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.
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]