Is “design” how something looks, or how it works? The answer is “yes.”
Let’s have a fresh look at the word itself:
I often hear the word “design” being used to talk about the way something looks. True! The visual appeal of a product is definitely something that contributes to a great design. When it comes to building a product, though, it’s the first definition that more accurately conveys what we should mean. A design for a product doesn’t just “show” the look and function, but also defines it at the same time.
When it comes to a museum (to use the Google definition example), the “design” accounts for how much space will be in each area, how people will flow through the space, how they will feel as they flow through it, and even what sort of spaces are needed at all. The wallpaper and tile for the floor are just a part of this design.
Something can be designed without using visuals at all. For example, a speech, event, or initiative can be “designed” to motivate people or change the world in some way. The design of a product should be considered the same way, it is the essence of the product itself – why it exists, what it is supposed to do, and how it will do it. If you are defining anything about the product at all, even just the initial concept for features, you are coming up with some of its design. Therefore, every part of a product build, from initial ideas, to requirements, to implementation is creating and shaping the product’s design.
So, as Google says, a design is a plan. A plan conveys intention. It communicates meaning and purpose to an otherwise unorganized pile of ideas.
I’ve been lucky enough to be working with a team here at Modus on a design for a digital product that I believe will help a lot of people. I wanted to write down a few thoughts on what design has come to mean to me as I have worked with Modus teams as a designer over the past 4 years on a variety of products.
When it comes to the creation or re-imagining of a product, whether it be a kitchen tool or an iOS app, it should be first and foremost “practical for use.” When we think about what “practical for use” means, we should think bigger than feature requests, C-level requests, and so-called “best practices”. We should think beyond putting an attractive skin over a pile of requirements. Instead, we should seek answers to key questions:
- Is it going to create the outcome we want? Do we know the outcome we want? If we don’t know the specific outcome we want, we aren’t even ready for a design. Once we have some design, we should prove the outcome to be true using interviews, surveys, and analytics.
- Will people use it even though other solutions exist? If we are to fully believe in our product, we should validate the problem and see how our solution ideas work against that problem for real potential users, before building it. Viable products have to be both needed and better than other options available.
- Is it simple to find and use when it’s needed? Great products come off as being simple in nature, ready for use, and are easy to access when needed. Again, it’s easy to find out if this is true by simply showing the idea to potential customers.
- Is it reliable? High quality? Users have to have a good impression of your product via speed, feel, and visual appeal in order to keep using it. Designers are responsible for production quality, too!
- Is this product safe? (physically, mentally, morally?) It’s just as possible to drive bad or dangerous behaviors as it is to drive positive ones. Often, things can accidentally be harmful to users simply because they are not evaluated with users adequately, and serious consequences can go unnoticed. Products that act against the best interest of the user are far more likely to fail. Success for a dangerous product is even worse than failure.
The answers to these questions convey power, meaning, and purpose for our product.
We should approach the design of a digital product with the same thought and respect that some of the most impressive physical products are given. We should design in a way that stands the test of time and brings measurable value to users.
We should also acknowledge that, like physical products, our digital product has potential to do harm as well as good. It’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen. On client projects, we sometimes make intentional decisions to leave out features that could potentially mislead or cause unintentional harm, even if the feature is feasible from a technical standpoint.
Getting to a meaningful product design involves many things. Good design is:
- Not solely the role of a designer. Everyone on the team is ultimately responsible for helping to create or refine the plan for the product.
- Using many skills outside the realm of “art” to create a great plan, such as communication, facilitation, advocacy, research, and problem-solving.
- Knowing what you are trying to achieve, so that you know what you will measure. Showing the behavioral impact of your solution, rather than reporting buzz-word metrics.
- Using a combination of strategy (where you need to be as a business) and problem knowledge (what sort of negative impact is out there for people today) to create a plan (there is that word again) for the most meaningful solution possible with the least amount of waste.
- Working with users to gather evidence that the solution is meaningful and impactful before investing further time and money into building it.
- Working with other team members closely to ensure the solution is high quality and stays true to its purpose.
- Creating quality visual presentation of the functionality. Visuals serve to reinforce the purpose, quality, and value of the design.
Design, when viewed as more than decoration, is a huge responsibility. A product designer isn’t just tasked with making something look good — they are tasked with making a good product, period. Read more about 10 Product Design Principles that are important to us.
With a good plan in place, a team is able to focus sharply and create those “perfect in the moment” experiences. The team should know exactly where the solution fits into a user’s world and have a clear expectation of success.
If you’re interested in creating digital products with an evidence-based and customer-focused mindset, Modus can help.
Jonathan Van Dalen
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