Maybe I took my own advice a bit too far, that I’ve been too focused on shipping out designs instead of talking about them. Or maybe I’m just poor at time management and I can’t balance both. Regardless, I’ve been wanting to write about all the interesting projects I’ve been working on.
It seems like yesterday that I started working at Stack Exchange. I still can’t believe it’s been two years already. At Stack Exchange, we create a network of high quality Q&A websites. If you’re in the tech field, chances are you have heard or used our programmers Q&A site, Stack Overflow.
The network has grown quite a bit in the past two years. Through our Area51 site, the public is able to propose and create Q&A sites on a wide range of topics. We now have eighty-seven sites in the network. Two years ago, there were three.
My main design task has been creating unique visual identities for these Q&A communities as they graduate to a full Stack Exchange site. (When a Q&A site is first created, it’s labeled as a “Beta” site. We graduate a site when its stats reach certain health criteria). So far, thirty-two sites have graduated.
I can safely say that this has been the most challenging job I’ve ever had in my web design career since 1995. It is also the most rewarding and enjoyable one I’ve had. I never consciously thought of it as a “job.”
I’m a firm believer that in order to create a good design, the designer must know the product and its audience intimately well. This requires a lot of research, beyond design. At its core, Stack Exchange is about fostering niche communities of passionate people. Our communities are the reason our sites are so successful. At work, everything we do is to create a better experience for the communities and help them to grow, through robust underlying software, promotional contests, sponsored conferences and constantly tweaking our system and policies based on their feedbacks.
Each Q&A site uses the same underlying engine and has the same HTML output. The set layout is limiting what I can do visually. But this constraint is good in a way because it enforces the overall Stack Exchange branding.
To me, a good visual design is one that provokes the right emotional response from users. It sets the mood if you will, then it gently fades into the background as a pleasant bokeh. It is easier said than done though. In order to capture that right mood, I have to know the site’s topic well, its history and quirks, its members’ personalties as a whole. This requires a lot of research before I even start brainstorming the visuals. The design is never about making a pretty skin or an exercise of my personal design taste, but creating one that’s relatable to the users I’m designing for.
Certain sites were easier for me to design since I knew the topics well since they fell in my range of interests. For example, cooking and video games. Then there are topics I knew absolutely nothing about, such as TeX, Judaism, GIS, role-playing games, Mathematica and so on. In fact, I didn’t know anything about the topics of most of our sites, prior to designing for them.
My typical design process for each site:
Another challenging factor was time. When we first launched Area51, we had a lot of Beta sites created at once in a short amount of time. I remember joking to a coworker “someone will get slammed later when they all graduate.” It turned out I was that person. For months, I had to repeat the process listed above once a week, sometimes twice. Shipping a site from scratch to launch. I felt it really stretched my limit as a designer. Week after week, I was buried in researching, talking to users, picking out art styles that were foreign to me. There were times when I had great self doubt. I felt like I wasn’t able to execute the design direction I set, or the one I picked was totally off, at the last minute. Then when I read the positive feedback after site launch from users and random internet people, it was the most rewarding experience.
Creating identities for over thirty communities in the past two years have made me a lot more pragmatic and humble. My design process is more streamlined and focused. I learned that having empathy for users is not enough; taking an interest in what my coworkers do also helps me with my design work indirectly. I’ve been exposed to many interesting subjects and people I wouldn’t have otherwise. I was also able to collaborate on SE projects with other talented designers I’ve known via online.
I plan to blog about the case study for each site design in details, as well as other interesting projects I’ve been working on at work. Meanwhile, please take a look at our full site listing, you may find some Q&A sites of your interest.