Every time I design something, there’s a defining moment; a moment where the design finally comes together, where it switches from being something bad to something good. I think of this moment as the “design epiphany.”
It usually happens very late in the design process, much later than you’d expect. And it’s always preceded by a period of agonizing uncertainty, where I know something’s wrong but lack a clear path to fixing it.
A lot has been written about design, but I’ve never seen anyone describe this particular moment. So I’m going to do that now, by telling the story of designing my own app, Review for iPad.
Review is an app without precedent, so I first built a prototype to make sure it was something I’d use. For the most common Review use cases: adding new reminders and addressing the reminders scheduled for today, the prototype was functionally complete. It just looked bad. This illuminates the nature of the design epiphany; it’s rarely a revelation in functionality. Functionality is refined in a separate, but parallel, part of the process.
After using the prototype for a while, I set to work on the real design. In a few days I had this, the last draft before the design epiphany. All the user-interface elements from the prototype are still there, and the functionality is unchanged.
Even now, when I look at it, it’s hard to say exactly what’s wrong with this draft. The design epiphany usually solves something that is ephemeral, difficult to describe. It has to do with feel, form rather than function.
The design epiphany is usually preceded by a lot of design work that’s seemingly unproductive. Often I know deep-down the design isn’t working, yet I continue to improve each user-interface element, like I did here. I keep improving it until there is nothing obvious left to improve. Doing this helps draw out what’s really wrong with the design. After ruling out the obvious, there’s nothing left to re-evaluate but the fundamentals, the inherent structure of the design. I am ready for the design epiphany.
Soon after this draft, the design epiphany for Review happened.
The Design Epiphany
Arranging the reminders into a stack was the design epiphany for Review. The apps purpose is clearer, in sharper focus. This is a stack of reminders to work-through and address, not a “gallery” of reminders like the previous draft looks like in comparison.
The change in functionality is minimal. The only real difference is the disappearance of the navigator at the bottom. And even that had less to do with the design epiphany—the navigator could have remained at the bottom in the new design—and more to do with running the prototype. When I was using the prototype, I found I never used the navigator.
The Final Design
Now, when I describe Review to people, I say, “You open the app and see a stack of index cards to review with a message to yourself on each one. You address each reminder by pressing a button saying when you want to see it again: ‘tomorrow,’ ‘next week,’ or ‘next month.’”
A “stack of index cards to review,” the defining design element came very late in the process; that’s the design epiphany.