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Want To Create A Great Product? First, Forget "User Friendliness"

User-friendliness is the inevitable result of a smart design approach, not the starting point. Here are three criteria to help you develop a useful design brief that will ultimately yield a great product.

There they were again. In the "tactics" section of the strategic brief for my client’s new project were two headings I’d seen many times before. User-friendly and intuitive. They’re common enough goals. No one could blame the company for pursuing these noble ambitions as a way to help the product become successful. But what the team didn’t know was that it would never achieve them. It couldn’t. Not with guidelines like these.

One of the most critical mistakes a company can make at the onset of a project is to use its strategic brief as a home for generic "user experience" fodder that describes what the company would like to achieve rather than guidelines on how to achieve it. These single-word principles are the Play-Doh of design strategy: You can morph them into anything you want. Because they could be applied to almost any project, they do nothing to help designers decide which paths to take on this one. They create debate rather than settle it. Worse, they make the executives smile just enough that everyone forgets to ask how the effects of the design will be measured.

User-friendliness is a result, not a tactic. Intuitiveness is a quality, not an approach. Neither term is tangible enough as a design objective to inspire a great product. No matter how strong your jaw, you can’t sink your teeth into vapor and expect it to taste like Apple. You’ll only hurt yourself trying.

To achieve the result of user-friendliness, the design criteria you spill out onto the proverbial page need to meet a three criteria of their own.


First, effective design criteria describe with precision what type of experience the user should have so a project team can make decisions that work toward it. Obvious, perhaps, but like an alcohol-induced startup idea, it’s the execution that matters. Practically any team of designers can think up at least a dozen solutions to a given problem. There’s nothing hard about solutions. But while there may be a myriad of ways to solve a problem, each one of them has a different effect and is perceived differently by the user.

One of the keys to creating a successful, smart design is knowing which effect and perception you want to achieve.

Here are three examples from a recent app-design project aimed at helping athletes improve at a particular sport:

• Help users improve without coaching them (i.e., roll technique recommendations into a game).

• Provide constant, immediate feedback.

• Help athletes compete (for example, through games and stats comparisons).

Each of these statements is crafted to portray a specific kind of design. It’s not "user-friendly." It’s instructive, and responsive, and challenging. Don’t design to solve problems, design to produce outcomes.


Next, design guidelines should make it easy for designers to see which roadrunners to chase and which to give up. They should hint at a direction. A road. A few more examples:

• Support deep dives into parts of the company story.

• Convert through storytelling (example: reveal what makes the company trustworthy through cases studies).

• Show beliefs through actions (example: a mobile-friendly website reflects an embrace of designing for mobile technology).

These guidelines point almost directly to actions that should be taken to achieve them. As a result, designers can weed out as many design ideas as they can know which ones to consider.


Finally, design guidelines should support the success metrics for a project. In a project geared toward increasing the conversion rate of a website, for example, the design guidelines should focus on aspects of the conversion process. Here are two from another recent project:

• Build confidence about the decision (examples: money-back guarantee, testimonials, stats on satisfied customers).

• Set expectations (e.g., make it clear that order confirmation takes up to 24 hours).

There’s nothing about user-friendliness here. These statements are focused on a measurable result.

Forget about user-friendliness

The notion that a product should be usable by its customers is a given. It’s product design 101. It’s not even worth saying. A customer’s perception of a product is the result of something far beyond basic "user-friendliness"; it’s the result of a slew of moments that tell him or her who this company is, what this product stands for, and what you want it to mean.

These moments happen while opening the box and making sense of the contents, landing on an unfamiliar website and trying to discern its purpose, figuring out where the power button is and how it works. Each of these moments can and should be crafted through design criteria that are specific, actionable, and measurable. Rather than declare your intention to create a usable product, spend your time on statements that describe the specific notes you hope to hit. Aiming for user-friendliness alone results in a usable product, not a compelling one. Compelling design comes from crafting the moments.

[Top image by Sacks08]

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  • Regnard Raquedan

    Hi Robert!

    I love your books and most of the point you've made in this article but I got the impression that you're saying "user-friendliness" is already a "commoditized" feature in today's products/apps.

  • kristina pifer

    There are a few interesting comments about what level of specificity is best in a design brief. I've found that the specificity depends in part on the maturity of the solution. Sometimes clients have simply identified a market opportunity and consumer pain points, and so they're looking for better ways of filling those gaps. Other times they have a specific piece of technology they've developed that is theoretically useful but fails to be useable. 

    I think Robert's article does a good job of calling out that regardless of the assignment, specific goals are more useful to designers than generic aspirations. One tactic I've used with clients when they've said "easy to use" or "intuitive" or even "fun" is to reply back "easy to use for whom? under what context? in accomplishing what goals?" 

  • sunilmalhotra

    "Users are always friendly; it's the product that's not." May sound like a joke but there's something deeply true here. Too much effort goen into impressing and theorising. Design is pragmatic. Design is beautiful. Design is responsible.

    We love the in-your-face view that neither user-friendliness nor intuitiveness are tangible enough to qualify to be a design objective. Thanks for a brilliant piece.

  • Sunil Malhotra

    Buckminster Fuller famously summed it up thus "When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong." Same goes for user-friendliness I guess.

    Thanks for a very lucid and pertinent design tenet, Robert.

  • Mtowers23

    I appreciate the sentiment that just saying create something that is user friendly is too vague to be useful but I think it is imprudent at best to assume that good usability will be part of a good design.  I have seen plenty of compelling designs that are not user friendly.  The reasoning sounds a little circular.  I like the points about defining success metrics but conversion rate may have nothing to do with design.  It could just be an artifact of a compelling product or content.  I would argue that the Ipod falls into that category. 

  • Andrew Redman

    It's pretty clear. Robert IS saying products must be user friendly to be compelling, but it's pointless saying only "The product must be user friendly" in a brief. That's about as helpful as saying "The product must be well designed" or this "The new F1 car needs to be fast". 

  • T2eff

    he is not saying you should throw away 'user friendliness', just that it is an end result of good design not the first thing you put up at the beginning of a design brief (like putting the cart before the horse..). Every good design execution always enhances or defines user experience, case in point- apple products. so get your mind right!!

  • Bill Cantelon

    Excellent. "Compelling design" is not common. The good designer has found
    the value of  'being the user',  creating progressions that are simple to follow, achieving the desired results.

  • Jusienyong

    so... are you saying "user friendly" product is not a compelling product?
    so user friendly similar to user centered?

  • Danielle

    wow. This was very compelling and refreshing. I think this article did more than just 'user friendliness.' No sarcasm.

  • Daniel Hansen

    Eric, relax. Complaining about a lack of substance in examples is like complaining about the gravy on your potatoes not being made out of potatoes.

    Great article. I shared it.

  • Paultaylordesign

    Good article. What makes a product 'easy' to use? Is it the physical effort required or the mental effort? It's a combination. Making something physically easy could be mentally tiring and vice versa. It's about taking advantage of the knowledge inherent in the user and rewarding that. Make it obvious to the target audience and it becomes easy. 

    Donald Norman's "The Design of Everyday Things" remains the benchmark on understanding this concept.

  • JCountey

    Well stated, Eric Rice. 

    Funny, I just shared yesterday the words from the Co-Design story on the Nest thermostat; Fadell:  "Apple taught me not to cut corners, and that you don't give up on user experience--ever."  I'll be working on a caveat.

  • jeanmari

    This is the absolute worst title for an article ever. Should be "Want to Create a Great Product? First, Forget About "Meaningless Jargon".

    I imagine that you intended for your choice of title to create "buzz."  Instead, it reflected poorly on the readers' interpretation of Mr. Hoekman's ability to communicate clearly with the written word.

    Yes, stripping out meaningless jargon and focusing on specific and measurable project requirements based in real observations and qualitative research (not assumptions) is important.  But focusing on a user's ability to interact easily with a product IS desirable.  Unfortunately, in your choice of how you framed this article, you could leave readers (and many headline skimmers...they exist in droves) with the impression that "Fast Company article writer believes the product designers should dismiss the needs of users." 

    Please avoid using sloppy headlines intended to use confusion for generating link backs.  It is trolling of a kind, and annoying.

  • richardstowey

    Of course it's important to be specific and measurable. It's unfortunate that often in the world of web we get caught up in how something looks and not how it performs. There are lots of buzz words flying around, which are all new, all of the time, but actually this stuff has been apparent in other industries for ages. Engineering, product design, architecture. Graphic designers make for shoddy web designers.

  • Eric Rice

    Your specifications should convey a solid product concept with clear, actionable, and measurable features that can be decomposed to hard features of the product rather than draw more questions. "User friendliness" should be an input to your specification (how do I want my customers to interact with my product to get the experience I want them to have) rather than a specification itself.

    While I agree with your categories, as an engineer I hate your examples. None of these are particularly actionable, scope-able, or measurable. "Help athletes compete" doesn't tell me what you would want me, as a designer, to achieve, or how to go about it. What is your vision? What are the athletes competing in? What particular problem within competition are we trying to solve? Are we building an application that analyzes a video of an athlete's movement, or are we building a website that allows athlete's to track workouts, progress, and personal records? Those are very different goals, and will result in very different product, though they both fall under the rubric of "help athletes compete." So, you fail on actionable with that example - it's too non-specific ... too squishy.

    Good requirements and specifications will flow from a specific problem, and will have the metrics built in. "Build a product that will help families reduce food costs by 25% by tracking food buying patterns in a non-intrusive manner and providing recommendations for alternate products or practices intended to save money." THAT'S actionable, measurable, and specific ... now I have a concept to follow up on, and I can explore the universe of knowledge and technologies that can address that question. If I had written "help families reduce expenditures," that's entirely too loose to act on. With lazy designers, that statement leads to trivial solutions (I could easily end up with a product that tells folks "don't eat out so much" rather than provide deep insights into the household budget). With overzealous designers, I end up in a morass of over-functionality (let's track every household expenditure, compare to a national database of spending, and provide the user with national profiles and detailed behavioral recommendations for more frugal living based on average habits of frugal people and regular happiness surveys to tell us which habits are most effective at saving money while minimally impacting household happiness).

    You have good principles, but your examples don't demonstrate a clear understanding of how to put those principles into practice. Good specification starts with a good vision, and that won't be helped by enumerating principles. If your specs don't make clear the next step, it would also be a good idea to step back and question whether you have a clear enough vision to begin with.

  • The High Calling

    Fair enough. Push back on meaningless jargon is always good.

    But sometimes the jargon is useful. When we talk about examining the user experience of our site, we really mean that we have executed some elements of the design poorly. We quickly drill down to what those elements are--registration, conversion, profiles, etc.But we have also found it helpful to spend some time analyzing our site with the general goal of looking for places where users struggle. Granted, this process is more of a strategic analysis of our site's performance than a straightforward design project. But it is a relatively defined process that we have found to be essential for us.If we don't call that process "user-friendliness" or "user experience," what do we call it?

  • Ray McBeth

    It would have been helpful if a specific example was carried over into actionable and then again over to measureable so that the complete process could be seen regarding a single design activity.