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Learn From The Best: An Interview With Basecamp Product Designer Jonas Downey

by Today's Eggspert

Believe it or not, a lot of your success when you’re running an online business comes down to how you approach design. Design is one of those subtle things that really make or break the experience you give your customers.

We reached out to one of our favorite designers – Jonas Downey – to ask him a few questions. Sometimes getting into the head of a great designer can be the ticket to your next product breakthrough!

1. How do you define UX/design?

UX has become such a nebulous, overused term — it can mean many different things in different contexts. To me, UX boils down to:

Doing everything it takes to make sure a product is useful, clear, and friendly for humans.

That means the product solves a real-world problem (or set of problems), and is designed so that interacting with it is straightforward and obvious.

2. What is your usual UX toolkit? What are some apps or tools that you use on a daily basis?

I don’t think a “UX toolkit” is an actual thing. There are tools you can use to research problems, tools you can use to build a product, and tools you can use to evaluate whether what you built works as you intended.

But to me, UX is not something you can achieve with a specific set of tools — rather, it’s a mindset that’s the foundation of a strong design process. It boils down to deeply considering the situations people are in when they’re using your product, and constantly questioning whether you’ve made assumptions or overcomplicated things in the design.

To answer the real question though, the tools I use while designing are fairly simple:

  • Basecamp for communication and planning/managing work.
  • Goodnotes for sketching ideas (paired with an Apple Pencil and iPad Pro.)
  • Sublime Text and iA Writer for writing code, notes, UI copy, and longform posts.
  • Sketch and Photoshop for creating visual assets.
  • Sip for grabbing colors.
  • Tower for making nuanced commits in Git.

3. Who in the industry do you look up to, follow, admire and read?

I’m less inspired by people in the software/design industry than I am by people outside of it. I think your outlook gets insular if you stay within that narrow industry circle, so I primarily try to follow people who aren’t famous, aren’t so well known, have weird or different viewpoints, or do creative work that’s outside my skill set (like rock music, fine art, or comic book illustration.) I also get inspired by a lot of old stuff.

jonas downey inspiration

Within the industry though, I absolutely love Kelli Anderson’s work. I envy the way she melds the physical and digital, and how she’s willing to go deep into crazy or far-out ideas. She’s an incredible talent — someone who’s not content to “just” do print design or web design or one category of work. A true Designer with a capital ‘D’.

4. What is the most interesting project you have ever worked on in your professional life?

It’s hard to pick just one! I always seek out projects where I’m dumb about the problem. That has two effects:

  1. I learn a lot by trying to solve it.
  2. It’s exciting to work on.

So it’s easy for me to stay interested in the project even if the end result sounds mundane to an outsider. Two of my more interesting side projects were saving a local movie theater with a Kickstarter campaign and making a really useful weather app.

hello weather app

5. Have you ever worked as part of a bigger team? What about the pros and cons of solo work vs. working with a team?

I’m increasingly convinced that it’s hard to do excellent design work as a completely solo act. Design is about people — to do it well, you need other people there with you!

It’s certainly possible to do well as a solo freelance designer, but even then you’re closely interacting with clients along the way. They kind of take the place of a team.

Personally, I’ve never had a more gratifying experience than working with the people at Basecamp. Nothing else I’ve done comes anywhere close. We’re a highly productive group, and working together is such a blast.

6. What would you say will be the next big trend in the UX Design industry?

I’m probably the worst person to ask about trends, because I try to actively ignore them! I think there’s some interesting potential with AR/VR tech — very curious to see where that goes. It’s in the awkward teenager stage right now.

7. How have you incorporated usability testing and research into your design process?

At Basecamp we’ve been using the Jobs To Be Done approach to help us understand the situations our customers are in when they decide to buy Basecamp. We do a lot of 1:1 customer interviews, and we evaluate data and metrics as a way to reinforce our ideas and gut-check how we’re doing. We’re also experimenting with a variety of other research approaches, like surveys and on-site observational interviews with customers.

We don’t do formal usability testing, but not because it’s unimportant. I think it’s because our company has a high bar for what we ship — we use new features for ourselves for a while, pass them through rigorous rounds of QA, and so on. Through that process, we mostly resolve any serious usability gremlins that might have been lurking. Undoubtedly, having ongoing usability testing would be beneficial, but it’d also slow us down. It’s a trade-off.

8. As a designer, what would you say is your biggest problem? What’s your biggest pet peeve, road block or challenge that you’re currently facing?

It’s difficult to have trust in the unknown. When you embark on a design project, you don’t really know what’s going to happen, or how long it’ll take to find the best solution. Of course you can ballpark things or make educated guesses, but projects rarely end up exactly how you expected.

It takes a lot of practice to become comfortable with this. And even when you are, it’s still easy to get discouraged if you have a bad week or two where nothing seems to be working quite right. Staying positive and confident throughout the process is a really critical, hard-won skill.

9. Have you had experience with eye-tracking or heat-mapping software? If so, give some examples of how you worked with such technology and how it affected the usability of the product.

We use heat-mapping software on our marketing site (basecamp.com) and I’ve found it helpful as a supplemental tool to visualize where the action is going. For example, we were curious if renaming a link would increase clicks to the page, so we A/B tested it. The heatmap visualization gave us a quick read on that performance, which can be easier to check than poking through raw numbers. I don’t find heat-mapping to be critically important, but it’s certainly handy.

10. If you could choose any super power, what would it be?

Intergalactic space flight. ??

You can follow Jonas on Twitter @jonasdowney or visit his website jonas.do.

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  1. Lisa says:
    January 17, 2017 at 12:00 am

    This is one of my best processes to determine everything from old stuff. I appreciate this conversion. Especially question 8, “Staying positive and confident throughout the process is a really critical, hard-won skill.”

    • Sean Work says:
      January 21, 2017 at 2:32 pm

      Yep – attitude is a really important factor for getting anything done successfully.

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