FEATURE

Interview with Alexis Allen

Claris: What jobs and experiences have led you to your current position?
Alexis: After graduating with a degree in music performance (cello), I started working in the design department of a sign-making business that used FileMaker for Mac. 

Developing in FileMaker wasn’t my actual job, but I got interested in being able to create (instead of just consume) software. Over the next few years, I had other jobs in marketing and packaging design, but I continued to freelance as a developer, at first for my former employers. 

I was also interested in graphic design but I didn’t know a lot about it, so I took courses in art, typography, and desktop publishing. While doing design and FileMaker development at the same time, I became fascinated by UI design, as I saw first-hand how design can dramatically impact usability.

After starting a family, I expanded my business. Doing freelance FileMaker development was a way to work from home, with flexible hours so I could work around my kids’ schedule. As they’ve grown up, my business has grown too.

What design principles do you bring to your projects?
All of them! 

Just kidding…sort of.

Because of how human perception works, people view a design as an integrated whole, not as separate parts. It’s whether or not they’re being used effectively that separates a good design from a poor one, not which or how many principles were used. It’s a designer’s job to consciously blend all the design principles in a visually pleasing and functional way. 

That said, in my opinion the most important design principles to consider for designing FileMaker interfaces are grouping, hierarchy, balance, contrast, and alignment. It’s also worth learning about the basic elements of visual design, such as line, shape, space, color, and texture. 

What two or three things can non-designers do to build better apps?
One tip is to try sketching the screens from apps that you use and like on a sheet of paper. The process of sketching will give you a different perspective on how an app was designed, and help you connect with the design on a deeper level. You’ll be able to better understand what kinds of problems faced the original designer, and why they may have made certain design decisions.

Another is to learn as much as you can about topics in design, such as design principles, visual elements of design, gestalt principles, and design thinking, to name a few. If you really want to improve your design skills, research and experiment with different techniques, just like you might have done when you were learning data architecture or scripting for the first time. 

Finally, don’t gloss over the planning stages of designing an interface. A major part of building a successful UI is thoroughly understanding the user and their workflow, and designing processes to help them easily achieve their goals. 

Design doesn’t have to be visually exciting so much as really useful. If you provide the right tools to solve the challenges users encounter every day, they will feel taken care of, and love your design.

What are your favorite design resources?
A book about usability for the web, that is applicable to the FileMaker platform:
Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Krug. There’s also an updated edition of this, called Don't Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability 

A book about the psychological aspects of design:
100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People by Susan M. Weinschenk, Ph.D.

A book about the user-centered design process:
Interactive Design: An Introduction to the Theory and Application of User-Centered Design by Andy Pratt & Jason Nunes.

Design patterns are solutions to common design problems. This site has a large collection of design patterns that cover many different situations:
http://ui-patterns.com/patterns

Design inspiration from the world of Web design:
https://dribbble.com

What are your favorite tools to use when working on a project?
I use felt-tipped pens in different colors, a sketch pad, and sticky notes, for the planning phases.

I use OmniGraffle for creating workflow diagrams, but any diagramming software will do, such as Visio or LucidChart.

I like Balsamiq Mockups for working out the initial screens, before any visual design is done. It’s easy to learn and use.

Finally, I do a lot of design in FileMaker itself. Since I already have the skills, I find it faster to prototype directly in FileMaker. 

How do you and your team prepare for the start of a new project?
I start with the “discovery” phase. 

We first have some meetings to understand the client’s business and review the current system, if any. I’d also ask to see any visual assets, such as the company logo, website, or design guidelines if they have them. And it’s nice to know the history of the business and their overall value proposition. 

Through these conversations, I identify the user roles, and start documenting the user stories. We add to this list as often as necessary throughout the discovery phase.

I usually build workflow diagrams to map out the main interactions that take place as work progresses through the various phases of the business process lifecycle. The purpose is not to document every little thing, but to get a good overview of the process, and identify any gaps and pain points.

I also document the central entities and relationships of the system—in other words, the data architecture. 

Finally, I start the design phase. Drawing on what I know about the company, their business, user stories, workflow, goals, and data structure, I start brainstorming as many different design possibilities as I can, for one or two main areas of the solution. 

Often these will be wireframes or simple sketches, to keep the conversation focused on the structure first. I try to present three options if I can, to make sure I explore the design fully, and get a bit outside my comfort zone. 

To get ideas, I sometimes do internet searches to see if there are screenshots of other kinds of solutions in the same business category and scour the Web for inspiration. 

I usually choose to start with the most complicated part or parts of the system, so that I’m reasonably sure the design will be able to meet the users' most complex needs. 

At this point, I'll usually transfer into FileMaker and begin the visual design, like choosing colors and styles for text, buttons, and other layout objects. We may or may not develop a prototype, depending on the size of the solution and the client’s goals.

Once the client has validated and accepted the basic design (in other words, we know we have captured all the main components, and we are confident that it’s likely to work), we can start the development phase. 

During development, the technical details of the interactions, such as navigation, field validation, and enforcing business rules, are documented, developed, tested, and debugged following the Agile methodology. 

If the “older” you could give advice to the “younger” you, how would you encourage yourself and your work ethic for this industry?
Users are less concerned with trendy design techniques, and more with how a design meets their needs. 

Early in my career, I demonstrated to users a neat UI hack I was really proud of, and had spent a lot of time perfecting. The reaction was not what I was expecting. It was pretty much, “So what?” 

I was so disappointed! But I learned a valuable lesson—that what I as a designer think is awesome, doesn't necessarily line up with what users want and need. 

Often, new or trendy techniques come with extra development time or a performance penalty. Remember that someone in the future (probably you!) is going to have to maintain what you wrote, so it should have a solid foundation of usefulness. I’ve sometimes later regretted going down a certain road, when the client asks for improvements that involve painstaking coding or layout object changes.

In the end, you need a really good reason for each design decision you make—something more than, “I thought it was cool.” 

So go ahead and implement something that you just learned, or you think is the height of awesome, but ONLY if the primary goal is to help the user solve a problem. 

If your design gives users what they want and need, they’ll love it!

If you would like to connect with Alexis or follow her work, check out her site at https://www.fmdesignuniversity.com or follow her on LinkedIn. Watch her 2019 DevCon session: Breaking Out of List and Form View: Workflow-Based Design for the Modern World