Using 99Designs to Get VisDs to Think More Like IxDs

I recently indulged my iconography hobby by entering a contest on 99Designs, the crowdsourcing design website. I like to engage in these competitions for a few reasons:  the short timeframe forces me to hone my conceptualization and visual design skills, I get to work with people I wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to, and I get to try on something new.  The prospect of a decent cash prize doesn’t hurt.

99Designs’s contests make it easy for me to do all of this, without the hassle of vetting freelance clients. All I need is for someone to post a project, and participation is just a matter of judging the design brief, uploading a few files, and checking on the contest holder’s feedback and ratings.

The contest I recently participated in was for 3 application icons.  Instead of just diving into the work, I approached the problem from a more methodical standpoint.  I started with a word brainstorm, followed by a validation card sort, lots and lots of sketching, and final design with the promise of future A/B testing. Certainly this approach is only scratching the surface of what constitutes interaction design but, nonetheless, the resulting icons were an immediate hit. I came away with a win and a great reference.

A snapshot of my process for a recent 99Designs contest

It’s important for visual designers to approach projects with an interaction design mindset, especially when the product will be the whole of, or part of, a website, application or interactive piece.  Sometimes, though, designers either are afraid that these methods will take too much time, or they just don’t have the experience with a user-centered approach.  Yet there’s a growing need for designers with hybrid interaction & visual design skills, so we need to find a way to make the process more approachable to them.

99Designs is well poised to make this happen. As of this writing, there are more than 60,000 designers registered on the site, and, at any given time, there are nearly 200 web, UI or related interactive contests running. If 99Designs just tweaks their contest structure to support a process of discovery, sketching and validation, they could educate these designers and add lasting value to the work they produce.

The current state of contests on 99designs

99Designs allows small businesses and designers worldwide to collaborate on illustration, identity, web and UI projects.  After registering and setting up a 99Designs account, anyone can get started within a few minutes.

On the client’s side, contest setup is a matter of a few simple steps. Clients select from predefined project types and award amounts. They have the option of adding custom listing formats, timeframes, incentives (such as guaranteed contests) and visibility settings (a “private” contest keeps it from turning up in search results; a “blind” contest reduces accusations of plagiarism by keeping submissions hidden from other designers).  During the contest, the client can easily comment on and rate designer’s submissions, or communicate with the designer directly via a hosted message system. When the client selects a winner, money gets automatically deducted from their account.

Designers can join a contest simply by browsing, searching, or being invited.  The contest page gives them access to everything they need. They can check the design brief, see existing submissions and comments (if the contest isn’t blind), upload designs, and communicate with the contest holder. The designer retains all copyright until they win a competition, at which point 99Designs facilitates the copyright, file and award handover.   Artwork also shows up in the designer’s 99Designs folio, which helps them get invited to more contests.

99Designs streamlined the entry process to help clients and designers focus on quality of work. Unfortunately, the quality of a design often becomes a matter of designer and/or client preference, instead of being determined by metrics associated with the client’s target audience.  This happens for a number of reasons:

  • The affordable (read: cheap) contest awards create an expectation of question-free, “color inside the lines” design.
  • Designers feel that taking the time to research, sketch and test will waste valuable contest time and give the advantage to other designers.
  • Neither visual designers or clients have been trained to understand the importance of an interaction design approach.
Regardless of the cause, designers and clients should make an effort to judge work against its potential impact on its target users.  Failure to incorporate these kinds of benchmarks may cost the client more money in practice than they save with cheaper work. Lack of proper research, exploration and validation can cause the designer to create throwaway work, while making it difficult for clients to defend their selected winner.

This idea of research, exploration/design and validation is, of course, at the heart of interaction design.  But currently, 99Designs only mentions the term “interaction design” within the resources page of its blog, and even there it’s only in a list of links.

I suggest that they instead look at ways to pull these basic practices into their existing contest structures.

Get clients and designers working within an interaction design framework

Below are just a few suggestions as to how 99Designs could nurture a user-centered design approach.

Research:Create an incentive for clients to provide research up front

Since there may be a short timeframe for contests, it may be unrealistic to ask designers to conduct research for the project. If the client has done some persona work, market research, focus groups, testing against an existing product, wireframes, etc, there should be dedicated fields for that information in the design brief.

Once entered, this could be clearly called-out for designers to see how prepared the contest holder is, similar to the “guaranteed” contest badge. In addition to the soft incentive of drawing more talented designers to the contest, a physical incentive could be in the form of a listing discount for clients who fill in these fields.

Encourage clients to upload background information, and encourage designers to ask for it.

Also, have a required minimum contest length for clients without research. Add a day or two into the contest for the designer to gather even the smallest bit of background/ethnographic information. Exploration (Early Design): Have a dedicated brainstorm/sketching phase

Allocate the initial part of a contest for wireframing and/or sketching, or require that each designer’s first submissions be in sketch form.  This step could be skipped for those clients who provide wireframes and sketches in advance, perhaps because they have their own IxD staff, and simply need a look-and-feel treatment.

Even better, embed virtual tools such as Balsamiq into the 99Designs environment, so that designers and clients can iterate together in the  context of the competition.

Build virtual wireframing and sketching tools into the site to support the collaborative process

I certainly haven’t forgotten about prototyping, which is another candidate for this stage.  However, because 99Designs does not support coding projects, prototypes may not be as relevant as sketches and wireframes.

Validation: Tie in common testing tools

There are plenty of web-based testing tools that 99Designs could bring into the contest structure, including, but not limited to:

  • Websort:  An online card sorting application.  This proved great for narrowing down my iconic representation possibilities, but could be useful to those designers who need to do a little categorization work as part of their contest.
  • Google Website Optimizer:  This is great for A/B testing, utilizing the client’s current site traffic.  Generally, this is best reserved for web design work, but I imagine it could be adapted for other project types.
  • 5 second test:  Get initial impressions on static web comps in a matter of minutes.
One of these tools could be included in the initial cost during contest setup.   The client or designer could opt to change the selection later, or additional tools could be added a la carte.

Facilitate more in-depth testing

If there is a desire to validate a design more thoroughly, 99Designs could facilitate this process by partnering with a larger service (such as or recruiting agency.  Perhaps the site could also set up a trade service between designers and the UX community.  There would also be support for designers and clients to handle this testing using their own methods.

Pull in ongoing stats

Since 99Designs touts the idea of building relationships between clients and designers, it makes some sense for both parties to keep track of a design’s performance even after a contest has ended.  This might be achieved by linking up the analytics report from the client’s final site to the designer’s portfolio. These results could then be displayed, along with the results of testing, in a dashboard-like fashion to show off the success of the work.  Of course, this would be an optional tool, but one greatly suited to encouraging designers to make a lasting impact with well thought-out designs.

By attaching some stats to how the designer's work performed, there will be an incentive to produce work with lasting impact

99Designs can introduce mainstream clients and designers to the value of interaction design just by making some changes to their existing contest format.  I certainly do not promote the use of lightning-fast, cheap contest work as a replacement for thorough discovery, design and testing methods.  But with many young designers flocking to sites like 99Designs for experience, there’s really no better place to get them started on the right path.


99Designs website and the 99Designs blog Here you can see the website in its entirety.  Overall, a well-designed experience and a great community of businesses and designers.

Google Website Optimizer Blog Get the latest tips, tricks and updates to one of the most popular web testing tools. A cheap way to run open or closed card sorts for a variety of projects.  If your sample size is under 10 people, it’s free!

Balsamiq If you haven’t tried it yet, Balsamiq is a great tool for creating quick sketch-like wireframes and simple-click prototypes.  Because it runs on Air, you can use one version on any machine that supports Flash.

Interaction Design Association (IxDA) Website A great resource and active community for anyone interested in interaction design.

“A Project Guide to UX Design” (Book)

Written by Russ Unger and Carolyn, this book provides an overview of the profession and the processes involved.  Good for beginners and seasoned professionals.