The Order of Operations of Product Design
Or, what matters most.
At a certain point, one’s career in UX becomes less about doing or creating, and more about delegating and decision-making. As a leader, I am tasked with helping my design teams assign the most attention and focus to the things of most value.
As you grow into a design lead role, the purview of which you are responsible for changes. The questions you work through are no longer ones like ‘does this box look okay in this color,’ and are more like ‘will we have a successful product’. The stakes change, as do the types of decisions and choices we have to make. They are not mutually exclusive—they’re just different parts of the same picture.
As a design lead, you typically have to actively give feedback to your team in order to ensure the success of your project or product. You help guide them through all of the ‘does this box look okay in this color’ questions in order to get to the higher level answer of ‘will we have a successful product.’
It seems that often, newer designers tend to get mired in the myopic scope of all the ‘does this box look okay in this color’ questions and have a hard time seeing the bigger picture. This makes perfect sense—given that their purview is in the day-to-day execution of the design.
However, I’ve had a growing number of designers ask lately how they can keep the bigger picture in mind while dealing with the seemingly myopic ‘does this box look okay in this color’ questions. Something—they feel—comes very easily to me.
I’ll start out by saying it takes a lot of work and practice at building products to be able to have the 20,000 ft view in mind while working through problems in the weeds. It may seem like a no-brainer to seasoned designers, but that’s just repetition and past learnings taking the wheel.
Suffice to say, this is a bit of a copout answer, so I decided to try and come up with a framework that might help designers weigh their decisions.
The Order of Operations
What you see above is my stab at making concrete what most design leads have going on in their heads when critiquing or doing work themselves. It’s a way in which we decide what trumps what when making product decisions and it’s a quick and dirty way of thinking about what’s most valuable when in the weeds.
I will preface with saying that this is NOT the only order this could ever be in. This is just what I’ve identified as the prevailing universal order that most complex projects will typically operate under.
Let me explain.
At the top of the chain of importance for most any product is its usefulness. Why? Because, as I remind designers and PM’s all the time, the most important thing our products need to do is find their way into the context of their intended users’ existence.
What does this mean? Simple. People are busy. They have shit to do. To buy into their schedule, to steal time away from what they already feel like isn’t enough daylight, the product either needs to provide enough value or naturally fit into what they’re already doing. Otherwise it won’t be used. A great product is worthless if it’s not used.
Now, I know, most people in UX reading this right now are cringing. Shouldn’t usability come first and foremost?!? People love and want usability! They NEED it!
Well, the reality is no, not really. And I know, a person in UX is saying that UX isn’t the most important thing is weird, but, stay with me.
Let’s look at an example:
When Snapchat launched (and to an extent now…) its design and usability was…well, let’s say it was wanting. I’m not trying to bash anyone who works there, but the reality is:
- There are/were very few, if any, natural patterns prevalent in app design
- Wayfinding was mostly a guessing game
- Labeling was few and far between
- There were very few gestures users were already using (in itself a pattern)
- Icons, icons, icons! (BUT WHAT DO THEY MEAN?!?!)
Yet, it still took off. To the tune of over Twenty Billion dollars.
Why? Simple. It provided value. People decided it was useful enough for them to struggle through learning the design. And it does have to be learned.
Still not convinced? How about this one: Microsoft Office—pretty much any version ever. MS Office has been the butt of design jokes for so long that people are now nostalgic for Clippy (we’ve come full circle folks).
BUT. It’s still the defacto standard for businesses the world over. Why? Cause that shit is crazy useful (and cause they were there first…but that’s a topic for another article)! Never mind the fact that learning Microsoft office is so painful they have entire multiple-semester certification programs for it.
Their inferior UX won out so hard in the end, that even their open source and for profit competitors still largely follow the same design. Hell, even TinyMCE, the world’s most common library for WYSIWYG word processing on the web is based off of MSO. Not because it’s ideal, but because people know it. That’s dominance.
People love usable products, but if a product isn’t useful to them, they won’t use it. No matter how easy to use it is.
Naturally, usable is next on the hierarchy because if something is cool and beautiful, but doesn’t work as expected or people just can’t figure it out, then it’s usually relegated for the rubbish bin. We in UX know this. It’s why we have a job. The important part is putting usability in its place.
The Apple Newton MessagePad
Aka the original iPad.
Before Steve Jobs was quoted as saying that his company would never build a tablet with a stylus. They did just that. Seems like Apple learned from that…for a while, anyway . Novel, crazy ahead of its time, and beautiful (for the time, haters). But impossible to use. It’s most hyped feature, handwriting recognition literally needed you to train it how to read your handwriting…word by word.
People moved on—cause of course.
On the same thread, next on the hierarchy is novelty. People love flash. For a moment. If something is new and zazzy enough, more often than not, people will buy in…until it becomes too much of a hassle to use or becomes a distraction from their normal lives (see: useful)
Examples here are endless. In recent history…oh, I dunno, maybe Pokemon Go, 3D TV’s, VR anything, wearable anything, hoverboards, Juicero…just to name a few.
The examples in this category feel endless because this is often times largely driven by innovation in technology. The problem is that innovation that doesn’t solve a problem rarely finds a way to make a lasting mark. And when novelty is all you’re leading with, people often just don’t find a way to include it into their lives (see: useful).
Lastly, at the bottom of the product totem pole, (much to the chagrin of visual designers the world over), is beautiful.
I know what a lot of people are thinking: “Wait, what? But this is design we’re talking about, right?? Isn’t design supposed to be about making stuff beautiful???”
Yes, it’s an important aspect. But as any seasoned pro will tell you, it’s actually a pretty small part of the overall picture when designing a product. VizD is usually the last part. We need to ensure everything up the totem pole is sound in order to ensure that the beautiful visuals are enjoyed at all!
A lot of this is an uncomfortable reality for designers. But nonetheless, it is reality.
By People, for People
We design for people. We can never forget this.
Unfortunately for us, people are gross, mushy, touchy-feely, fickle things.
We don’t like wasting our time (useful).
We don’t like struggling with things (usable).
We don’t like the same things we liked yesterday (novel).
And we don’t like ugly things—subjectivity aside (beautiful).
In order at having a real shot at a successful product, your product needs to nail it in at least one of these categories. Many times, more than one. And, realistically, you need a bit of each. How much of each is a different question. One that is worth solving however.
Seeing the Matrix
For those designers that are working in the trenches actually designing every day, and for the designers that are moving into leadership, trying to figure out the priority among these competing interests, it’s really worth the time to figure out your order of operations.
What is most important for the success of what you’re designing?
Is it a marketing site that needs equal parts flash (beautiful) and informative content (useful)?
Is it a proof of concept on a new technology (novel) that needs to function correctly in order for people to care (usable)?
Is it a piece of enterprise software that enables some large scale business process (useful) at your company, but needs to be fast enough as to not take too much of peoples’ time (usable)??
Taking a stab at identifying this goes a long way toward helping to prioritize what needs most effort and will probably make you your PM’s newest BFF. You might find that after you do it enough, it’ll become second nature and making big decisions won’t seem so daunting!
Also published on Medium.