I’m a self-taught designer. I learnt design for the love of making things which I’ve been doing since childhood. From making tissue paper submarines to an igloo out of newspaper rolls (which I had to throw away the next day because there was no space to keep it. I could literally have lived in it.) I couldn’t wait for every next weekend to make something new which I saw on TV or the internet. Creating pixels came up in my life not more than 4 years from now. Two years ago, I saw a documentary that changed how I thought of design. It made me think differently about the world. And that’s when I really started to understand design. And I’m sure it will change your perceptions too.
I’ll tell you the name if you share this article. Just kidding, it’s in the end. I wouldn’t influence you to share this post. Cool?
Systems are designed; doesn’t matter good or bad, which are just perceptions. Bad design is considered good when people become accustomed to it because no one likes change. Bad designed products are all around us, if you observe carefully. I’m even typing on one, flawlessly. But what I’m trying to say is, design is all about getting the user to believe that it solves their problem.
Designing products is simple. Designing good products on the other hand need a lot of decisions with iterations. You always start with a goal in mind. Your big vision about the world and what your product is really trying to accomplish and how to let your users do it as simply and quickly as possible. Let me tell you what I think good design is all about. It’s about getting the user to get accustomed with the product as quickly as possible, and feel good about using it. It’s just that with time all products become habitual and seem like a good design. You can only decide if it’s good or bad by giving it to a completely new user. Only someone who’s using your product/feature for the first time can give you real insights. Let me try to illustrate this using a graph.
It all comes down to how intuitive or self explanatory your product is. But in most complex cases, it never is.
At a startup, you have to really design everything for the person seeing your product for the first time. The time taken to accomplish the goal and the emotions along the way truly matter. You can make something that looks visually stunning, but do not confuse that with good design. It’s just that cognition and emotions are interrelated but you as a product person need to make decisions about how simple it can really get. (By which I mean you can be a PM or a designer or an engineer. If you’re working on a product, you should know why and how you’re making it that way.) Aesthetics make the user perceive that the product is amazing, and usability with efficiency makes the user believe it. And that’s how an amazing product is built.
One of my mentors gave me a good instance to think of while making a product: Imagine your user is drunk, and now let them accomplish the goal. Or think of your user as a kid even if your research study says they are over 40. Obviously these cannot be an ideal stories for all products but it works in a lot of cases. Everytime you add a new feature, you’re making it harder for the user to accomplish their goals. And no, they don’t care about your company goals. And here’s where trade-offs come in. I’m yet to be in such a position so I don’t have a lot to say about that.
If you’re solving a big enough problem, that could impact the world, you want to make sure that people even seeing a smartphone for the first time are able to use it with ease. That’s what skeuomorphism UI was all about. But that’s a whole different conversation but I believe in the coming future, to really build something billions of people can understand, we will need a combination of modern and classic. You must realize the power of communicating via symbols, graphics, and images, so that people who do not even share the same language or tools or methodologies can understand. And I think Google’s material design is a really a good way to start with. But not everyone really understand how it even works. There will obviously be “material design workshops/meetups” trending soon. I hope more people try to understand the “why’s” that go in designing such a framework. Understanding these decisions are truly insightful. Might not be right all the time, but it’s worth exploring a different perception.
While designing a product, one should always have an end goal in mind and rethink of all the aspects they have put into making that design. Colors, icons, structure, interaction, pictures, videos, audio or any kind of communication and most important, the flow. Designing is just a mixed up equation of all these variables. And you as a designer have the responsibilty to simplify it.
Ultimately, if you are using a need based product which lets you to accomplish something which is not possible with some other product, you will get accustomed to using it no matter how bad that design is. That is actually a good way to test how much your idea is really needed in the market. You can think of it like if people are willing to pay for your product even when “experts” think it sucks but is the only thing that gets the job done quickly and efficiently, you will go a long way. Many people confuse good design with good ideas. They’re not related. Good design has the power to influence and convince the user that your product idea is the best out there. And that’s why everyone who wants to sell their ideas must learn to design.
The approach towards solving problems differently has shaped the world. Different companies have similar products but they all try to sell it in a different way. Because a good marketing person knows that if their product is no different or even better, their strategy to sell it has to be different. Take the example of Beats Audio vs Bose. Both of them make almost the same range of music equipment but Bose sells itself by saying “Better Sound Through Research” while Beats go by “Hear What You Want”. Bose has always been about better sound quality whereas Beats makes the user feel good about putting them on.
Good design, in very simple terms, is
problem solving + emotional delight
Don Norman, the famous design author, talks about very basic fundamentals of problem solving and usability in his book The Design Of Everyday Things and the same about emotional fulfillment in his other book Emotional Design. I recommend you to read both of them, retain the knowledge and apply it.
Problems are all around us which we usually take for granted. I don’t think many people few centuries ago thought of cleaning their teeth with a toothbrush. Deodorants were brought in the world by advertisers who convinced the world that they smelled bad. You will get accustomed with problems you didn’t know existed before. The sole of your shoes can change the way you walk, the style of your tie can change way people look at you, the design of your keyboard can make you more or less productive, and the food you eat can change your life.
It is really hard to be present in the moment, observing each and everything going around, because honestly, it’s a lot. But you can start. Start by seeing things around you or in a picture or a video. Start listening to the sounds around you. Ask yourself “why this” whenever you see anything. Question it. Only then you can uncover the dark mysteries of a product i.e. it’s problems. And when you can think of a problem, doesn’t matter big or small, you can define new ways to solve it. There’s your opportunity to create something innovative.
Being curious is one of the most important characteristics of a good designer.