Designing in public

Online content producers and software developers are learning new lessons about opening up their design process to public scrutiny. Good design firms involve and include their clients early and often in many of the design decisions. Both independent and commercial content producers are experiencing a closer connection with their users and/or readers by treating them the same. The recent trend of baring all is proving a very fascinating and eye-opening experience for the site developers and for those of us paying attention to — and sometimes particpating in — these public redesigns.

On the independent front, Jeffrey Zeldman, is already a good way through his second public redesign. He’s been sharing his thinking and techniques, along with the glitches and browser discrepencies he’s run into along the way. I’m sure he’s been receiving lots of feedback in the process, both good and bad. As the feedback continues to pour in, Jeffrey can choose to ignore it, or react to it, possibly altering the direction in which he may have originally started.

On a commercial front, the current Macromedia redesign is one excellent case-in-point. When they launched it, they intentionally called it a beta design. Pushing out their design in this beta stage opened up Macromedia to lots of scrutiny and criticism, including some that spewed from my own keyboard soon after they launched. An article by David Becker for summarized the criticism for the site’s failure to work in certain browsers, as well as its hindered accessibility. The redesign has also has also drawn a typical amount of fire from users over at MetaFilter.

But Macromedia has been soliciting and listening to user feedback. Their Beta 1 Progress Report admits some early mistakes and bad assumptions, and describes the steps they’ve taken to fix some of the issues users were complaining about. For those of us who’ve worked in large companies, we can also read between the lines to pick up on the internal politics and struggles Macromedia has been going through in their design process.

Both Craig Saila and Todd Dominey hit on some good points of Macromedia’s redesign, iteration, and recent progress report. Of particular interest is some of the discussion building up in Todd’s comments section for that post.

Apple’s Safari team is also keeping eyes and ears open as they continue to iterate and add features to their [currently] beta browser. Dave Hyatt is regularly reporting fixes and modifications the team is making. He’s also obviously paying close attention to other weblogs and comments left on his own site. We’ve witnessed the Safari team fix bugs and add new features right before our eyes. Through forums like Dave’s weblog, Safari developers have an instant means to collect feedback and poll user reaction to any changes they make — or still need to make.

Just as inline usability testing and focus groups can help identify problems, refine ideas, and improve the end product before it’s released, we’re all learning the value of sharing part of the design process with a large segment of people who will be using the product on a regular basis.

Expect to see a lot more website and software redesigns happening in broad daylight for all to see over the next year. As we drop preconceptions that design must be final and polished before it gets released to the public, we transform the decision-making process. And we just might end up with a lot more products and sites that people actually want to use.