Friday, January 11, 2013

10 Important Reminders When Creating Products for People

Every company that makes things or does things for people has the same goal. To get as much money as possible from the people in return for those things. It's amazing how much we over-complicate this some times. But what do what do the people actually want? Even more amazing than our tendancy to over-complicate the formula is to forget that the people have a choice. Throughout my years as a consultant (I'm now back at a product company), I was amazed by the amount of consumer-facing companies that failed to understand their customers and what they actually wanted. They just went about their business, producing thier things, and trying to convince the world of why they should turn over their hard-earned money to get them.

I shouldn't complain or point fingers, because frankly, figuring out what people want is really hard to do. I have a background in Engineering Pscychology, over a decade of experience as a human-centered designer/consultant/director, practically obsess over this goal, and I still find it extremely challenging. Yet, here's the deal.. it's not magic. ANYONE can learn how to better understand thier customers and their needs. ANYONE can get inside the head of a customer to get a better sense of their motivations, frustrations, and biases. This is not just a job for creatives and designers. Everyone on a product team can make better decisions in their job, from business-minded leadership to entry level product engineers, if they have a richer understanding of their customer.

Making the effort to truly understand your customers is worth it. Without a doubt. Competitive analysis might tell you what core features you need to have, but how will you ever separate from the pack doing that? Making the effort to understand the underlying mindset and the behavioral tendencies of your customers will give you some ability to predict what they will and won't want. For instance, good research could tell you that your customers value simplicity over extra features (which they probably do) and high performance over reliability (which they probably don't). Having insights like this can lead to market-changing product ideas, sure, but also just leads to better decision-making throughout the entire product development process.

1. Someone else solved this problem.
Believe your challenge is unique? It's probably not. Abstract the technology or specific domain out of your challenge. Write a simple statement that describes what you're trying to do for people (e.g. "Help people make better purchase decisions"). Then, go find other products or industries that have done this successfully. Learn from them and adapt the best insights.

2. Stop predicting. Start learning.
As much as you research, plan, and discuss your product, you can't predict the future and you have very little idea of how customers are going to react to your product. You're better off getting something in front of users quickly, learn from it, and improve. This is the Lean movement makes sense in the uncertainty of the startup world. It's why IDEO is so bullish on prototyping.

3. Be like Michelangelo.
When asked about how he created his masterpiece, Michelangelo said that all he had to do was "remove all that was not David from the stone". The takeaway? Learning how to subtract unnecessary or unwanted features (and avoiding the temptations of addition) is one of the best paths towards creating a great user experience.

4. Walk in their shoes.
The best insights about users often comes from first-hand experience. If you don't have experience that relates to your user, find a way to come as close as possible. Recreate their environment in an empty lab. If you can, do a bit of ethnographic research by going onsite and just observing them for a whole day with no interruption. You'll be amazed what kind of insights you come away with when you see what their life is really like.

5. Beware the Curse of Knowledge.
You're living this product every day. You have insider knowledge of the technology, awareness of its faults, and you understand the intention behind its design. Because of this, it will be easy to forget what it's like to look at your product with fresh eyes and no preconceptions. Keep yourself honest by constantly showing your ideas to outsiders and seeing how they react. Read the early chapters of Chip and Dan Heath's Made to Stick for more information on The Curse of Knowledge.

6. Ask why... then ask why again.
Intention is the single most important aspect of the design process (to the point where I'm likely writing a book about it). Every feature, every decision, every step should have a "why" behind it that draws back to some human-oriented purpose. If you're questioning the existence of a feature, just keep asking why until you get to the core purpose. If you don't have one, you have more learning to do or you need to cross the feature off the list.

7. You have no clue.
The design process walks a fine line between humility and pride. You need to remember that your ideas or your design can always be better. Feedback, both positive and negative, will help you on the path to a better product. Always question the quality of your design, but have the confidence that you'll get it right. It's a tricky balance but its the only way.

8. Remember the time
It's easy to get tricked into focusing only on the time when someone is using your product. Thinking about your users across a timeline can be an incredibly valuable exercise as it will reveal insights and opportunities. What are your users doing before using your product? What about immediately after? What are they doing most frequently? This last one is particularly important as frequent actions and critical actions are almost never the same, and products should be designed for frequency.

9. Know your surroundings
Your user is not interacting with your product in isolation. Be aware of other products or services or environmental conditions are likely affecting them. Whoever designed my cable box clearly forgot that people have TV's in their bedroom as they decided that bright white LED lights were acceptable, even when the unit is turned off. I had to hack a cover out of a matchbox and I walk across the room and put it on the cable box every night in order for my wife and I to sleep. Not exactly a hardship, but does that sound like something a person does in 2013?

10. People are people
There's a trap that companies often into when it comes to creating products. If they're developing for a specific class of people, they talk of them as if they're some strange foreign species. For instance, they'll talk of military personnel as order-following, extremely-efficient robots or assume that enterprise users care only about productivity and action items. This is wrong and should be stopped. People are people. I'm all for the creation of personas, defining preferences and tendencies, but people are largely the same - they have preferences, they have flaws, and they just want to get their job done and get back to being regular people.

So what's missing from this list? Please comment or write me at