Archive for August, 2012

Desktop Wallpaper Calendar: September 2012


We always try our best to challenge your artistic abilities and produce some interesting, beautiful and creative artwork. And as designers we usually turn to different sources of inspiration. As a matter of fact, we’ve discovered the best one—desktop wallpapers that are a little more distinctive than the usual crowd. This creativity mission has been going on for over four years now, and we are very thankful to all designers who have contributed and are still diligently contributing each month.

We continue to nourish you with a monthly spoon of inspiration. This post features free desktop wallpapers created by artists across the globe for September 2012. Both versions with a calendar and without a calendar can be downloaded for free. It’s time to freshen up your wallpaper!

Please note that:

  • All images can be clicked on and lead to the preview of the wallpaper,
  • You can feature your work in our magazine by taking part in our Desktop Wallpaper Calendar series. We are regularly looking for creative designers and artists to be featured on Smashing Magazine. Are you one of them?

Autumn Invaders

"Invaders of autumn are already here. Make sure you are well prepared!" Designed by German Ljutaev from Ukraine.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

Man On The Moon

"A tribute to Neil Armstrong (1930-2012), the first man to ever walk on the moon." Designed by Paula Rupolo For Garment Printing from United Kingdom.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

September Calendar

Designed by Vlad Gerasimov from Russia.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

Photo Manipulation

Designed by Joana Machado from Portugal.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

Beautiful & Bizarre

"The Beautiful is always Bizarre – a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson." Designed by Roland Szabo from Hungary.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

Colorful Trees

Designed by Blazoon.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

Back To School Me Hearties

"19th September is ‘International Talk Like a Pirate Day’ and September is the month our children go back to school after the summer holidays here in the UK. We have combined these two things to bring you the ‘Back to School me Hearties’ desktop wallpaper calendar. We hope you enjoy exploring the wonders of Holiday Island and manage to escape the waiting terrors at School Island! Perhaps you would rather walk the plank and face the shark infested waters than return to School Island?" Designed by Donna Hall and Loren Grosvenor from United Kingdom.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012


"This drawing was done first as a pencil sketch, then traced and colored in Photoshop." Designed by Szabina Korsos from Hungary.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

Chained Lake

"Chain in a lake (Garda, Italy)." Designed by Toci Jimenez from Spain.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

Deadline Bridge

"He who would cross the Deadline Bridge
Must answer me,
These questions three
Ere the other side he see.
— Wallpaper is based on the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”." Designed by Patrycjusz Brzezinski For from Poland.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

Autumn Memories

"September shares with us the end of summer. Autumn is coming, all around is full of orange shades, a perfect weather to relax, to admire the infinite world from your window." Designed by Simona Gosu from Romania.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

Hot September

"Summer’s heat is too exhausting. Let us just rest for a little while." Designed by Zis | Inbal Zissu from Israel.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

Frederique In September

"Frederique is a satiric comic strip about hanging around at beaches, getting rejected by hot chicks and enjoying life with full blown optimism." Designed by Richard Dancsi from Hungary/Germany.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

Head In The Clouds

"Keep your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground." Designed by Kari Andresen from USA.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

Back To School

"A simple illustration capturing the emotions of going back to school." Designed by Mark Mcgall from Northern Ireland.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

September Bliss

"This wallpaper represents both the early autumn (with orange colors) and back to school (with paper texture in the background)." Designed by Elise Vanoorbeek from Belgium.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

Last Days Of Summer

"Summer is saying goodbye to one of Vilnius’ streets." Designed by Karolina Przesmycka from Poland.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

World Literacy Day

Designed by Cheriyan Manalel from India.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

Autumn Owl

Designed by Katerina Bobkova from Ukraine.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

Early Fall

Designed by Colin Whitehurst from USA.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012


"I’m always interested in bridging language and cultures with design. In this wallpaper, I introduce a Chinese idiom with the word ‘Nine’ (in red, pronounced Jiu) – corresponding to September, which is the ninth month of the year. What’s different here is that I’ve constructed my own Chinese words instead of using Chinese fonts – I’ve broken up, joined and bridged glyphs from the Didot font and formed these words – so it’s actually a very visual, design-oriented approach to bridging languages. Hopefully if time permits, I’ll complete the set and do one design for each month, each with a different Chinese idiom containing the number of the month." Designed by Teo Yu Siang from Singapore.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

Under The Sea

Designed by Ana Henao from Colombian in Spain.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012


"A little boy is going to school. His foot traces are as sad as he is." Designed by Mypoint from Poland.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

September Map

"Map for the month." Designed by Sherif Saleh from France.

Smashing Desktop Wallpaper - September 2012

Join In Next Month!

Please note that we respect and carefully consider the ideas and motivation behind each and every artist’s work. This is why we give all artists the full freedom to explore their creativity and express emotions and experience throughout their works. This is also why the themes of the wallpapers weren’t anyhow influenced by us, but rather designed from scratch by the artists themselves.

A big thank you to all designers for their participation. Join in next month!

What’s Your Favorite?

What’s your favorite theme or wallpaper for this month? Please let us know in the comment section below.

Stay creative and keep on smashing!


© Smashing Editorial for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

Art Inspiration for the Weekend Showcase


It has been a while since we compiled a mixed bag of art inspiration for our readers, that spans multiple areas and explores numerous themes. So we thought it was about time to re-deliver on that plan and set all of our readers up for the weekend ahead. Which brings us to the fantastic array of artistic pieces that we have assembled for you below.

Together in this one showcase we have paintings, photographs, sculptures and more. All aimed at getting you on that inspired track and running full steam through any creative projects that come your way over the weekend. With no particular focus we hope that the wide reach will allow for any and all to find a little inspiration in this showcase.

It Begins

Birds are singing by auroraink

Fly me to the moon by Chuchy5

Time machine by AleksCG

cover 07 by phoenixlu

Yin and Yang by Kara-a

Forsaken Stairs by stengchen

Tsuruchi Kosoko by MarioWibisono

Grassflow by IvanAndreevich

Dream Believer by ForestGirl

Cheshire Cat

Open my Heart to You by DestinyBlue

Nature of Zen Key Necklace by KeypersCove

Pixel Vignette: Who are you? by hitogata

Saving Fish from Drowning by BriannaAngelakis

L’oro in bocca – via by Sh000rty

Two by Dark-Sheyn

Praha by takmaj

Strawberries. by andokadesbois

Steampunk Law Enforcer by Guang Shi

Louvre – Watercolor Study by auroraink

I love this boy .2 by Y-n-Y

Firebird feather by LiliaOsipova

Rainbow River by AnnMarieBone

TEA PARTY by alexiuss

Munich, Candidplatz Curve by alierturk

Quiet My Soul III by IsacGoulart


Valley of Aelhar by hontor

Gravestones of civilization by alexiuss

ano koro by nuriko-kun

It Ends

That caps off this end of the collection, but feel free to share your thoughts and favorites with us in the comment section below. Do you have any pieces that always speak to you when you are searching for inspiration? Drop us a link to further the discussion.


Developing Responsive Designs With Opera Mobile Emulator // Free Testing Tool


This is our seventh article in a series that introduces useful and freely available tools and techniques, developed and released by active members of the Web design community. The first article covered PrefixFree; the second introduced Foundation, a responsive framework; the third presented Sisyphus.js, a library for Gmail-like client-side drafts. The fourth shared a free plugin called GuideGuide with us, and later we’ve announced Erskine’s responsive grid generator Gridpak and Remy Sharp’s debugging tool JS Bin.

Back in 2009, when coding version 10 of Opera Mobile, my Opera colleagues decided to tune the Opera Mobile build machine so that it would churn out builds not only for common mobile platforms, but for Windows and Linux as well. Originally intended for quality assurance and testing, these desktop builds proved also to be useful for Web development; being able to use Opera Mobile on a desktop machine took away the need to do all testing on a phone, and the mobile browser window was suddenly only an Alt/Command + Tab away from our text editor — exciting!

So, we decided to iron out the wrinkly bits, added a Mac build channel, and turned it into a publicly available developer tool, called Opera Mobile Emulator. Coming in at a fairly small size, Opera Mobile Emulator can be downloaded for free from Opera’s developer website or from the Mac App Store, and installing it is straightforward. The engine and UI are exactly the same as when you run Opera Mobile on a phone, while desktop-specific hooks, such as the profile selector, keyboard shortcuts and command-line flags, give you a bit of extra debugging power.

Opera Mobile Emulator Profile Selector and Opera Mobile Instance

In this article, we’ll look at how you can use Opera Mobile Emulator to create responsive designs, and we’ll cover some of its more exotic settings.

Disclosure: I work for Opera Software and am the product manager of Opera Mobile Emulator, among other things.

Basic Usage

When launching the emulator, you are greeted with a profile selector. Using the profiles on the left side, you can launch one or more Opera Mobile instances with device-specific settings. For example, selecting the “HTC Desire� profile will launch Opera Mobile in WVGA (480 × 800 pixels) portrait mode with a zoom level of 150%, just like it would on an actual HTC Desire phone. If you select a different profile, a separate Opera Mobile instance will launch with settings to match that profile.

Profile Selector

Pages can be loaded by typing in the URL in the address bar (obviously!), or else by dragging and dropping any file or URL onto the browser window. In-page navigation is similarly easy: clicks match to taps, and you can use pinch gestures on the trackpad to zoom in and out of pages. If the latter does not work on your machine, you can zoom by using the scroll wheel on your mouse or by clicking the “+� and “-� overlays that appear in the browser window when you pan around.

You’ll notice that spawned Opera Mobile instances can be resized from all sides, and the loaded website’s layout will alter accordingly. This is, of course, different from the experience on devices where the browser is a full-screen app, but it comes in very handy when you want to test how your viewport meta tag or media query settings work at different screen sizes. In fact, resizing an Opera Mobile instance to test different layouts will give you a more realistic feel of viewport behavior than doing the same on a desktop browser, because the latter will not respond to different viewport settings, and so viewport-related bugs might get overlooked.

Two Opera Mobile instances

It’s worth noting here that the device-width media query in Opera Mobile Emulator is not querying the width of the computer screen, but rather the width of the launched Opera Mobile instance. Also, if you’re only interested in checking the differences between portrait and landscape orientation, you can use the Alt/Option + R key combo, or click on the “Rotate screen� button in the bottom-right corner.

Of course, everyone’s workflow is different, and I’m here to help make yours more efficient, not dictate to you. Obviously, nothing beats testing on actual devices, because you’ll get an accurate idea of the feel of your website in a mobile setting, on a device with limited CPU and so on. However, actual device testing is finicky, so I prefer to leave it until my project has reached at least alpha quality, preferring a rapid (1) develop, (2) test with Opera Mobile Emulator, (3) debug iteration while getting the project off the ground.

Advanced Launch Options

On the right side of the profile selector, you’ll find a number of profile options.

The “Resolution� drop-down menu gives you a choice between a number of common screen sizes and orientations, with the option to add your own as well. The “Pixel Density� drop-down menu is a list of PPI values: for the HTC Desire, this is 252, which will result in a 150% default zoom and a devicePixelRatio of 1.5 when launched. Selecting a PPI of, for example, 285, on the other hand, will result in a zoom level of 200% and a corresponding devicePixelRatio of 2.

In short, this combination of resolution and pixel density values will differ per profile and affect how the viewport behaves, as well as determine which media queries are applied.

Finally, the “Input� drop-down menu allows you to choose between three input modes to which certain UI and UA changes are tied:

  • “Touchâ€�
    This option will launch Opera Mobile with a UI that is optimized for use on touchscreen phones, and will give it a UA string with Opera Mobi in it.
  • “Keypadâ€�
    This option will launch Opera Mobile with a UI and shortcut keys optimized for non-touchscreen phones — for the developer’s convenience, mouse clicks, panning and zoom gestures will still work, though. The UA string will contain Opera Mobi.
  • “Tabletâ€�
    This option will launch Opera Mobile with a tablet-optimized UI. In this case, the UA string will contain Opera Tablet.

Opera Mobile instances with tablet, touch and keypad input

Launching With Arguments

The last option in the profile selector is the Arguments field, which is arguably the most powerful one of the bunch. In it, you can type a number of arguments or flags, which will be used to launch a new Opera Mobile instance. For example, -displaysize 320 × 480 -url will launch Opera Mobile with a window size of 320 × 480 pixels and will load

These flags also work from the command line. By default, the Opera Mobile Emulator is executable from the following locations:

  • Mac
    /Applications/Opera Mobile
  • Windows
    C:\Program Files\Opera Mobile Emulator\
  • Linux

Repeating our last example would then look as follows:

  • Mac
    ./Opera\ Mobile -displaysize 320x480 -url
  • Windows
    OperaMobileEmu.exe -displaysize 320x480 -url
  • Linux
    operamobile -displaysize 320x480 -url

Two arguments that come in very handy when testing responsive designs are -displayzoom and -monitorppi:

  • -displayzoom
    This is useful if you want to reduce the size that an Opera Mobile instance takes up on your desktop, while preserving its reported width and height values, devicePixelRatio and so on. In other words, if you want to try out the “Samsung Galaxy Noteâ€� profile, which results in a browser with a size of 800 × 1280 pixels, then you can add a -displayzoom 50 flag to launch it with a quarter-sized surface of 400 × 640 pixels — a much better match for the 900-pixel-high screen of, for instance, a MacBook Air.
  • -monitorppi
    This, on the other hand, allows you to set the PPI of your computer monitor (for example, -monitorppi 128 for a 13-inch MacBook Air) and launch an Opera Mobile instance with a zoom factor adjusted to match the physical dimensions of the profiled phone’s screen. This will give you a better idea of how big, say, the clickable areas really will be when the page loads on an actual device, but remember that the PPI you get on the screen won’t be representative of what you’ll see on the device.

Note that -displayzoom and -monitorppi are mutually exclusive and thus cannot be used together.

For a full list of possible arguments, click on “Help� in the profile selector, or run the emulator from the command line with the --help argument.

In-Browser Settings

One thing to keep in mind is that, even when launching an Opera Mobile instance with an Android profile, the UA might be different. You can change the UA string after launching Opera Mobile by clicking on the red “Oâ€� and going to Settings → Advanced → User Agent, where you can choose between five options, including “Android.â€� If you need to set a completely custom UA string, go to opera:config in the URL field and search for “Custom User-Agent.â€� In this field, you can set a custom UA string, which will override any other set UA string.

Other settings worth highlighting are the options for clearing the cookies, cache and shared locations, found under Settings → Privacy, and the toggle to turn off the on-screen keyboard, found under Settings → Advanced → Opera keyboard.

Connecting To Opera Dragonfly For Advanced Debugging

In any Web project, there is a point when you absolutely need to look under the hood of the browser to see what precisely is going on. That’s why Opera Mobile Emulator can talk to Opera Dragonfly, Opera’s built-in Web debugger.

Connecting Opera Mobile to Opera Dragonfly

You can easily set this up as follows:

  1. Download, install and run Opera for desktop.
  2. Load a page in Opera for desktop, right-click anywhere, and click “Inspect Element� to launch Opera Dragonfly.
  3. In Opera Dragonfly, click on the “Remote debug configuration� button (third button in the top right), and click “Apply� (the default settings are fine)
  4. Then, open Opera Mobile Emulator and launch an Opera Mobile instance.
  5. Go to opera:debug in Opera Mobile, and click “Connect� (the default settings are fine)
  6. You are now connected and can load any page you want to investigate in Opera Mobile. Be sure to select the correct debugging context (fourth button in the top right) in Opera Dragonfly when you change tabs.

Under Opera Dragonfly’s Network → Network log, you can, for instance, inspect whether your media queries are written correctly and whether image files referenced in the style sheet are not unnecessarily downloaded to devices with small screen sizes. If done right, you should see them only pop up towards the bottom of the waterfall chart when expanding the Opera Mobile browser window’s dimensions.

Also worth noting are the features under Network → Network options. There is a checkbox to disable all caching (which you may want to do when testing), and there is an option to set global header overrides — this is particularly handy when you rely on browser sniffing (careful!) or particular headers to optimize your content for, and you want to test out different header variations without opening up different browsers.

For an overview of other Opera Dragonfly features, including those related to inspecting the DOM and scripts, CSS profiling, picking colors, and using the command line, I recommend looking at the Opera Dragonfly documentation.

So, that’s a wrap! I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to how Opera Mobile Emulator can help you optimize your responsive designs. Try it out for yourself, and let us know what you think and how you want to see it improved.


© Andreas Bovens for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

Get Your Form On: Modern Web Forms Tutorials


This article is designed to show you (through tutorials) how to create and better understand CSS forms. With a proper understanding of each element (radio buttons, checkboxes, textareas ..), CSS know-how, a little patience and some creativity you can create beautiful and appealing forms.

Having a website with beautiful and functional forms is vital for managing a web business. Keeping your visitors and potential customers satisfied and making your website more accessible should be one of the primary focuses to any website owner. As a designer, the contact form is the first step a client takes to communicate with you, but it can also be the final step a user takes on your website. Having a good and functional contact form is vital to convince the client you are the right choice.

Whether you are looking for tips and tricks for creating contact forms, sign-up / sign-in or checkout forms this article will help you find what you are looking for; or at least inspire you.

Below you can find a showcase of beautiful web forms tutorials:

Get Your Form On

Create a simple CSS form

This tutorial explains how to design a good contact form using a clean CSS design with only label and input tags to simulate an HTML table structure.

Create a simple CSS form

Postcard CSS comment form

This tutorial will show you how to create a stunning comment form using an old postcard image.

Postcard-like CSS Contact Form

Stylish Responsive Form With CSS3 And HTML5

This tutorial shows you how to create a stylish contact form in CSS3 and the details of working with gradients, drop shadows and rounded corners.

Stylish Responsive Form With CSS3 And HTML5

Facebook-like Registration Form with jQuery

Probably the most known registration form is the sign up form of Facebook. Learn how to create it.

Facebook-like Registration Form with jQuery

A simple and stylish HTML 5 and CSS 3 contact form

Step by step tutorial on how to create a beautiful contact form using Photoshop, HTML5 and CSS3. The tutorial starts from scratch with the Photoshop mock-up.

A simple and stylish HTML5 and CSS3 contact form

Build a Neat HTML5 Powered Contact Form

This form tutorial is built using HTML5 for the input elements and uses the browser’s built-in form validation. Also for older browsers the tutorial uses jQuery and Modernizr and PHP on the server side to validate the input.

Build a Neat HTML5 Powered Contact Form

Fancy AJAX Contact Form

AJAX contact form that uses PHP, CSS, JQuery, formValidator and JQTransform plugins to style input fields and buttons and make the form functional. In addition it uses the PHPMailer class to send out the contact form emails.

Fancy AJAX Contact Form

Floating Feedback button contact form

This tutorial features the creation of an AJAX contact form. The form is not visible initially and is activated by clicking on a Feedback button floating to the left of the website.

Floating Feedback button contact form

dropdown box likes Twitter with jQuery

This tutorial helps you create a JQuery Dropbox sign-in box, just like on Twitter.

dropdown box likes Twitter with jQuery

Cross-Browser HTML5 Forms

This tutorial teaches users to create beautiful HTML5 forms for modern browsers and how to use a mix of Webforms2, Modernizr, jQuery UI and assorted jQuery Plugins for compatibility with older browsers.

Cross-Browser HTML5 Forms

JQuery and CSS3 drop-down menu with integrated forms

A jQuery and CSS3 tutorial that creates a drop-down menu where each sub-menu has a different form integrated (login, contact form or sign up).

JQuery and CSS3 drop-down menu with integrated forms

Modern Web Forms with HTML5 and CSS3

A beautiful sign-up form with rounded input boxes and button. Also each textbox includes a small icon relevant to the given field.

Modern Web Forms with HTML5 and CSS3

CSS3 forms with HTML5 validation

This form validates itself in real-time whether the completed data fits the recommended format for name, email or website.

CSS3 forms with HTML5 validation

Simple gradient CSS3 form

A simple CSS3 form tutorial explaining the usage of shadows and gradients in HTML5 contact forms.

 Simple gradient CSS3 form


Contact forms have come a long way in the past years, especially after the release of HTML5 and CSS3. You should always be up-to-date with technology and this is an essential part of your online presence. Hopefully you found these tutorials useful, maybe even convincing enough to change the ones on your own websites. We would love to hear your opinions below.


Beyond Wireframing: The Real-Life UX Design Process // The Roots of User-Centered Design


We all know basic tenets of user-centered design. We recognize different research methods, the prototyping stage, as well as the process of documenting techniques in our rich methodological environment. The question you probably often ask yourself, though, is how it all works in practice?

What do real-life UX design processes actually look alike? Do we have time for every step in the process that we claim to be ideal? In this article, I’ll share a couple of insights about the real-life UX design process and speak from my own experience and research.

User-Centred Design: Truth Vs. Fiction

A few years ago, I joined one of the biggest e-commerce companies in Eastern Europe. When I entered my new office, I immediately spotted a huge user-centered design (UCD) poster on the wall. The whole process was described in detail that left hardly any doubts about the step-by-step approach to design. Exciting interior design for an aspiring UX designer, right? I stared at the poster with great hope and imagined how exciting following the ideal UCD process would actually be. Guess what? They didn’t apply a single step from the poster to the actual process. They never did any research, nor any serious analysis of user behavior. Yikes, they didn’t even prototype! This fancy poster simply hung shamefully on the wall.

For the next three years, we worked hard to put user experience design at the heart of a developer-driven culture. We forgot about the poster and structured our own process, which fitted well with the company’s capabilities and allowed us to constantly optimize our main service. Why didn’t we use the crystal-clear theoretical approach? Because we couldn’t afford to go step by step through a classic UCD process with a lot of different activities. It would have taken too much time, and therefore it was economically invalid — the budgets for our projects were way too tight.

To deliver a user interface on time, we were forced to get really lean. We used a classic UCD process as inspiration and created a process that was simple but actionable for the company. We defined the problem, defined the scope of the project, iterated through paper prototyping and wireframing, pushed code to production as fast as we could, and always used multivariate split-testing and detailed Google Analytics event tracking.

Post-launch was the time to measure and plan optimization, which we executed immediately. Unfortunately, only huge projects had budgets for qualitative testing. Huge projects were also full of preliminary diagrams (site maps, flow charts, conceptual diagraming) — a enormously recommended activity to find order in a complex mess of information.

All in all, our process was simple but efficient. Of course, in general terms, it was a UCD process, but compared to any popular approach and a famous UPA poster, we used about 20% of the recommended tools and studies. We assumed that users don’t benefit from poster unicorn processes. Users benefit from the hard work of a product team; therefore, a simplified process is better than a robust unactionable theory.

UPA UCD Poster
Designing the user experience. (Large version)

Suddenly, I started to wonder how others managed to apply UCD. There’s a lot of talk about wireframes, but what does our work look like beyond wireframes? Was I the only one with a simplified approach? What can we do to create successful designs? What does the process beyond “the poster� look like? Is there a pattern that works well for the majority of designers?

The Reason For Research

Luckily enough, I was about to find some answers to my questions about the design process. I was forced to perform a worldwide reality check on my opinion about the classic UCD approach and design processes. Sharing this reality check is the raison d’être of this article.

  • If you’re fresh in the UX design world, learning how more experienced designers work might be useful.
  • If you’re a seasoned designer, treat this article as an incentive to reconsider your approach to design. We’re all rushing our designs every day. This is the time to take a breath, see what others are doing and think about what works and what doesn’t work in our real-life approach — beyond a UCD poster.

You may wonder what force persuaded me to revise my approach to the design process. The answer is simple: my own startup. Together with my friends, we created UXPin paper prototyping notepads to make our process more efficient, and then we created our own collaborative wireframing application. We suddenly became quite popular, took VC investment and decided to face the challenge: to create a user experience design toolset to support teamwork in the design process.

We felt that we were trying to fight Godzilla (or Tywin Lannister, if you prefer Game of Thrones to old Japanese movies). If my UX teams couldn’t apply a classic UCD approach, how could I be sure that using any theoretical framework would enable me to design a toolset that fits anyone’s real-life process? I couldn’t. Is there any pattern in design processes that we actually apply in our companies? I had no idea.

We felt that we needed to find out the truth about real-life design processes and we needed it now. It appeared to us that our research might be of vast importance to the community and even beyond. A simple equation: a great tool for the design process equals less work for designers on the tools side, equals more time for creative work, equals better designs for all of us.

The stakes were great, and there was just one right thing to do: get out of the building, get our hands dirty with research, find out and learn about the real-life design process (if it exists), and literally hunt out pain points in it to make the work of our team much easier and more pleasurable. We packed our stuff and crossed the great pond, so to speak, to do some serious research in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Read on if you want to know what we found out about the design process!

The Customer Development Process And Tons of Individual In-Depth Interviews

The life of a modern startup is full of UX design work, even if the founders don’t realize it. Drake Martinet (Wall Street Journal, Stanford University) considers the whole lean startup movement to be a mere application of design principles to the business environment. I couldn’t agree more.

When starting a new project, you actually need to talk to people from your target group. Here comes what are well known as IDIs (individual in-depth interviews): moderated, individual interviews in which you try to learn as much as you can about the problems of your interlocutor in a particular area of their life.

Our target group was user experience designers, so we scheduled above 50 interviews (personally and via Skype). Each focused on the same theme: the real-life UX design process. We asked designers to tell us stories of their usual process based on one of their projects. During the interviews, we asked a ton of in-depth questions to learn as much as we could about the process.

We hardly asked about problems in the design process, though — we tried to spot them in the stories on our own and then confirm our judgment by asking questions (for example, “I understand that X was troublesome in this particular project?â€�). We tried as hard as possible not to push any views onto our interlocutors. Letting them speak was important.

We interviewed UX heroes Mike Kuniavsky, Indi Young, Luke Wroblewski, Peter Merholz, Brandon Schauer, Jeffrey Kalmikoff and John Zeratsky and some lesser-known but excellent UX designers, including current UXPin clients. Among our interlocutors were in-house UX designers, designers from consultancies and freelancers. Surprisingly enough, the problems that usually trouble UX designers were similar in all three groups.

It was an intense learning experience, and I highly recommend considering such preliminary research in every project. It will give you a ton of ready-to-use knowledge — a kind of canvas to work from.

The Process That Emerged From Designers’ Stories

First of all, we didn’t find any unicorns, but we did find racehorses in excellent condition. While all of the processes that emerged from the stories were somehow simplified UCD processes, they were tailored to the specialities of the designers. Flexibility is what helps us survive in the diverse jungle of projects. Processes morph to fit projects.

The approach to an e-commerce website differs from the way we design mobile apps in the healthcare industry (guess where context analysis matters most?), and government clients differ from corporate stakeholders and startup entrepreneurs, and so on. With few exceptions, though, the process looks surprisingly similar. There is a visible pattern that we all use to design interfaces in different environments:

1. Collecting Information About the Problem

Every UX designer needs to be a kind of detective in the early stage of a project. We need to find out as much as we can about the three Ps (people, problem, project). Activities in this stage, in contrast with the classic UCD approach, are vastly simplified:

  • Meeting with the client (no matter whether externally or internally) and identifying the product’s requirements (often in the form of a standardized product requirement document);
  • Benchmarking and trend analysis (oh yes, most of the designers we interviewed do that).

We seldom perform user interviews, but writing user stories is one of the commonly accepted attachments to the product requirement document. Our user stories are sometimes created based on personas, which are hardly ever backed up with data. Field studies and task analysis are hardly used by any of the designers we interviewed.

2. Getting Ready to Design

This is clearly the ideation part of the process. It’s completely conquered by analog tools. I haven’t met a single designer who doesn’t use quick messy sketching or some other paper prototyping form at the early stage of a design process!

Designers try to act on the material gathered in the first step of the process and find a design worth refining. This stage is not about documenting; it’s about artistic fury and creative explosion. Many of us use Adaptive Path’s multipage templates to quickly create very generic sketches.

Unfortunately, testing lo-fi prototypes is not popular. We prefer to take the risk of choosing one option with a stakeholder and begin the refinement process. Not very UCD-like, but that is the reality.

3. Design

In contrast to the anti-documentation agile approach, most of the interviewed designers create wireframes and prototypes to document the experience and then hand them to the developers.

Refined sketches from the previous stage are still rather lo-fi and are usually not tested. Hi-fi design is left for visual designers. In Aristotelian terms, we create the form, while developers and visual designers fight to create the matter. Heuristic evaluation is definitely out of fashion, while expert review backed up with a cognitive walkthrough is quite popular.

4. Approval

This is surprisingly an important part of the design process. Research documents and deliverables usually also serve as persuading factors in the “buy-in� process. This does not differ between in-house UX designers, freelancers and folks from consultancies.

Buy-in is the unfortunate peak of our process. None of us want to see our work go directly to the trash, and I’ve seen some great projects rejected just because the story behind the design process wasn’t particularly persuasive.

And guess what? A lot of the interviewed designers actually create a special presentation to tell stakeholders the design story. The presentations show stages of the process, deliverables and interactions, and they aim to give stakeholders lazy access to all of the information.

The four points mentioned above form a pattern visible in the majority of design processes that we went through with our interlocutors. You might have noticed that not a lot of iterative research is done in these processes. Sadly, the classic usability study is not a permanent part of the process. Why? The answer is simple: budgets are tight. Problems that appeared in the company that I used to work for appeared to be common. Tight budgets are forcing UX designers to tailor their processes and skip costly research.

I believe the best answer to this problem is guerrilla research methods. Startups do adapt guerrilla research as a part of the customer development process, but more “mature� companies, in my opinion, are strangely afraid of spontaneous and methodologically questionable yet efficient and cheap research methods. One of the challenges of the UX design community in the coming years will be the popularization of guerrilla research methods and bringing them into our real-life design processes.

Houston, We Have Several Recurring Problems

During our research, we tried to spot recurring problems in the design processes of our interlocutors — a so-called pattern of pain. Surprisingly enough, similar problems appeared in almost all individual interviews. Apparently, a lot of us live arm in arm with three tough unresolved problems that tend to slow us down:

  1. Spreading an understanding of the design process
    How to engage the whole team in the process and show them that UX designers are not people who lack talent in visual design yet still insist on drawing something? How to teach that there’s user experience beyond wireframes?
  2. Communication within the team
    How to communicate with a team throughout the process and actually use different perspectives of teammates to evaluate design deliverables?
  3. Demonstrating the process to get buy-in
    How to present the design process to stakeholders and developers to actually get buy-in, both formally and psychologically?

One of the UX designers we interviewed said the following:

Do you know what the most painful thing is in my job? Bureaucracy. Having to go to meetings. I would rather design than fight over the picky details. We should make at least part of the workflow online instead of in person. Have the approval process online, instead of in a meeting.

Another said this:

It’s really hard to show the process to clients and spread some understanding of the importance of design.

We have probably all tried to solve these problems countless times, but we still lack efficient and fast methods. This results in less time for creative work and research.

My hypothesis is this. We as UX designers need to resolve the three painful problems identified above to have more time for creative work and research. We need to demonstrate our work beyond wireframes, spread understanding of UX design and, in fact, sell ourselves both internally (within the product team) and externally (outside the product team, in front of clients and stakeholders). This is the recipe to increase our effectiveness.

Our real-life UX processes need adjustment, and since we share the pattern of the process and the pain points, we can solve them together. This is most likely the most positive outcome of this research.

Outcome Of The Research

The research shows that UX designers are constantly modifying the classic and complex UCD approach. Less emphasis on iterative usability studies and a narrower range of design activities (compared to classic UCD) are the main traits of the current real-life design process that have emerged from our research.

A process tailored to the capabilities of our companies and our clients proved to be generally effective, but it still causes some recurring troubles that should be eliminated.

This is, generally speaking, the state of our field. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean to criticize classic UCD — it still serves as an inspiration for our work. After all, I’m happy that I worked in that office with “shameâ€� hanging above my head (yes, I mean the UCD poster), which constantly reminds me of the need for adjustment in the process. I’ve learned that what matters, though, is an actionable process — possible to use, adapted to the company’s culture and financially effective.

After talking with dozens of UX designers, I’ve started to wonder, however, whether we should actually create a poster that shows this version of the process. It could help a lot of aspiring UX designers take their first steps in the field and could be effective as an educational tool for our internal and external clients.

After all, our work is not nearly as expensive and time-consuming as the old poster says.

P.S. A study of the process and the problems spotted in it inspired us to create “The UX Design Systemâ€� — it’s a work in progress, and I’d love to hear your feedback.

Further Resources


© Marcin Treder for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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