A few not-so-obvious fundamentals to keep in mind

Design as a profession is grossly mis-understood by many. We’re contained to a box full of “pretty colors, art, creative-minded, skinny-jean wearing” generalizations.

The thing is, while people are used to consuming beautiful work they can’t craft themselves, they often forget how hard it is to get to that place from nothing.

Product design on the other hand, is often over-analyzed. Corporate structures shipping solutions are usually bent on hard data, analytics, and ROI metrics.

Smaller agencies however, have a reputation for forgetting the research side of the coin, and sometimes employ designers to “go-nuts” visually on solutions that might not be trusted for a business’ core product.

But is there a happy medium between understanding how to build beautiful digital products that push the envelope, delight users, and drive businesses further into the black?

I think so…but it’s not always obvious. Let’s dive into 6 ways everyone can truly drive digital products to the next level.


01 — Users & Humans

How often to do you hear various roles in an org throw out the “users” term? It sounds so binary. Like a “user” is a robot that only feeds on the functions and formalities we provide them…

Designers use this term as well, but I think we grasp a little clearer picture of what that entails as human empathy is critical to our success.

Yes, that human might use your product…but there’s a lot more going on under the surface than we might recognize.

The concept of users and humans might feel like a semantic argument, but I think it’s easy to view them one in the same while drastically underestimating the depth of how people think. It’s like referring to a person by the color of their skin, placing various stereotypes and ideas into what makes up that individual, based on experiences (or information someone told you about).


But what happens when we do that?

We look like idiots, who enjoy short-changing ourselves when we put boxes around others. We forget the basics of human connection, and move towards the things that ultimately serve our business needs first. This is a bullshit way of thinking as it only hurts the offender, and creates self-serving products that no “user” is going to pick up and enjoy.

That person isn’t a user. It’s your mom.

That person’s day doesn’t revolve around the features you ship…you revolve around solving problems that connect to their goals or they’ll move on! We’re the short-changed ones, and that’s perfectly ok.

We signed up for the challenge, and we work towards changing that mentality, or simply role with the punches we create for ourselves.

Think in terms of designing for humans who feel, hurt, love; not basic users who are numbered within set UER sessions.

For the sake of semantics though, I’m still going to refer to the end-audience as users, but now you understand what I mean in all of it’s holistic glory.


02 — Data input does not equal effective output

In product design, it’s hard to find any modern day company who isn’t blabbing on and on about being data-driven. It’s hard to present anything these days without having hard data that proves exactly what we know about users (there’s that word again).

Now, I’m not dissing the notion of doing research and absorbing the findings about how your users think, but we need to kill the idea of data-led product design for people who are based on emotional feeling.

Why, you ask?

Because understanding the data of what you’re trying to do is only step one!

Data presents how people have (past tense) thought, worked, or told us what they like, do, hate, and love.

Yes, data levels the playing field…

However, data-driven design often leads to underwhelming products when creativity isn’t utilized as an edge in tandem with said data. Sadly, many stakeholders are too afraid to go after innovation from data rather than doing the expected. It makes me think of what Ford said.

If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have told me faster horses” — Henry Ford, inventor of the first horse-less automobile.

Data presents the problems users come up against and how they solve those problems, but there will always be better ways to drive innovative solutions in ways they can’t know for themselves.


03 — Discovery models + consumption mindset

It’s not always easy to understand or predict, but there are usually two main camps within digital product user behavior. The first is a browsing, consumption, or discovery mindset.

Think of the last time you scrolled endlessly for days using Instagram or Facebook. What goal were you trying to accomplish? What problem were you trying to solve?

You weren’t trying to solve a problem, you were catching up on what your friends were up to. You were consuming around that which entertains you.

As designers, there are various interaction models that allow us to understand how to tap into building for this user behavior. For example :

  • Navigation that gets out of the way of content while scrolling
  • Scrolling and taps are cheap (users don’t see it as work)
  • Is usually focused on photography or anything pleasing to the eye
  • Understand that a user isn’t in a mode of critical thinking, they’re just perusing


04 — User utility + temporary mental models

The 2nd behavior mental model surrounds utility and problem solving. Users have a problem, they’re looking for a solution, and they’re looking to you to solve it for them.

As designers, we need to keep principles like the following in mind :

  • Navigation isn’t hidden or unclear
  • Iconography must be specific, affording function within form
  • Users do NOT like to read, so get to the point and be concise
  • Present information as the user asks for it, rather than presenting a book’s worth of word vomit all in one view
  • Can your mother-in-law understand / love it?
  • Does your design hand-hold too much / too little?
  • Can you provide predictive content that delights the user?
  • Are you making users think too hard? It’s our job to help our UI/UX get out of the way, ultimately helping users solve their end-goal, not allowing them to get lost in a “pretty” feature.
  • Are you building features based on goals, or just pooping out something cool you thought up that might 1-up the competition? (this is a good example of getting the data/creative process backwards)


05 — Consistency is not king (clarity is)

Another huge thing I tend to come up against is helping people (usually internal team members) understand that consistency is a core principle of great product development, BUT is not the most important thing! Presenting clear content / end-to-end architecture is.

For example, designers are usually consistency snobs…I tend to be as well, but there are cases where being consistent and pulling a style you’ve already used somewhere else in your app may not be the clearest way forward for the user.

Sometimes developers who work within set, highly monitored code-bases (usually at larger companies) tend to resist anything new or custom. It’s our job as designers to understand the balance of when to charge a windmill for the user. You can’t charge them all, but you can fight for the big ones!

Yes, we may present information in “x” way somewhere else in our experience, but deeming consistency more important over clarity can leave the end user spinning in circles they might not have to.

This is a classic battle of an implementation mentality versus user goal mentality. Our digital products aren’t made for us to feel good about from an internal stand-point. They’re made for real users, and their opinion of our work is the only one that counts.

Be consistent as a core principle of good design / development, but know when to break away from it as well; clarity over consistency.


06 — Fight for the end-user or GTFO!

This one should be obvious for any designer in a healthy product design environment. As designers, it is our job to fight for the user (the human with real problems — the people who pay our bills / keep the lights on).

Stakeholders will forget about this at times. Push back and inform them of the data / creativity you’ve landed on.

Most developers aren’t having conversations with users, and can often be ignorant of why we present various UI the way we do. Work with them to help understand good design principles, and clarity.

Sometimes designers can be full of themselves too, shrugging off the user with a God-complex ignorance that needs to be muted.

Verbally slap them in the face, and tell ‘em to grow up and start focusing on real design (solving for problems) rather than focusing on art (presenting problems / statements).

Sometimes you’ll shrug off the user too…repeat the above immediately.

No matter who it is, fight for the end user or simply GTFO.


In Closing

As I’ve said, real design is really hard. The more simple you’re trying to make something, the harder it becomes; a process of reduction will always be difficult. It’s what makes design such a fun gig.

There will always be new solutions to old problems, and if we sit in our ways without gut-checking ourselves, we quickly become irrelevant, or fall behind.

Design is a business, and it’s our job to help bridge the gap between stakeholders and end-users. Know when to charge forward, innovate, stand up, fight, or bow out. It’s the Yoda way.


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