Stop trying to design experiences and start designing products | March 21, 2011

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright famously told a customer to move their table when they complained that water was leaking from the ceiling when they ate dinner. This is almost certainly apocryphal but hints at the ego of the experience designer. Well tell our users and customers what experience they are going to have (sometimes based on research) but they have to live with the results.

In an agency centric world which I come from, designers are used like Cruise missiles. The target is acquired and we fire and forget. Rarely if ever do we get the opportunity to cycle back to see if the target turned out to be a hospital rather than a barracks. We also don’t get the opportunity to pick through the rubble. Agency design is therefor a blunt weapon and a weapon of force.

Over the years I’m becoming more and more convinced that we’re doing things wrong. That our values around interaction and interface design are skewed. That we’re constantly trying to create the platonic ideal of a chair rather than trying to design a comfortable seating experience.

Why is it that ugly websites can prosper while beautifully designed experiences lack use? Are we focussing on the wrong part of the value chain? Maybe it’s an issue of content strategy? As Karen McGrain says, maybe we’re spending our time designing the paths between a garbage tip, rather than sorting out the garbage itself. Maybe we’re the architects designing a new museum with no thought to the artefacts which will lie within?

I hear many designer bemoan the use of statistics, citing that it somehow takes their creativity away. This can be true if taken to an extreme. After all none of us want to work in an environment where every design decision gets second guessed and tested. However there needs to be balance.

Designing a perfect digital product involves a certain level of faith and artistry. However it’s not an artistic pursuit. Instead I see design more like the unravelling of a mystery. You need to have some hunches and show some big leaps of faith based on prior experience. However it’s not about the individuals skill. Good designers can, and often do, make bad products. Conversely, technically bad designers have been behind some of the most successful web sites out there.

One thing I think we need to do as an industry is to stop focussing on the big, one off products and focus on long lasting customer engagements. However we can’t do that without the help of our clients. Instead of fire and forget, we need to launch our design offensive and then constantly course correct along the way. This involves checking the success of our sites through sales and analytics, coming up with hypothesise about what isn’t working and what can be improved, and then tweaking as we go. Sometimes these changes can be intellectual, while at other times they have to be behavioural. I don’t know which headline or button copy is going to be most effective. I can guess, but my first guess probably isn’t going to be right. So don’t design around your own ego and take nothing on face value. Design, measure, iterate and test should be our new mantra.

Posted at March 21, 2011 2:37 PM


Jeff Bridgforth said on March 21, 2011 12:32 PM


Enjoyed your post. Very thought provoking. I think too much of our design process is still a carry over from the print world. This type of product mentality works in print but not in Web.

I think we need to come up with a better process that the real work begins after the launch where we evaluate where our solutions fall short and work to find better solutions. I have seen some agencies try to set a new course and work with clients as an ongoing process.

I don’t see how projects will be successful unless we change the course and come up with new processes that treat this medium as an organism that changes and needs attention over a period of time instead of the current project mentality that moves on to the next thing without responding to how the design actually works in the wild.

Mike said on March 23, 2011 5:45 PM

I agree - most designs are done with a cruise missile approach. I find the two biggest problems are time (lack thereof) to explore options and clients reluctance to consider alternatives. Still, it’s a good idea to remind oneself to stop and think every now and then…

MonkeyMan said on March 23, 2011 6:24 PM

Been giving this a lot of thought lately and as a whole we need to do some real A/B testing. Not usability tests, but releasing multiple versions with slight variations to segments of our website visitors and comparing the numbers between competing factors. Too often we go with our (arrogant) best looking design when the numbers should really be leading us to the optimal design.

Roger said on March 24, 2011 1:52 PM

Well said Andy! I agree with what you’re saying but wouldn’t prototype testing take care of this concern?

Roger said on March 24, 2011 2:42 PM

Well you did say “Design, measure, iterate and test should be our new mantra.” You’re absolutely correct! :)