Reverse engineering design

Design is one of the things I’ve been spending a lot of time on over the past year or so (as I thought about, planned for, and started developing Coach Wizard).

Design has always been a bit of a weak point to my ‘tech’ game.  In the early days of the web, most all design was pretty lame and so I could get away with basic photoshop and graphic skills and 'wow’ people more with features and services.

But over the past twenty or so years, design has become more and more important as tech. and backend stuff has become easier and easier (and a bit more of a commodity).  A lot of the 'wow’ factor of services now is as much (if not more) about the design and the UI/UX than it is the background tech. or services.

And it’s no longer just design as one bit - there are specialists within all the various parts of design.  And the best of the best sites and products out there use them all.

The trouble is as a guy with an idea or even as a startup with *seriously* limited resources, I really can’t pay for any of these specialists.  And even if I could, they are in such high demand that they are nearly impossible to find (pricing them out even more).

So in the meantime I started to try and refine my design skills and my 'design eye’.

I started by making a list of all the most popular web sites/services I could think of. I listed out the ones that have clearly spent significant amounts of time/money on their design over the years – and the ones that I frequently hear people say things like “beautiful product”, “love”, “killer design”, and “so simple” about.

From there - I dug into using each product as much as I could to try and *really* get a feel for what they are doing with their design…to try and get inside their heads for each page/feature and guess at the why and where of every element presented.

In addition to doing that on a case-by-case basis, I also tried to step back and take a general view across all these popular services to identify common design trends and elements.

Was there a standard layout that the best of the best use?  How much or how little do they all present at once?  Should navigation be standard?

There are literally millions of questions that can be asked/answered as you dig into all of this (hence the need and development of specialists).

One of the things I did to help me in this analysis was to do box diagrams of many of these services on paper…here’s a picture of some of those pages (maybe you can guess what popular services each of these are):


Through doing this a few really interesting things struck me:

1. All the popular services people really love actually present us with tons and tons of data and features at once. But none of them *feel* like they are actually hitting us with as much as they are at once (btw - I did this with their mobile versions too - and it even repeats there as well).

2. The trends and 'standards’ are not what I thought they would be. Most use multiple columns but there appears to be no 'standard’ approach to navigation.

3. There appears to be a magical combination of whitespace, color, and images.  Of the three, color seems to be the *least* important for usability (I was especially stricken with how 'clean’ even the box diagrams I did felt for each service).

…for me specifically, I knew that I did not want to reinvent the wheel on my initial design approach so almost all of this was simply about figuring out which to 'copy’.  In doing that, it was as much about the feeling each service gave as it was about how my use-case generically mapped to their use-case.

Overall, that mapping and trying to figure out which to 'copy’, has been harder to do than I thought it would be.  In fact, I went through a large number of iterations of trying to map my design to one of these patterns before settling on my current approach (which so far I’m *really* digging – and if you go create an account to check it out, I would love to hear which service you *think* I copied the most)

Though I’m finally happy with our alpha design, we still have a long way to go before we hit our own real “wow” moment for users…and I’ve still got a ton of personal design skills (and eye) to develop.

So we’ll continue to work on it – just like everything else – and of course if *you* are a specialist with those skills, and interested in our mission, we would especially *LOVE* to talk with, learn from, and work with you!

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This is the personal blog of Kevin Marshall (a.k.a Falicon) where he often digs into side projects he's working on for and other random thoughts he's got on his mind.

Kevin has a day job as CTO of Veritonic and is spending nights & weekends hacking on Share Game Tape. You can also check out some of his open source code on GitHub or connect with him on Twitter @falicon or via email at kevin at

If you have comments, thoughts, or want to respond to something you see here I would encourage you to respond via a post on your own blog (and then let me know about the link via one of the routes mentioned above).