (I only do that for part of the day, gran).

stephen-what-i-do

Most of the time when answering this question I just tell people I’m a designer. Sometimes that’s enough for people, but when they say “what is it that you design”, it becomes that bit harder to answer. I design websites, I’ll often say. But wait, I design more than that - journeys, interactions, transactions, interfaces, apps, experiences, digital stories and brands.

It surprises me how many people have no inkling as to how much work can actually be involved in creating a successful digital experience. I’m so absorbed and involved in my industry that I forget that your everyday user doesn’t need to consider the things I do when they’re on a website. In fact, the less the user has to think about what they’re doing, the better we’ve done in successfully implement a smooth user experience. This is both pleasing, yet oddly disappointing, as a lot of the time, user experience design goes unnoticed by the untrained eye.

People think that when a company wants a new website, they just get one at the drop of a hat. Done. But there’s so much more to creating a great website. The way we work is all about adding value and designing with purpose; integrating with clients to become an extended part of their team.

So mum, if you’re reading this, I hope it sheds a little light on what I get up to every day at work.

As an agency, we can start at the point of creation of the brief. On rare occasions, this is a collaborative process where clients know they want something new, but are not exactly sure what it is they need or how it will benefit their company. Other times, our strategic consultants work to create detailed roadmaps with the client, to help them to identify KPIs and map out any digital needs against business objectives. And, on other (more common) occasions, we’re not brought into the process until it's time to pitch and deliver.

Working with clients at the inception of a project is a great experience. It gives me the unique experience of feeling like part of their team, whilst keeping my job extremely interesting. It enables me to work in a variety of companies and industries; from clients like the Glasgow City Marketing Bureau, the Donmar Warehouse in London and to the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. Every client brings amazing experience and insights, which enrich and educate. I’ve made great connections and have learnt an incredible amount. Mostly, because they want the best for their users, just as I do so, we spur each other on to create something great together.

The discovery session begins with understanding the expectations of the project and what the key performance indicators are to create a clear definition of what success looks like for this project. We then begin to explore the various user groups for the new interface, within which we identify key user personas. This can involve auditing client’s existing research, conducting our own, as well as running workshops.

A user persona is a more detailed and personal look at the users of the website (albeit at a somewhat generic level). The reason for creating these personas is to understand the people using the website, their competencies and limitations, the level of digital sophistication, the types of devices they’re using and interactions they may have had with the brand. This ensures we design experiences that are relatable and relevant, with the user’s needs in mind from day one, as opposed to only thinking about what the business wants. If we focused primarily on what the client wants (and not their audiences), we run the risk of creating something unfit for purpose, that could fail to make a connection with users. Like all good design, a website must have clear purpose.

We build personas with names and characteristics. They can have ages, jobs, relationships, hobbies and affiliations. This may seem trivial to some, but they help to create a sense of reality, which ensures that whilst we’re designing something digital, it is based on human elements. These personas can and should evolve as we interact with real users (whether that be in workshops, usability testing or post website launch). These personas don’t just help the design process, but can also go on to inform marketing and tone of voice, enabling marketing teams to develop more effective communications.

Critically, we then go on to establish user scenarios. These are the needs stipulated by the client (whether that be to purchase a product or service, to locate information, to apply for a job or to a course or to buy tickets for a show).

From these personas, we create user journeys; these are the routes the user is likely to take through the website to achieve their goals. These journeys take into consideration the multiple brand touchpoints and varying user flows. They are based on an understanding of information architecture and strict content prioritisation. Some journeys can be very straight forward, whilst others have complex logic and multiple outcomes. Put simply though, they need to be crafted in order to allow the user to reach their goal in the most intuitive way possible (usually with the least possible clicks). They need to be designed so that they are both familiar to the user and easily learnable.

"You may note that I’ve not really spoken about anything really visual yet. This can be where the confusion with digital design comes in. Design is often seen to be pretty pictures and outputs, but there are so many steps before we get to that stage. Steps that are vital on complex web development projects".

- Stephen Kay

Using these journeys we can establish the content requirements and navigational elements of a website (resulting in a refined sitemap). This allows us to begin the wireframing process. Wireframes are like the blueprints to your website. We start low-fi wireframing during our discovery workshops with our clients, allowing them to feed into this process and visualise our thinking together. The benefit - we can speed up the design process by gaining immediate feedback and educating the client around design decisions as they are being made.

“The After Digital wireframing process meant that we were 90% of the way there before we even finished our discovery meeting.”

- Digital Project Manager, EDF Energy Group

In a world dominated by connected devices and growing mobile web traffic, we always start the design process from a mobile-first perspective, working within the limitations of smaller screen real estate. This encourages far more stringent content prioritisation, ensuring the focus remains on the needs of the end user within page structure and design. These basic (hand-drawn) wireframes are then digitally reworked into high-res annotated versions.

During wireframing, we’ll create interactive mood boards with clients, to visualise design aspirations and begin to explore functional elements. These create a shared vision of where we see the design going and support more effective deliverables.

Once wireframes are signed off, we can start to look at how these visual elements can be developed within the website, combining our research, the personas, mood boards and branding. Part of my job is to take needs and wants and translate them into visual concepts. By working closely with the client team, we ensure the ideas developed are in line with their expectations but also challenge perspectives, with clear reasoning and rationale. Each design decision, from colour to spacing to rendering, impacts the overall look, feel, experience and effectiveness. The positioning of a button or the line weight of an icon can impact the likelihood of conversion or the ability to complete a key user journey.

Unlike graphic design, each digital design needs to consider devices, user context and behaviours should aim to replicate the tactility of the physical world, so that motion provides meaning. Small movements, hover states, action outputs and subtle details provide significant visual cues, which aid the user’s overall experience. But, digital design also has to be considerate of accessibility standards and development limitations.

This is just a small insight into some of the work I do and, yet, I’ve rambled on for some 1.5k+ words - you can see now why it’s a conversation killer. Perhaps I’ll have this printed and bound to hand out to my family.

If you’re interested in becoming a digital or UX designer and want to know more, just get in touch. I’m happy to answer any questions.