5 tips for producing simple-to-use designs from Designs of the Year winner Ben Terrett

The award-winning designer shared his five principles for creating user experiences that just work at the launch of the Olympus PEN-F camera at London's Design Museum.

Ben Terrett is best known for is previous job as directorof design at the Government Digital Service (GDS), which transformed the government’s mess of 1,700 disconnected websites into one sleek, usable hub. This won Ben and his team Design of the Year 2013 - much to their surprise, as they were up against the likes of The Shard and the Olympic Cauldron. 

Ben explained that not everyone was pleased that his project won the award. But, despite what the Daily Mail says, ‘boring’ is sometimes best. And, as I learnt at Ben’s talk, not boring at all. 

Like the government website he helped create, Ben’s advice is remarkably simple to understand.

1. “Focus relentlessly on user needs”

GDS designed very pretty icons for the government’s site, which they were all very fond of. But users were not (and actually had no idea what they meant). Without delay, GDS ditched the designs.

“Too often design has fallen into the marketing trap of persuading you to do things rather than making it easy to do it,” says Ben. “We are moving to a world where usability trumps persuasion”. 

Ben may be a usability fan, but he doesn’t like the term ‘UX’ which he thinks is used to just check a box and pushes user needs down the to-do list. Instead, they should be the priority. “User experience is the responsibility of everyone,” he says. 

The GDS prioritised user needs enough to put users top in their 10 guiding design principles.

2. “Fix the basics”

Often the simplest problems make the largest organisations stumble – and they often need the simplest solution. Fixing the basics, says Ben, is a “superpower” of designers.

Ben’s work with the GDS was inspired by Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir’s much-lauded and globally copied road-sign designs - the former who advised him at the GDS. You can see the similarity between the two projects: simple, easy-to-use and truly for the masses. 

Before the introduction of Margaret and Jock’s designs in 1960s, roads were a jumble of fonts, styles and content.

3. “Trust equals delivery”

“Pro tip: the CEO doesn’t care about fonts,” says Ben. Nor does the user. They care about a service they can understand. Your rambles about fonts – however love-filled - will not endear a CEO into trusting you to deliver an accessible service. 

Ben recommends you agree on the usability, and then casually mention having free reign over typeface on your way out. 

4. “Be agile” 

An agile methodology allows you to focus on real users and real feedback. “This is how I think design teams should work,” says Ben. "Lots of ideas and strong leadership is better than one big idea”

Ben cites Google, which he says has transparency in both its information and technology, is an example of a large organisation getting it right. 

5. “Too often, the creative director is a bottleneck”

Instead of ensuring quality, says Ben, “you become a barrier to getting things done”.

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