Will Thomas, Head of Design at Nested

Looking back over your career, have there been any particular milestones where you thought, “I’m a better UI designer now”?

When I was at MyBuilder I remember we had this particular interface where tradespeople accept jobs. I remember looking at it and thinking, “I have no idea how I could improve on this”. We revisited it years later and it was very obvious what we could improve.

Comparing my approach over those years, I went from no ideas to being faced with the same problem years later and thinking, “Oh OK, I can handle this”. It’s sort of like your hair growing. You barely notice it on a day to day basis, but then years later you think, “Oh wow, I need to get a haircut”. Someone might see you when they haven’t seen you in ages, and the difference is plain as day to them.

I wouldn’t be able to point to a specific moment where I thought, “Aha, I’ve been hit with radiation and now I have the power to design things”, you know, it was never like that. It was a slow burn.

How much of your improvement in UI design has been intentional, and how much do you only notice in retrospect?

I’ve never been on courses to learn how to do these things. I’ve read a few books here and there, but I think most improvements are down to experience in the field as a professional practitioner.

That experience comes from being presented with unique situations that you have to adapt to, and you learn by doing. Eventually you’ll start to notice patterns and you’ll see themes emerging between projects and you develop this toolkit of how to tackle these things.

When you’re starting out as a junior it’s very much an inherited toolkit. You’ll look at things like Dribbble and that’ll be where you go to find patterns that you can use to get around problems. As you develop in your career, rather than drawing from an external resource you’ll draw from your own history and wealth of experience. You’ll think, “Oh that project I worked on several years ago had a similar thing and we tackled it by doing this, but it’s got a slight tweak so I’ve got to borrow from over there”.

The more you do and try things out, and the more confident you get just experimenting, the more confident you’ll be making those design decisions.

Can you give a practical example?

Recently at work we had a chart that we’re going to present to someone to educate them about their home sale, so they can make a better decision about when to accept an offer. We found there’s this two week period at the beginning of their sale when they’re most likely to get offers, so they should really accept offers within that time. We wanted to show them that interest was going to drop off after those two weeks.

What we did was highlight those first two weeks in the graph. Then we put a big orange box above the graph that said “Your first two weeks are really important”. We went into user testing and asked people about the graph and they’re so fixated on the graph that they completely ignore the big orange box that’s shouting at them. The graph is interesting data and everything else around it is just cruft, you know, “I can figure this out for myself”. People were completely missing the point.

So instead we included the orange highlight in the legend of the graph, because people were already looking there. Just knowing from experience that people are going to ignore the stuff around the graph, we knew to put it elsewhere.

Otherwise we could have spent hours and hours trying different treatments of the same message. Do we put it above, below, to the side? None of them would have worked. From that research we knew where their attention was.

It’s exactly the same when you’re working with interactive elements like forms. I don’t know if you’ve ever done self-assessment with HRMC, but if you present someone with that form they will ignore ALL of the guidance at the top and then they’ll get stuck so they’ll think, “Fine I’ll read that paragraph” and they’ll find out what they did wrong. If they’d just designed the form with that in mind rather than having to read an essay first, it wouldn’t have been a problem.

The graph example is interesting. A layout choice pre-empted the visual design work you might have done.

Well, it’s exploiting where you know the user’s attention will be. You have to meet them where they are, you can’t expect them to come to you necessarily. Another example is a pie chart we worked on, where you had enquiries coming in. People who were interested in your home were split into three segments: people we were chasing who we hadn’t resolved, people who went on to book a viewing, and those who didn’t. So the pie chart splits that out and you can see of this list of people roughly how they ended up.

What we found was rather than clicking the “View all enquiries” button people were trying to click the segments on the pie chart. When you think about it, knowing who’s still being chased and who might end up viewing is a much more compelling user concern that just seeing all of the enquiries.

Again, it’s knowing what the user is likely to be interested in, what their focus is on, what their questions are, and what they want to know. You can use that to focus your UI design on your audience’s interest. You’re only going to know that with experience, or having conducted some sort of customer research.

Have there been times when you intentionally learned about a particular area of visual design?

I think the visual side of design comes into play more when you work with brand guidelines. As a UI designer I think you work within the guide-rails of the branding, right? Usually you’re just looking for patterns.

What I’ve learned with experience is that there’s no need to be novel for the sake of being novel. There’s a lot of good patterns out there. Stick to them, there’s probably one that solves your problem. Sometimes you’re going to have to go off-piste a little bit, but I don’t know if I’ve ever gone out of my way to find a specific UI treatment.

I think that’s just something you pick up and accumulate with time. Or you get stuck and you want some inspiration so you look around and see what other people are doing.

Looking at other people’s work seems to be a big source of inspiration.

Yeah, but I try to avoid it in terms of style for the sake of style. It’s usually that I want to see how someone has solved a problem and the style is incidental.

Do you think there are other ways you’ve unintentionally improved as a visual designer?

I think visual design inspiration comes from any and all things. You can develop a stylistic flair just by watching the films of John Carpenter or any director who has a heavy-handed visual style. I don’t think it has to be limited to specific things within our discipline. Just take it all in, be open to things.

I wouldn’t necessarily have to point someone in any one direction. I know based on some discussions that have been floating around the community that the 60s and 70s graphic design masters are a great place to understand gestalt design principles and things like that. People like Milton Glaser, Saul Bass, Bruno Minari, those sorts of folks.

Where do you see the connection between the work of someone like Saul Bass, who is famous for film posters among other things, and UI design?

There’s UI design and there’s UI design, right? There’s a lot of stuff like form design where you don’t want to stray too far from the norms. Those sorts of UI heuristics are so thoroughly baked into people. You see an input and you know what it is, what the rules are, you know how to play with it.

I don’t expect anyone to go look at a Saul Bass poster and think, “Oh wow, I’ve thought of a radical way to reinvent form inputs”.

But particularly in terms of broader design principles that can be brought to UI design, there’s always going to be some projects that have more scope for that sort of visual flair, like a marketing landing page.

It entirely depends what it is that you’re trying to achieve. I guess it’s knowing when to be pragmatic or a bit more grounded and to conform to those expected design heuristics, and when you can afford to be more experimental.

What have been the hardest areas of UI design to learn about?

I think those areas I talked about with more established rules. You need to know the rules of the game. Luke Wroblewski has literally written the book on form design, so you’d probably be foolish to ignore all of that advice.

It’s out there, there are people who have got form conversion down to an art and a science, so I think if you don’t feel particularly confident in those areas then you should definitely go and brush up on those. There are plenty of resources to figure out how to make a form convert.

Otherwise, I think it’s a case of being perceptive, letting inspiration strike you in the right place, being open to things when they come to you, and experimenting and trying things.

There’s this great story about a ceramics class. The teacher splits the class in half and tells one half to make just one pot for the entire term and they’ll be graded on the quality of the single pot. The other half is told they’ll be graded on how many pots they make.

The people who made a hundred pots ended up producing work that was of much higher quality than the people who only had to make one pot because they did it hundreds and hundreds of times, over and over again, figuring out the mistakes and learning as they went.

The people who only made one pot didn’t need to experiment, they didn’t need to try things over and over again. They just went with the best idea they had at the beginning, but if you try to make one hundred pots you’ll realise the first idea you had was garbage and you’ve moved on, so you keep trying and experimenting.

How important is it to have someone stand there and tell you what they think of each of the hundred pots?

Feedback is incredibly important. You’ll make a degree of improvement independently, just trying things and assessing yourself, learning to develop your own critical eye. But that process can only be accelerated by having that critical input from someone else, as long as it’s constructive and it comes the right place.

I’m a huge advocate of having mentors, or if nothing else just a sounding board to say, “What do you think of this? Am I heading in the right direction?”.

At the same time I’d encourage people to not let critique stop them from trying things out and exploring ideas quickly. Don’t be precious with your ideas, don’t take it personally if someone doesn’t like them, just keep going and try something else. That’s the best way to improve quickly.

Definitely having someone who’s already developed that critical eye, to guide you in the right direction and set you on the right path, is a great thing. I think one of the things a mentor can do is just give you that confidence, to say “keep going”.

Earlier you mentioned at MyBuilder that there was a span of a few years where you could look back and see your own improvement. Was MyBuilder a place where you had lots of that critical input from others?

It was pretty much just me for a long time. In hindsight I wish I could have found an environment where there were more people around me to bounce ideas off. Especially as you start your career it pays dividends to be in a larger creative environment with people who are more talented than you.

You can learn independently, but you’re going to learn faster with those people around you, pushing you in the right direction.

I often had to reach out to other designers in places like the Triangles design community, to get that helpful push in the right direction. If you have that feedback, that seniority, that person in a mentoring position on your doorstop, that’s only a good thing.

What do you think about the idea that some people naturally have an eye for visual design?

I think there’s a grain of truth to that. I think it’s probably true that UX is a different discipline. It’s more of a science and is easier to teach. Visual design comes with a bit of flair, but I don’t think that means it’s not for everyone. A lot of people say they can’t draw so they’ll never be good at drawing, but if you keep drawing every day you’ll get better at it.

Do you think you naturally have an eye for visual design?

I’ve inherently tended towards visual disciplines for pretty much my whole life. If you go back through my old exercise books from primary school, it’s all just drawings. Mostly of Sonic the Hedgehog. I was always drawn to art, design technology, those sorts of subjects at school.

Do you rely on any resources to keep your design skills sharp?

I imagine a lot of the resources I used in the past might not be relevant any more. I used to read Smashing Magazine and that sort of stuff ten years ago.

I’m reluctant to send people towards Dribbble. It can be useful, but particularly when you’re just starting out it just brings you down and depresses you. There’s a lot of stuff that looks good, but you don’t know if it actually solves any problems, so I think it’s like flagellating yourself for no good reason.

I think the best inspiration apart from the graphic design greats I’ve already mentioned is colleagues, peers, and communities like Triangles. You can put an idea out there and see how people respond to it.

Talking to other practitioners is such a good way to see real grounded examples of people using design in interesting ways.

Are there any professional UI designers whose work you follow?

I definitely followed people a lot more when I started out, but now I just try to rely on my own instincts. So I’d be reluctant to call anyone out these days.

If you started again from scratch how would you approach learning UI design?

Yeah, that’s a tricky question.

As I said before, keep experimenting, keep trying things. Make a hundred pots, don’t make one. Find other people who are interested in doing the same thing and talk to them often.

There’s definitely a lot of good books and other resources out there, but I think the focus should be on making things, talking to customers, trying things out.

It always has to come back to who you’re designing things for, right? There’s so much value in anecdotal evidence. Get out there and talk to people who are using this stuff that you’re making. That’s probably the fastest way to learn.