One Simple Question

Asking one simple question can strengthen your design decisions every day.

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. 
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. 
For want of a horse, rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the message was lost. 
For want of a message, the battle was lost. 
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost. 
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

A historian friend in college introduced me to this poem, which goes back to the 13th century. Little did I know it would be so relevant to my digital design work today. I love the description of this poem from Wikpedia:

“No one ever lamented, upon seeing his unshod horse, that the kingdom would eventually fall because of it.”

Can’t we say the same thing with today’s product design?

No one ever lamented, upon seeing an extra button on the screen, that the product would eventually fail because of it.

Yet, there are consequences to every design decision you make. There is no doubt, what you choose to include (or not) in your products affects your customers, and ultimately the success of the business.

So how do we ensure we’re making the strongest design decisions, everyday and all along the way, so our products stay strong?

All you need is one simple question…

What is my purpose?

That question opens up a whole philosophical conversation outside the scope of this post (but you can always message if you want to discuss it).

It’s important to focus on purpose because it is the source of all creative activity — from business strategy to software design. When we talk about design decisions, this should be our driving question. Why? Consider this:

Every design choice is rooted in an intended outcome.

I say “intended” because at this point it’s only a desire, not reality. As much as we think our design choice will have our intended result, we won’t really know until we measure it in some way. 
Let’s take a recent development with McDonalds. They made a decision to go from human clerks to kiosks. Why would they do this?

Forbes wrote an article exactly about this in August. They cited three dimensions:

  1. Lower Costs. Less human workers doing repetitive tasks (think elevator operator).
  2. Consumers want to self-serve. They cited 26% of people under 34, and 16% of people over 34 want to pay at kiosks.
  3. Increase profits. More cross sells and easier add-ons.

Take them together, and there’s a purpose all bundled up.

A purpose of intended outcomes.

So, McDonald’s solution was Kiosks to get them there.

We should know going into this that a computer screen interface is not going to be as adaptive or speedy as a human interface. That’s not necessarily bad. We use technology all the time in everyday tasks. However, there is this reaction.

A confused customer.

We have the manager (most expensive resource), and a human, explaining how to use the kiosk. We have a very detailed (yet probably) an informative screen with instructions on the process, yet no way to ask a clarifying question (except by a human).

Is this simply a learning curve or early adopter syndrome, or is this the new business as usual?

I’m still baffled that the research said: 26% of people under 34 want to use self-service. That implies that 74% of people under 34 don’t want to use self-service. To me it’s that 74% you have to win over with some great design choices.

So why the confusion and manual training. Isn’t having a kiosk enough?

Take a look at some other design choices they made which raise barriers that weren’t there with a human clerk:


Carousel navigation is good for the designer, poor for the user.

This carousel navigation is compact, but customers have two barriers:

  1. They have to scroll to discover or find the categories (swipe, swipe, swipe)
  2. They need to translate how McDonald’s categorizes food into how they categorize food.

McDonald’s has maybe a hundred options, but any given customer wants only a few at any time. Even if you visit every day, you’ll still need to scroll to find what you’re looking for.

Product Display

Photos are good, when they’re displayed.

Showing every product is great because it appeal to people’s senses (and this is food).

I have such a mixed emotion about this “no image” message — not having a fallback is an egregious fail from a design perspective, but they took the time to style the message in the brand font. There are some legibility issues with where prices and labels are placed, and this slows down comprehension speed.

Besides all that, they’ve solved this problem elegantly and efficiently with the menu boards that are behind the clerks. Not only are items and titles laid out pleasingly, but they’re already grouped into ready-to-buy combos.

Very appealing, both compositionally and product-wise.

Order preview

Order details are text heavy, most people will ignore them.

For this order area, the intended benefit is you can see the details of your order as you build it.

Three barriers I see here are:

  1. This layout has limited real estate for much more information (that is, more scrolling)
  2. A lot of text to comprehend which equals reading time.
  3. The language is very functional. “My Order — Eat in,” “Edit,” “Cancel Order” and even “Done” are very stilted.


So we see how the Kiosk and Clerk experiences compare:

  • Branching flow versus natural flow
  • Hierarchical item list versus glanceable item list
  • Functional language versus conversational language
  • Transactional experience vs relational experience

So what’s up with the purpose? These are great goals. And even without the self-serve dimension they still may have come up with kiosks. But any time we add technology to our process, there is a critical design driver that needs to be present. 

How does this tech “Improve customer relationships?”

Change the purpose, change the design.

This one area alone affects processes and journeys all the way down to the interface design. In this case, especially the interface design.

What if we took the self-serve and customer relationship dimensions and asked a prompting question…

“How might we design a kiosk where it is as easy as ordering with a human clerk?”

In response to that prompt, here are a few solutions I thought of.

  • Voice ordering. That’s about as natural as there is. Google and Amazon are working on it, and I’m sure you’ll see this in the future.
  • Show items like the menu board. This is a layout and presentation approach. There are certainly ways to display the products for easier browsing and purchasing.
  • Mobile device walk-up recognition. Just walk up to the kiosk, it would recognize you because of an app, and we could present past orders or make a one-button reorder action.

How can I find my purpose in design?

You can find purpose no matter your role or where you are in the maturity of your project.

Here is the Purpose-finder, in three steps:

1. Listen for the prescription.

This might come from your product team, or you might find yourself saying it to your own task. Either way, it’s a prescribed solution.

2. Find the intended outcome & humanize.

the intended outcome (in blue) and the humanized outcome (in yellow).

The beauty here is we aren’t trying to make a true statement, but rather tease out the motivation for the prescription.

Humanizing is where we describe how we really want to help someone.

3. Create a purposeful prompt.

We can take those intended outcomes and turn them into a question. “How might we” is my favorite form because it forces you to dig deep. 

Here are few more examples:

1. Listen for the prescription.

  • We need…a newsletter.
  • We need…an infographic.
  • We need…to make the logo bigger.

2. Find the intended outcome & humanize.

  • If we start a newsletter, we will increase traffic, and give people practical help.
  • If we have an infographic, it will be simpler, and people will be able to easily share it.
  • If we make the logo bigger, the design will improve, and people will remember us.

3. Create a purposeful prompt.

  • How might we give practical help that keeps people coming back? (does that have to be a newsletter?)
  • How might we make our information easily sharable? (Does that have to be an infographic?)
  • How might we use the design to be memorable? (Does that mean the logo has to get bigger?)

These should be launching points to find stronger solutions as well as ensure that you’re on the right path.

So, do you want to be a purpose-driven designer?

You can. It is possible.

You must be persistent with staying on purpose. As a person making design decisions every day, you are in a prime position to make this happen. Great design takes constant work.

Asking yourself that one simple question at every step of your design process will challenge you to think deeper.

And you’ll be in a stronger position to win the kingdom.

I’m available to help you or your team apply these principles. Visit my site to schedule a quick 15-minute meet and greet.

Of course follow me on Twitter and Medium @designresponds