Make it pop? Oh God, make it stop!

Phrases like make it pop, wow factor, have fun with it, and jazz it up sound like nails on a chalkboard to a designer. And if you’re not dead yet, ‘make it sexy’. They are meaningless buzzwords, no different than “synergy,” “diversify” or “innovation” — words that get thrown around so often in business.

“Designers are missionaries for art within the world of business.” – anonymous

While it’s on designers to learn the language of business in order to explain design decisions, giving them more usable feedback will improve communication and result in better refinement.

Embracing design as a core competency means non-designer stakeholders should strengthen their role by learning to speak the language of design. Otherwise, things get confusing. ‘Make it pop’ could be interpreted as:

    A visceral reaction
    The design is missing context
    Something feels off

Visceral reactions are strong emotive responses that are difficult to evoke. Ferrari does it on a regular basis with their beautiful Italian exotics. However, there is only one Ferrari.

A product’s intended environment is likely not a boardroom, an 8.5’x11′ sheet of paper or a trade show. Designs often look out of place on a monitor but function well in their intended environment. Comparatively the opposite is more often true.

Understanding Design Fundamentals
When providing a critique, stakeholders should clearly express what they’re feeling and why. Only by understanding basic design principles can one explain why a design doesn’t work. Here are some resources to help build basic design fluency:

Composition

Color Theory

Typography

Consistency

I also recommend Donald Norman’s book Design of Everyday Things. It explains good design and how to avoid mistakes that translate into poor experiences.

When thinking about design, pay close attention to objects, services or routines performed on a daily basis. Why are they frustrating or pleasant? What makes that red sports car look great? How does an OS apply microinteractions? Could the parking lot be more efficient? Turning off autopilot opens up new ways of seeing and experiencing the environment.

Providing Actionable Feedback
Criticism is polish. It’s not an exercise in negativity. Describe what works, if pinpointing what doesn’t isn’t forthcoming. Designers use critiques in seeking the root of a problem. Through practice it becomes second nature and is known as the iterative process. Critiquing is a learned skill.

Think editor lite. Editors have knowledge of grammar and understand the intentions of a piece. Feedback is provided in the form of corrections and suggestions. The goal is to raise concerns or provide criticism that results in focused iteration. When offering feedback:

Start at the beginning:

    Who is the user?
    What are the original project goals?
    What problem(s) are you trying to solve?
    Is the visual design supposed to create an emotional reaction?
    Does the brand play an important visual role?

Experience

    Are problems addressed meaningfully?
    Is the visual design impairing usability?
    Are the pain points being solved?
    Are the right design paradigms being introduced for navigation, buttons, messages and different states?
    Does it pass the Uber test? Does it need to? (The Uber test: I turn on my phone, run Uber, hit a button, and I’ll know exactly when and where my personal chariot will magically arrive.)
    Clicks are not a good way to measure efficiency and usability. Fewer clicks resulting in a better experience is a fallacy. If they are consequential, don’t worry about 3 clicks versus 4.

Color and typography

    Is the color palette defined?
    Are colors harmonious with the brand and meet the aesthetic requirements?
    What font styles are used? Do they work? If so, how? (Sans-serif fonts make great headers. Serif fonts lend themselves better to reading large blocks of text. Thin fonts can cause readability issues.)
    Don’t use more than two different font families.
    Don’t mar your design with poor grammer.

Composition

    How is information being displayed? Can it be simplified?
    Is a grid being applied? Is there enough breathing room? Check spacing and margins.
    Is there balance within the design?
    Do icons make sense? Icons can be powerful but they also cause confusion if they aren’t well established. Do they have a similar style? Icon families should have similar visual characteristics.
    Can animation be applied in a meaningful way to reduce complexity and increase understanding?

Consistency

    Check for consistency: paradigms, alignment, colors, UI elements (buttons, labels/headers, dropdowns, checkboxes, text fields).
    Do consistent behaviors relate to each other visually?

(If you want to go deeper, here’s further reading on polishing and critiquing.)

The Takeaway
Articulating why a particular design doesn’t work is the core of what ‘make it pops’ means. If the organization has bought into design then it requires an understanding of design. Expressing meaningful feedback will render the design team successful.