Real-World UX & The Ideal State Fallacy

It’s what happens when things go wrong that matters most.

Recently, I read a passage from Scott Hurff’s book “Designing Products People Love” about the UI stack and its importance in product design. In it, he writes about how too many products focus only on their ideal state — “the zenith of a product’s potential” — without considering the different shapes a product can take given different contexts; empty/loading states, errors, and partial content are all considerations he believes are just as important as the ideal state of a product.

A seemingly obvious concept, it struck me that as a designer I’d never viewed these considerations to be equals. Previously, I operated under the assumption that all the effort and brainpower should go into the ideal state of a product, while these other “fringe” states were simply afterthoughts. After all, in an ideal world, people would only interact with the ideal state, right?


In fact, in Scott’s opinion, it’s a person’s interactions with these additional states that truly define the experience of a product.

This idea of treating a point of failure or confusion as importantly as the ideal state got me thinking about real-world experiences and interactions, and I realized most businesses and organizations seem to operate on the same ideal state fallacy I did — only their ideal state believes as long as the product/service works, people will be happy.

But what about when it doesn’t work?

Or there’s confusion?

Or a person’s expectations aren’t met?

It’s in these moments that people get frustrated and resentful, forming a negative opinion of a product or service, and consequently the brand. Success shouldn’t be measured by meeting the most baseline expectations. Instead, it should lie in the in-between — those fringe considerations I mentioned earlier.

Some of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had came from interactions that went far beyond baseline — like the time my package never arrived from Amazon, or when Zappos sent me the wrong sized shoes. In each case, these companies did something unexpected: Amazon refunded my money, without hesitation, and Zappos sent me a new pair of shoes before I even sent back the old ones. Instead of causing me further frustration by making me jump through hoops, or being purposefully obtuse in an attempt to ignore the situation, they each delighted me with their response.

And with that they instantly turned me into a brand advocate — I’ve been telling the story of these interactions to anyone who will listen. That I would extol the virtues of these companies is no accident. Both Amazon and Zappos understand that customer experiences aren’t always ideal, and the opportunity that lies in being excellent, at times when things are anything but, is enormous.

Designing a product just for the ideal state may be misguided, but creating a company or organization predicated on it is simply foolish — especially when the effort required to account for moments that are less than ideal pales in comparison to the value that can be derived from it.

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