One of the fastest-growing techniques in web design and development is an increase in empathizing with the intended or current audience of a website or application. Today, I want to give you 5 tips that will ultimately make you a better designer and set up a framework for building apps and websites for real people.

1. Create relatable user personas

One of the most important things to consider when working on a consumer-facing web project is knowing who you’re designing for. The second most important thing is empathizing with these users to make them feel very real and relatable. Odds are, if you’re designing for “age 28-40 soccer mom Facebook user,” you’re unlikely to truly understand and relate to her problems or goals when designing a web experience for her. Now, if your user persona focuses on “Jessica, a busy 32-year old mother of 3 who loves using Facebook to keep in touch with high school friends and college roommates. She uses a computer for email, Facebook, and buying things on Amazon,” odds are, you will have a much easier time understanding how she thinks and, as a result, how to get her from point A to Z with the least resistance possible.

In addition to a “real” background, outline the key goals of this user persona, as well as usage scenarios to offer insight into when and why the user would use your product.

2. Collect real user feedback constantly

Beyond developing “real” user personas, the best thing to do is talk to real people! If you’re working on a web app with an existing user base, build a diverse group of users that represent different personas. It is important to build a group of users that can repeat your usability tests a few times but equally important to find fresh eyeballs that will approach each iteration with a different perspective.

Depending upon your product development cycle, it is important to gather feedback during the time leading up to a major alpha or beta release, as well as before and after feature releases.

3. Design and develop iteratively

Building a web product has the luxury of being easy-to-modify. You don’t need to worry about print deadlines, physical distribution, or product manufacturing. This makes it easy to design and build at the same time, constantly tweaking workflows, colors, sizes, fonts, layout, and language.

Many web teams are moving towards the idea of Continuous Integration, which is a development process that essentially keeps the master branch of your product in your code repositories deployable. Using a CI-based approach, teams deploy the master branch any time there is a code commit and subsequent push to master. This makes it easy to both A. make product changes quickly, sometimes daily or hourly, and B. royally screw something up. Fortunately, due to the iterative nature of this development style, screw-ups generally can be easily remedied, but this makes user and regression testing an essential component for teams who choose to adopt this style. At Lift, we deploy all projects with Continuous Integration and it allows us to focus on quick, small improvements every day, rather than one single milestone that takes months to complete and could potentially be a huge step backwards.

4. Create prototypes early (they are allowed to look bad)

Another way to focus on the experience first is to wireframe with HTML and CSS. Our very own Brad Miller uses Foundation, an HTML5 web framework, to build out a working clickable prototype that can be used as the “foundation” of the project as we move towards visual design and back-end development.

Using this method, we can avoid re-work and offer the client something tangible. It is more than just a deliverable, but is also a step towards the actual product. Another benefit is that we can test this with real potential users to see how easy it is for them to understand and use.

5. Stand on the shoulders of giants

When building out task flows for things that have been designed before, fight the urge to be a pioneer when it comes to simple, tested, working design patterns. In design, there are plenty of things to take risks on, but workflows like a checkout process, login form, and forgotten password are typically not something you want to take a big risk on. Look at similar apps and sites for common design patterns, as most of these apps have been tested and the process tweaked already, thus saving you valuable time and money on testing new ideas when there are plenty of conventions out there that have been implemented and are known to be effective.


Designing for a different audience than yourself can be challenging, as you have your own worldview, experiences, and advanced knowledge of websites and apps. Once you put some of these tips into practice, you can begin to see things from a fresh perspective and empathize more directly with the people on the other side of the computer screen.

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