Design as Problem Solving: A Conversation With Instructor Kathy Gill


Kathy Gill has been immersed in studying and teaching web design since the internet first extended its digital tendrils into our lives in the 1990s. She has been teaching the Design Principles course at Tombolo Institute for more than five years. Her background in communications and journalism gives her a valuable perspective when approaching a design problem. She understands that solving such problems starts with asking the right questions. Over the years, she has moved back and forth from being a communications person who helps people understand technology to being a technologist who helps people understand effective communication. Students who take her class at Tombolo Institute include a smattering of corporate managers, but the lion’s share are learners looking to develop new skills and transition into new careers. Her class is not technically oriented — no coding skills required — but more about how the design process unfolds and how it addresses issues related to end users. After completing this introductory course, many of Kathy’s students find the design focus that speaks to their passions and interests; they embark upon career paths in web design, graphic design or user experience design (UX). Tombolo Institute is pleased to present the following interview with Kathy Gill.

Q: Tell us about your background and experience in all things web-related.

Kathy Gill: I started out in traditional communications. I have an undergraduate degree in journalism and worked as a journalist. I’ve also worked in PR. When I moved here from the East Coast in 1991, I was promptly bitten by the internet bug. I was like a kid in a candy store. Technology pioneers like CompuServe and Delphi put so much information at my fingertips. It was just marvelous.

When I started working at Bellevue College in the mid ’90s, I taught HTML in the web design/development program. I taught full time at the University of Washington for nine years in the communications department in the digital media master’s program. I still teach a basic HTML class there once a year.

For eight years, I managed the website for King County elections. And in that process, I worked with a core team to redesign the entire website. Once we did the scaffolding work of the redesign, my job became more about content management and UX development. My focus became making sure our web content was usable and easy to find.

In the early ’90s, I discovered Don Norman’s book “The Design of Everyday Things,” which resonated with me. From that day forward, I was a user-experience designer even though that title didn’t yet exist.

Q: From your perspective as a user-experience designer, what are some of the most overlooked design aspects of a website?

Gill: The No. 1 item is when contact information appears on a page as an image or graphic rather than as text. That is problematic because a graphic is not clickable for telephone numbers on mobile devices or for map directions. Contact information needs to be text on every page — even if you’re not a brick-and-mortar business, you need to have your contact information on every page.

But if you are a brick-and-mortar store, it is essential that clear contact information be on every page. You would be surprised at how many sites either, A, don’t have it or, B, it’s an image. And when it’s an image, it’s useless on a phone.

Additionally, the contact page needs to have a well-written form with a dropdown list of common inquiries that helps the business or the organization filter questions. For example, the form should have a checkbox where the sender can indicate, “Yes, I would like to receive a copy of my email.” And when they hit the “Send” button, they should get a thank you that is on-brand and conversational.

And lastly, there should be a well-written About Us page that has a story that helps us know why we should care about, patronize or purchase what the business or organization has to offer. On that page there should be the names of real people at the company. This is my journalist side talking. When I look at a website’s About page and all it says is, “We do this, we do that,” and there’s nothing to tell you who the heck is “we” — if there’s no mention of who “we” might be and there’s no address — you’ve lost your credibility.

Q: As a communications pro, what are some of the most common mistakes you see when you are on different websites?

Gill: Often, I come across websites that are not written in a conversational voice that’s easily scannable for a reader. This is something we talk about in the Design Principles class because we have to understand how people process information, how they read. When we are looking for information that is important to us, information that helps us make a complex purchasing decision, we scan. That is especially true when the text is on a computer screen or mobile device. In my opinion — or should I say, IMHO — the best thing that’s happened to customer communications in the 20 years I’ve been working in this field is the move to conversational writing across the board.

Q: Can we put the mobile-responsive design issue to bed? Everyone now gets that. Right?

Gill: Believe it or not, we still have to remind people that the mobile user experience is very different than the desktop user experience. For example, hamburger menus — those three little horizontal bars in the upper left or the upper right of your phone — are for mobile, not for the desktop. People pay attention when you tell them that Google will penalize your website in terms of search results if it does not render properly on a mobile device.

Q: Any other tips for those who manage or design websites?

Gill: In useability terms, I’d say to make sure you have only one call to action on a page — one that matches that page’s title, content and so forth. If you have multiple calls to action, the person’s eye doesn’t know where to go.

One of my pet peeves is the homepage image carousel, because users aren’t going to sit there and wait for it to spin through all the messages. The carousel is typically implemented by those who cannot agree upon their most important message. Besides, it doesn’t solve anything for your end users unless the first image is the one that they care about. And yet even then, they might not see it, because we’ve all been trained to not look at them.

Every organization needs to occasionally refresh their website’s appearance. You want to look modern and give the impression that your business is active and thriving. You need to keep blog content up to date. Your business will look stagnant or even moribund if your last blog post was in 2016, or your last posted press release was dated 2017.

Q: The course description for Design Principles mentions measurable goals for a website. What are some important measurable goals people should be thinking about?

Gill: One of the first things I ask my students to think about is, “What do you think the mission of the organization is?” And then I ask, “How does the website support that mission?” Having a clear idea of the mission allows you to have a target for the business or the organization. We then talk about how a website is going to support that mission. We talk about SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound), which are established using a specific set of criteria that ensures an organization’s objectives are attainable within a certain time frame.

We talk about the things that are easy to measure and if they are the things we should measure. For example, the easiest thing to measure is page views. What does that mean to you? You have to say, “Page views is a proxy for X.” Is it a proxy for time on the site? Is it a proxy for how many people are coming to the site? Actually, the answer is no to either one of those things. But it’s an easy thing to measure.

So instead, I say, “Why don’t we think about this: Are you looking for repeat customers, or are you looking for new customers?” We can track how many new unique users we have, and we can track how many people are return users, which as a metric gives us much more specific bits of data. Many students think that more page views must be better. But is that necessarily the case? When I was working on the King County website, we hoped that page views would go down after we initiated our redesign, because our goal was to make it easier for users to get to the content they were trying to find.

What if your goal is to get leads from your website? Then you want a way to secure valid email addresses. You would then track the number of valid email addresses you were able to secure in a month. So those are the kinds of things that we talk about in the class.

Q: Can you talk about the concept of design as problem solving?

Gill: Often, the hardest thing for students to articulate is, “What is the problem we’re trying to solve? What is the problem the website is trying to solve for people? And then for which people or users is that a problem?”

Getting students to think about the problems to be solved helps them to keep the design process aligned with the organization’s mission and goals and enhance the user experience. If the mission states this, then that ties to this problem. Many students come to class thinking the visual aesthetic aspect of design is the end-all, as opposed to design being a problem-solving process. I hope that after my students complete this course, and if they go into graphic design, their thinking will be: I’m not just creating a logo. I’m creating something more than an appearance. What I am creating has to tie back into the corporate identity and have the look and feel that the organization wants to present consistently to its constituents, to its key audiences.

Q: Can you give an example of how you teach design as a problem-solving process in your class?

Gill: I have my students pick a website that they want to redesign. I ask them to tell me what problems the site they’ve chosen to work with fails to solve. Then we dig into the problems they’ve identified. I insist that they articulate the problem beyond merely stating they don’t like the look of it. I try to get them into critical-thinking analysis versus their own visceral responses. I want them to tell me why the website feels wrong to them. Why they feel like they are stubbing a toe when they try to work through the website.

Q: What are the career paths that the Design Principles class can prepare students for?

Gill: The class is a great starting point for several design-related career paths because we delve into design as a problem-solving process that involves demographic research and concepts of usability. Students learn that process by being asked, “What’s the problem to be solved? To whom is this problem relevant? How can we solve this problem?” Then we move forward from there, through all the steps in a user-centered design process. This class can be a springboard for students who want to go into graphic design or web design. It is also a great introduction for anyone who wants to pursue the user-experience design certificate program.

My hope is to show students how broad the field of design is and how many different options there are, depending on where their heart is and where their skills are. The class also shows students that if they want to be a design generalist like a graphic or designer, there’s a role for that within a smaller organization or company.

Competencies you will learn in this class:

• Establish the purpose and goals of the website
• Identify the characteristics and needs of the website’s audience
• Create a site architecture diagram that describes the website’s information flow
• Develop a navigation plan for the website
• Write the design specification for the website
• Determine the publishing environment for the website

Learn how one student found her passion and career path while taking her first courses at Tombolo

Learn more about certificate programs in web, graphic and UX design.