Nice, useful, or moral? What basic rules every product designer has to follow?

UX and Product Designer at Goyello Aleksander Rychwalski discusses basic rules every product designer has to follow.

Alek, you have to admit that designers often hear the following words: “Make it look nice!” In your opinion, however, that’s not what product design is all about. Why is that?

Steve Jobs once said: „Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works” while Don Norman, the man who contributed a great deal to the success of Apple products, claimed that „pretty things work better”. The aesthetic appeal of things we use makes us more eager to interact with them. At the same time, we are more forgiving when it comes to the quality of interaction. That’s also the reason why beautiful people have much easier lives. Having said that, we have to remember one thing: a well-designed product must serve a purpose, not only look nice.

A well-designed product – what does it mean?

If readers are willing to find an answer to this question, I recommend they read 10 principles of good design, formulated by Dieter Rams. What I find really exciting about Rams’s view is that he distinguishes between aesthetics and aethics. In Western culture the two notions have been treated separately for quite a while. However, for ancient Greeks what was beautiful was good at the same time. And vice versa.

Rams talks not only about innovation, usability, comprehensiveness and straightforwardness of good design. He draws our attention to the fact that design has to be sincere and humble as well. These “commandments” are the most difficult to understand. We haven’t been considering products as moral or immoral for a while now.

Can design be „immoral”?

Of course it can. A good example of „immoral” design is the process of online check-in, particularly at the low-cost airlines, the ones that charge you extra if you want to check in at the airport. If you decide to deal with it online you must be aware of numerous pitfalls waiting for you on the way. Their aim is to manoeuvre you into purchasing an insurance policy or paying for seat reservation, even though your seat will be indicated on the boarding pass free of charge.

In this case knowledge of behavioural and cognitive psychology on which design is based was used. However, it was not used to make interaction easier and more clear but to mislead the user.

Alek_Rychwalski1So, what should you start with when designing a product?

First of all, you have to identify the problem your product can solve. If you want to learn what issues have to be addressed in the first place, it’s good to do some research. You can choose many different ways of conducting it, depending on your time and budget. Having done the research and formulated conclusions you can then identify your end users. Thanks to the fact you have defined problems they face, you can create value you will offer them as a product or service. It’s an extremely complex and creative process whose result is the first proposal of the solution that will or will not convince your prospective customers to buy the product. You have to identify its unique value to be able to well define your product as you always start with the minimum number of necessary features.

Can you give any example of a problem customers face that has been identified correctly?

Every good product you can find on the market has been developed after its users’ needs were properly identified. So I assume there are more correctly identified problems that we think. An example that comes to my mind is an interesting case study from the bicycle industry. Shimano, a renowned cyclic equipment producer and distributor, hired IDEO, a design studio. Shimano wanted the IDEO consultants to look for a solution that would improve the sales results of the brand facing stagnation and market saturation in the US.

According to research IDEO did many bicycle riders stopped using their bikes out of fear the technological barrier was becoming too big for them. It turned out that the progress in technology, whose epitome Shimano actually was, intimidated plenty of bike riders who got used to simple pleasures of riding simple bikes.

IDEO decided to give Shimano customers back their independence and freedom, as well as straightforwardness of using their bikes in their everyday outfit, without having to bother that their clothes would be stained or destroyed by movable parts of the equipment. Any loose cables that could indicate that complicated technology was used, were hidden or removed. Also, automatic gear shifting was introduced so riders didn’t have to remember about changing gears any more.

The components could only be purchased as part of the equipment available in bikes offered by several producers cooperating with Shimano. Such a solution was supposed to ensure that the equipment meets buyers’ needs and that trained shop assistants will make sure it does. Buyers did not have to worry about the proper assembly of the components as the shop assistants were there to help them deal with it.

Although the products were launched to selected markets only as a pilot project, it let Shimano start a new, long-term strategy to expand its portfolio with a similar product line designed for the same target group. This story shows that innovation doesn’t have to mean following technological trends only.

Does it sometimes happen that a product is launched despite the fact that customers’ needs have been incorrectly identified or haven’t been identified at all?

Yes, indeed. In fact, not so many companies validate their ideas before they actually start the production. If that’s the case, things may end in a failure similar to the one producers of a Swedish bike called Itera experienced.

At the end of the 70’s Swedish designers started to work on a new bike, entirely built of plastic. All the main parts of the bike were made of polymers. About 30 000 Itera bikes were produced. However, only a small amount was actually sold. The major problem was that you could hardly ride the bike. Its frame was not stiff enough so you had to make a great effort and totally concentrate not to lose your balance when riding it. In addition to that, contrary to what you might expect, the plastic bike was heavier than aluminium or steel bikes.

Didn’t the designers identify the future user’s need before they started the development?

Sources say they had done some research several months before the product was launched. It had proved that over 100 thousand of Swedes were interested in buying the bike. But we all know that declaring your readiness to use a product in an abstract survey is one thing. The very act of riding a strange plastic bike that does not resemble bikes we know, is another. And future users of Itera were not given an opportunity to try the prototype.

Recently, you and your colleagues from Goyello Protostudio have developed a prototype of a solution for a client from the education publishing industry. Can did the project go?

Our work on the prototype of a system for supporting school education is a perfect example of how you can create a product remembering you aren’t designing it for yourself.

The prototype was developed in a number of short iterations. After each stage of the development we validated recently added functions of the solution with its end users. One of our target groups were head teachers who were supposed to use the system in their schools. We ran a series of meetings and interviews to present them the working prototype. We encouraged the participants to interact with the solution the way they would use the final product.

They had a number of remarks and suggested certain modifications to the project. Thanks to their input we gathered priceless knowledge and could further develop the solution that would actually address its future users’ problems and not only fulfill our ambition as designers.

What else do you have to keep in mind when designing a product?

You’d better save your time and energy. The designer has to learn how to act in line with something he or she is usually against, that is create sketches and drafts based on ready-to-use templates. It’s the quickest and least tiresome way to create a clickable prototype that users will be able to interact with.

The use of proper tools is key to reach the above-mentioned goals. The easier and more automatic the process, the better. When you opt for tools that offer too much, you usually prolong the whole process. That is why when designing a prototype you’d better leave your urge to be original at home. Ready-to-use templates, systems and UI components libraries are irreplaceable as they let us make the prototype look real enough.

Using templates is a compromise of course, but it’s inevitable at this level of the prototype development. There are of course some deviations from the rule. If the key value of the product is the quality of user experience, then it is quite possible that available patterns and templates might not be enough, even when used in a creative way.

Isn’t it a painful experience for a designer to confront their vision with end users’ often harsh opinions?

What distinguishes a really good designer from an average pixel pusher, is that the former is ready to quickly and frequently confront the outcome of his actions with future users. He or she is also ready to face the criticism and empathise with the user. In many situations people directly involved in the project are the first to test it. That is why it is worth encourage other people to take future users’ role and give their opinions about the product even when, or particularly when it is not finished yet.

Collecting your feedback the soonest possible, you don’t waste that much time. It you are open and eager to present the results of your work, you can also expect some constructive exchange of views. It can let you notice new directions into which your product can develop, directions you have not been aware of. Above all, such an attitude ensures all stakeholders are unanimous as regards the direction the development follows and the shape the product will eventually take.

Are the product design principles universal, no matter if you are working on a bike, a washing machine or a mobile app?

I believe they are. The only difference between the products you have listed above is that both a washing machine and a bike have been available for dozens of years. They have already proved they are useful in solving numerous problems. In contrast, many mobile apps are still on the lookout for undefined problems they may solve. Hence their popularity, a true “gold fever” we have been looking at for quite a while now. There is a dark side of the phenomenon, though. Problems become more and more exaggerated and needs – less and less authentic.

Are there any rules that apply to digital products only?

Digital products function in ever changing reality. Both technology and the way they are used change very rapidly, much faster than the material world. You develop your product, you add new functions, you launch it to new markets and make sure it addresses new users’ needs – and you eventually end up with the product that is never fully completed.

Bearing in mind that digital users’ problems can rarely be solved permanently, you have to focus on the strategic position of the design process. What I mean is that it is really important to be able to correctly identify and define problems and then decide which of them you should deal with in the first place.

Are there any obstacles that may prevent you from following the rules you mentioned?

The major obstacle may be the fact that designers are a low-status group in many organisations. The fact that they are not entitled to express their opinions or take any decisions regarding products. If the designer has been deprived of that right he or she doesn’t take any more responsibility for what he or she has created. They cannot see any sense in what they do. They cannot look at it from any wider perspective, either. In the system that praises designers only for creating beautiful things, in which they constantly hear “make it look really nice!” and no one reflects on the sense of their existence from the business point of view, designers will enhance their professional skills to provide mainly aesthetic value. However, they won’t be designers any more. They will become “masters of Photoshop”.

Fortunately, recent years have brought unprecedented change in designers’ professional position. It was possible mainly thanks to the rise of companies and startups that see design as an integral part of the product creation and development. Due to their success designers who used to play a minor role putting only finishing touches to ready products to make them look nice in the shop window, took on the leading role at last. Design is no longer a service you can deal with at the very end, hiring a freelancer or an agency. There is an increasing awareness that design is not about the way a product looks. When it comes to users’ satisfaction it’s a feature that really counts.

Well, I hope that the trend continues. Thanks a lot, Alek.