Bringing It Back to the User

November 5, 2008

In late April 2008, I attended An Event Apart in New Orleans. Firstly, let me just say that the conference was one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life; I highly recommend it to any web professional. After the first day of lectures, (mt) Media Temple hosted a party for all conference attendees and presenters at Crescent City Brewhouse. While there, I had the extraordinary opportunity to meet Jeffrey Zeldman (Godfather of Web Standards) and even talk with him for awhile.

Jeffrey Zeldman by Adrian Q
Jeffrey Zeldman. Photo by Adrian Q.

I, of course, complimented him on his lecture and told him how much I was enjoying the conference (and the free beer). After the pleasantries, I wanted to ask him a few questions that couldn’t possibly be better answered by anyone else in the industry. I asked him how to overcome that feeling of “average-ness” that new designers often experience. To which he concisely replied, “Almost everyone goes through that. Just keep working hard.” I then asked him my #1 most important question, “How do you get your clients to listen to you?” His answer was perfectly on point:

“Always bring it back to the user.”

I won’t go into what he said after that, but that statement alone was profound enough for it to change my entire perspective on web design. When Zeldman told me to bring it back to the user, he wasn’t just giving me a method for convincing clients that my design motives were legitimate. He was also swiftly pointing out one of my own flaws as a designer: I had been designing for my clients, instead of for their users. After I realized that, I’d swear I saw a heavenly light shining down on him and could faintly hear the hymn of angels.

Since then, I’ve changed. My designs are almost exclusively centered around the user’s experience, instead of purely aesthetics. It’s better to let the appearance of the site come more as a function of the interface design, instead of just “making sure it looks pretty.” Besides, simple is beautiful.

I’ll never forget what Jeffrey Zeldman said to me that night. And I truly hope it’s something other designers (and clients) can take to heart as well.

P.S. – Happy Birthday to my brother, Spencer. 🙂