Search First Design


When you ask most designers what the most important part of design is, a textbook response is empathy. I’ve pondered this question quite a bit over the years and have arrived at the bold conclusion that while this is in fact a pillar at the foundation of design, it is not where I begin a project.

After almost a decade in the field and working at a few agencies before founding my own I’ve seen design, marketing, and development work as largely siloed departments. Sure there are standup and meetings and open office plans to facilitate some collaboration, but it was more of a tension than a collaboration. Toward the end of a project requests came from rocketing in from marketing and the development team complained furiously certain aspects of the design could not be completed on time.

When starting Cause of a Kind, I knew this was something that I wanted to do differently. Being both a designer and a developer (albeit more of a developer at heart) I was able to feel the tension in my own head between the two disciplines. Working closely with Justin on projects every day, our SEO guru, we had to collaborate from the start. We sat down and would do keyword research, run lighthouse reports, run crawlers and do competitive analysis together before we ever opened a Sketch file or wrote a single line of code.

Our approach was radically changing the way that I had approached design before. At most places we would ask about the brand, a little about their competitors, maybe do a few surveys with potential customers to learn a bit about the brand itself. The problem was on the other side of the room the same customer was paying our marketing department to give them deeper insights into these same things. We’d design for where the brand was, and marketing was planning to take the brand to where they wanted to go.

As we conducted our keyword research and started looking for places where the lexicon gave way to low competition and high demand I was able to see the holes in the market. Where this brand could position themselves that others were not, and how they could structure their content and website to serve the intent of their users. This is where search first design is born, intent.

Understanding first what your users are looking for allows you to build that pillar of empathy first. Too often we say we are trying to improve the user experience, and using that as a blanket term for “I’m going to make something pretty.” The fact is this is playing the fiddle before tuning it. It may be pretty, but it somehow misses the mark for the business parties and their users.

When we start with search first, we learn first what people are looking for, and then we see how to bring the brand closer to that ideal. Most businesses are migrating from old sites and platforms, that have designs that are essentially out-of-the-box templates cobbled together to fit the brand. Despite it being 2020, many small to medium sized businesses especially are just dipping their feet into getting the digital experiences they deserve. When we work on a design from scratch, starting with what we think we know about the customer is never as good as starting with what the customer is telling us. This is at the heart of search.

I’ll be adding more case studies of how we put this into practice in a practical sense, but in the meantime, designers, hang out with your marketing department sometime, you might be surprised at what you learn.