Personal thoughts on Speculative Design

Recently I was asked by a friend to consult on some possible site improvements for an e-commerce site. This was to be delivered in written and visual form. My first thought was that this was essentially speculative work and I was hesitant to go ahead with this without the guarantee of anything in return.
There are basically two camps in the web design world and it tends to be pretty cut and dry most of the time; there are the agencies that clearly dislike it and consider it to be bad for the industry. Then there are those companies that are built on the premise and take it to another level. Companies like 99designs and crowdSPRING combine the idea of speculative design with crowsdourcing meaning you get the largest possible number of people competing for a client brief by actually submitting completed works in exchange for the possibility of payment rather than the promise of it.
My biggest problem with this kind of competition-based spec work is essentially the shallow quality of the outcome. It tends to encourage lots and lots of submissions but the amount of thought applied to any given design seems to suffer. It’s either that, or you get several submissions by one designer all slightly different in an attempt to cover all bases. The end result may look superficially good but is it? And who ultimately decides on which design gets picked, an expert on usability? Probably not.
Luckily, I wasn’t submitting any work to a competition arena but all the same my awareness of these scenarios fostered misgivings. What was my answer? I didn’t spend long on the work, I spent more time writing up my suggestions rather than doing precision pixel pushing work. In this way I made it something I got more personal value out of. The exercise became more about testing my learnt abilities covering usability rather than exploiting my design skills. This not only made for faster turnaround but encouraged me to think about documentation and reporting which is the sort of skill set I have to develop more. In the end I was pretty pleased with the piece of work I completed, and in that respect it was a good exercise.
Having said that I’m not really in favour of doing work for free in order to get paid work. I understand there are always going to be times when you have to pitch and there are some pretty balanced articles out there for when it might have it’s place which are worth a read. One of the reasons highlighted in these articles for doing speculative design work is when you’re starting out and want to build your portfolio. I’m sort of in that situation seeing as I want to do more design work as I’ve done my fair share of front end development in the last three years. I guess the trick is to know when to stop and to know what is reasonable to deliver for free – something like a ‘taster’ is better than working your butt off on something that might not lead anywhere or at the very worst could be used without your remuneration. But best of all is to persuade potential clients of the merits of a proper design process.

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One week on and there’s still a lot to do.

It’s been a week since my first post and I would have liked to have written something mid-week but everything is rather chaotic still and I’m still getting things organised. The biggest development was my investment in a new laptop. It’s an absolute beast of a machine boasting blu-ray writing capabilities and an Intel i7 chip. I would have liked an iMac for around a similar price but I really need something that is portable, for mobile working. A Macbook Pro would have been ideal but double the price, such was my situation.
The other thing I would like to mention is the issue of focus. The necessity to learn what to focus on and when. It is becoming apparent that more so than ever, when you are working for yourself, you and you alone are in charge of your time management and what you work on. There is to an extent some hand-holding when in a team and when you are actually assigned to something by someone else. Now all the responsibility lies with me!
So, what are the plans for this week? Collating previous work, getting it ready for my portfolio; Scanning some sketches to show my working process; Setting up a home server for true test development environment. Then there are all the other admin tasks, like talking to potential clients, meetings, backing up data. I’ve also got to clear off some existing client work.
I better get back to it all!

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Today is the first day of the rest of my life.

With such a clichéd title to this first blog post it’s hard to start without explaining the reason for such a post.
Last Friday was my last day in the service of  Snow Valley, experts in e-commerce. I had spent 3 years on the UX team helping them deliver the front-end aspect of various sites for various High Street and Boutique retailers. I was brought in as a junior and was allowed to cut my teeth at ‘the Valley’ but in time my job role veered away from the design side of things and more into the technical area of UX. This happened more as a matter of circumstance than anything else and for a while I was happy to focus and learn more of this particular skillset. However, this was not something that could last and my urges to design more, and become once again a more rounded UX designer have prevailed!
This is why I’m writing this blog post, that’s why I’m going to give freelancing a really good bash and hope to pursue a Masters in the following year. I left Snow Valley on good terms and I will miss working there. I wish them the best of success and I hope the sentiment is truly reciprocated. For now though, I will be writing this blog to update those that read it, on my progress; showing how my personal website develops and to publicise any other projects I am working on.
Exciting times ahead and a lot of work involved…

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