Designing the internet
The internet is important. People love it. But it takes work to make the internet. There’s a lot of stuff going on under the hood. And working under that hood are the mechanics. The mechanics of the internet. They come in many forms: engineers, project managers, the designer. All working together to deliver the internet.
Of course, if you’ve ever worked in an office, you know people enjoy bad metaphors for simple concepts. These metaphors might be used with evil intentions, to disguise a bad idea. Or they might be a helpful and consumable way to communicate ideas to individuals across disciplines.
Designers love a convoluted metaphor. Much of what creates a great experience on the internet, and in designs, may be learned from simple things. Even from something as simple as a tree. And along the way, while learning, we can enjoy many great tree-related puns.
1. Be solid in your trunk.
An apple tree with a paltry trunk may feed a few, but without the proper support, it can never hold the fruit to feed a city.
In the same way, great design requires a scalable foundation in the code. Designers often underestimate the importance of bringing in engineers early to build this trunk. Want to have super-fast search results? Want that page to load in all the juicy data quickly? Want to refresh things at the right moment? Engineers must understand what your users will want to do with the system.
These are not only people to help execute your vision, but also to help form it. Choices made at the beginning in the language, libraries, and databases they choose can affect the possibilities of your application in the future.
Planting the seed early ensures that engineers and other stakeholders can help the minimum viable product flourish into the design of your, and your users’, dreams.
2. Branches can be broken.
Break a limb off a tree, and that limb will grow anew. In this way, trees are modular and easily healed.
It’s no coincidence that there is a brilliant concept in coding called “branching” which allows for individuals to work independently or in sub-teams on features. They can easily review features and then push them into the overall codebase. This model allows them to roll back changes which negatively affected the product. Because each person has their own branch, when problems arrise, it’s easy to assign responsibility and work together to mend them. As these branches come together, the features that a user truly cares about are able to bloom.
3. Not all soil is equal.
Healthy trees, if planted in the wrong soil, will wither and die. If a tree does not get enough light, if it is overshadowed by buildings or smothered by smog, it cannot flourish.
Designers often forget that outside of the pixel-perfect world of Photoshop and Fireworks there exists an entire business landscape with competitors, shareholders, expectations, and narratives. These keep a business sustainable and get the designers paid. Even the noblest organizations must respond to these external pressures, and frankly, design is not always the most important aspect of a product.
Helping to contribute to this narrative, while balancing user goals, is a key ingredient to maintaining a great working relationship with stakeholders and to understanding how different iterations of a design can enter the landscape.
4. We exist in an orchard.
Every tree you see must stand on its own, but it must also be placed relative to every other tree you’ve experienced in your life. A birch tree is a birch tree, but it also exists among other trees, and amongst your hometown. In the same way, a web application has a role, a place, and expectations. You can’t search the Internet anymore without comparing the engine to the speed and efficiency of Google’s search. All other search bars are broken, because user expectations have shifted.
Whether you’re designing an e-commerce site, a news outlet, or your own personal homepage, you must understand how your site exists with all the others in your ecosystem. Can your site tower above the competition? Are you offering the user a weeping willow when they were expecting a plum tree?
5. People only see the flowers and taste the fruit.
When you take a look at a tree, what catches your eyes most is the beauty of the flowers. What you experience might be the grandeur of its height, the shade it provides, or the taste of one of its apples. Trees, like web applications, can provide millions of different experiences: to one person a place to rest, to another an annoyance blocking their window from sunlight, to another lumber for a ship home.
And that’s the rub: no matter how great the design or how elegant the code base, few users ever see what’s under the hood. When users do view the final product, they may only see it in a flash as they navigate through it to accomplish their goals.
To this end, designers must focus on the fit and finish of the final product. It’s not enough to deliver a beautiful picture of a site: designers must see the work of engineers and others through to the end. We have to make the flowers bloom and the fruit sweet.
What this all means
Under the pressure to release a great product, it’s easy to get lost in the woods. Staring at a blank canvas, the possibilities can be overwhelming. It’s easy to get lost. But then we must look at the simple and sturdy tree, and remember: it too was once just a seed in fertile ground.
So get planting!