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The Principles of Product Design

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It would be great if a product’s success was all about the idea. Come up with the right concept and it doesn’t matter what the product looks like as long as it does the job. But the opposite is usually true. A product that looks appealing can often sell more than one that does the job better. An apple will squish a hunger flatter than a candy bar will, for example, but it’s the Hersheys that are next to the supermarket cash desks, not the fruit stands. A candy designer knows how to put temptation on the packet; an apple grower, not so much. If look-and-feel are so important for the success of a product then, every entrepreneur with a smart idea needs to know at least a little about creating products that don’t just work well but which look attractive too.

That starts with understanding constraints. Video game developer Dino Dini has identified two kinds of constraints that dictate a product’s design: non-negotiable constraints are the product’s essential functions – a dating site, for example, has to be able to hold data, display profiles and allow members to communicate;  negotiable constraints are the optional extras around which the designer can get creative. The site’s colors, for example, the way that profiles are displayed and even the decision to include video chat or instant messaging are all negotiable constraints. The site has to allow members to get in touch but how they do it and what they’re looking at while they do it are negotiable.

Get the non-negotiable constraints wrong and the product won’t work. Get the negotiable constraints wrong and the product won’t sell.

The first stage of thinking about a product’s design then is to separate the functions from the extras, then let the designer figure out how to make those extras stand out.

Keep It Simple, Stupid

Simplicity is usually important too. One of the most popular design approaches is summed up by the acronym KISS: “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” The phrase is said to originate from Kelly Johnson, lead engineer on the plane design team Lockheed Skunk Works, for whom it meant “Keep It Simple And Stupid.” He intended the jets he built to be simple enough for an engineer with just a handful of tools to repair. Today though, the approach has a much simpler requirement: designs have to be basic enough for people to use without getting confused and turning away.

That’s easier agreed than done. Products tend to start out with one simple idea. As competition heats up, more features are added so that a page that used to contain just a search box, ends up with links to images, maps, news, iGoogle and more. And an email option that allows users to receive and send messages becomes a place where everyone can suddenly see who each other is emailing.

That isn’t to say that growth is a bad design concept. But growth that gets in the way of the non-negotiables, making them harder to use, is always a bad thing. It’s important to identify what your product needs to do at the start of the design process but it’s vital not to forget those features as the design and the product develop.

The first steps are particularly important. The home page of a website, for example, can lead to a range of different actions. Visitors can be asked to sign up, invited to search, tempted to download and offered a video to play to name just four. When a user reaches a site then, he’s got no idea what he’s going to have to do next. Smart design makes that understanding simple so that the user can find his way to the site’s most important goal quickly. Often, that means hiding all of the alternative options or making the most vital one stand out more prominently with a large button or central positioning. Google, for example, might now have a much more cluttered home page than it once had, but the main option is still offered first and it’s placed front and center. The home page of hosting company GoDaddy is much harder to navigate. Should users search for a domain name, buy a cheap one, or click on any of the dozens of other links on the page? A product might have more than one non-negotiable function but if users can’t reach the most important one immediately, they’ll go elsewhere.

Build Personas

Understanding what it will take to move a user to reach that goal though means understanding the user. That’s a vital part of design that’s often overlooked. Marketers like to focus their efforts on demographics, but too often developers will forget about the sort of person who’s actually going to be clicking the buttons as they focus on the shape of the buttons themselves. Addressing Bar Camp in London in 2008, Amanda Jahn, Yahoo! Answer’s Lead UX Designer, talked about using data from user testing, customer service emails, search logs, blogs and suggestion boards to create personas that include their likes, dislike, background and behavior. Some of those “personas,” she said, are going to be more important to the success of the product than others so designers need to make sure that their needs are met first. It’s not enough, it seems, to make things simple; you also have to make things simple for a particular group of users.

Design is usually something best left to professional creative types – the people who spent years at art school doing strange things with their hair and getting invited to parties while the geeks were busy coding. But it’s not something that only they should understand. Good design is such a vital part of the success of any product that every developer and entrepreneur needs to understand the constraints of their product, how simplicity can deliver users to those functions and what sort of users they need to appeal to.

That’s just good design.

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