Good Experiences Don’t Happen By Accident, They’re Designed

That one concert you still remember vividly eight years later; the reason you chose Starbucks over Dunkin’ Donuts this morning; why Craigslist is hideous but people still use it… Behind the scenes, the subtleties of products and services that many of us take for granted influence our behavior and decision-making without us even noticing. That spark you feel with some brands more than others isn’t a coincidence, its design.

We’re used to experiencing an end product, but what’s the process behind the performance?

Good Design is Invisible

For many people, the word ‘design’ implies making something visual.

The truth is, design isn’t merely an aesthetic craft, it’s the inner workings of infrastructures to make the whole bigger than the sum of its parts. When a design is particularly good, it actually becomes less noticeable — its so ‘simple’ we take it for granted…

Everything we interact with has an innate logic that determines how it should look and function, yet the better something fulfills the needs and desires of whomever is using it, the less we notice its creative properties and the more we view it as a utility.

Consider the iPhone: through countless iterations, Apple has refined the way its product caters to the needs of its customers. And though it was considered innovative, the phone is now a staple item for modern society, powering most of our digital interactions without us even thinking about it.

The real beauty of a design isn’t in how it looks, rather its in how its used. You don’t need to learn how to use a hammer, nor should you have to learn how to use an app, or a microwave, or a new video game console. A good designer focuses on removing friction surrounding a core function of their design, rather than adding new features onto unrefined ones.

The wisdom to prioritize ease-of-use over adding more features always leads to a better User Experience because it properly addresses faults in the customer experience. The infamous ‘featuritis’ curve reminds us to strike a balance between how many features we include and how intuitive those features are.

As a general rule of thumb, the more features you have, the more cluttered and difficult to navigate your product becomes.

As IBM once tweeted, “ease of use may be invisible, but the absence of it surely isn’t.”

Mastering the ability to produce simple yet elegant designs with crystal clear navigation is at the crux of what it means to be a UX designer. How can we make something so easy a monkey could use it?

Here’s 3 ways:

1. Design For a Specific Audience

If you’ve ever identified with a character in a story, or ate too much ice cream in one sitting, chances are those experiences were predetermined. The animators from Finding Nemo actually took a crash course in marine biology and oceanography to ensure that the movements of the characters were realistic, while Häagen-Dazs famously insured a taste tester’s taste buds for $1million for quality assurance.

Little did you know, you were in the mind of every creator (brand or individual) behind the experience of an item or service you’ve enjoyed.

*Raise your hand if you’ve ever had to use a knife to get your ketchup out of the bottle*

Having an end user in mind is critical when it comes to designing anything, as it informs the intricacies that add up to what you’re making and aids in communicating the value you’re providing. Unfortunately, designing for a narrow audience might also mean that individuals outside of that audience will come to hate what you’ve made… That’s alright. MyLittlePony wasn’t made with metal heads in mind. Besides, its almost always better to have a few people that love what you’ve created than a lot of people that like it.

Designs for a niche circle of users are all around us.

Wheelchair accessibility and handicapped parking spots are now commonplace, as are bike and bus lanes. Google can translate foreign webpages to make them more readily usable by people in other parts of the world. Even popular cereal characters, whose product placement tend to be taller than the children they’re intended for, are illustrated looking downwards in a friendly admiration of their young consumers (who happen to directly influence the people with the purchasing power).

In the words of Ken Haemer, a former AT&T presentation manager, “Designing a presentation without an audience is like writing a love letter and addressing it ‘to whom it may concern.’”

Though subtle (and arguably invisible), the decision to ‘establish eye contact’ with children is largely emotional — many kids pick cereal based on the character or ‘the idea of the cereal’ rather than the flavor. That psychological understanding to change a detail so tiny as reorienting a cartoon character’s eyeballs has likely translated into millions of dollars in sales for these brands.

Here’s the gendered version of cartoon characters enamored by our presence:

In truth, designing an experience requires a great deal of stepping into someone else’s shoes. Who you’re making your product for should be considered as heavily as what you’re making.

In Japanese culture, white is the color that symbolizes death. While it wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate to manufacture a black-colored health pill in the United States, manufacturing white pills in Japan would prove an equally costly mistake.

UX designers must deploy a great deal of empathy to pick the brains of their users and produce something of particular value: the design must prioritize a primary target audience before addressing the needs of other people. To that effect, designers must be fully cognizant of how the users they’re designing for think and feel at all times during the creative process, equally as much as they strive to make their designs ‘invisible.’

2. Don’t Make Your Users Think!

Part of what makes a successful design ‘invisible’ is its relative ease-of-use; that is, users can achieve tasks within an app, system, or platform intuitively and without friction. The ability to have a sense of mastery over what you’re interacting with in a matter of seconds is one of those examples of design being an infrastructure rather than just a piece of art, and promotes the same feeling as ‘making eye contact’ with consumers.

Consider the Starbucks app for a moment — As a pixelated extension of its brick-and-mortar experience, the app successfully capitalizes on the average person’s heavy mobile usage by weaving the digital experience back into retail, achieving a cohesive brand throughout different touch points.

Beyond offering a new channel of purchasing, the app simplifies the entire process (what we’d call the ‘user journey’) of buying a latte. During the ordering process, the app will automatically locate nearby stores using the phone’s GPS so you don’t have to search for them manually. If you don’t have enough funds loaded on your account, you can ‘reload + order’ in a single click. If you’re already in-store and want to use your phone to pay, hitting the payment button to surface a bar-code also brightens your screen, as if to butter you up before your coffee. All the trigger mechanisms are there to make it way too easy to buy coffee.

While the ‘Now Playing’ feature might seem like the only unnecessary item, it too serves a purpose: along with the earthy color palette, the feature offers a digital representation of what its like to be inside a Starbucks.

Ease-of-use doesn’t happen overnight — it requires constant testing and iteration to weed out the hitches in a design and streamline certain functions. The most meticulous designers consistently work to refine their work since they know that design never ends… and just as they themselves strive for consistency, so too do their designs.

Good Design is Consistent

At its core, design serves to string together all of the things that comprise the ‘sum of the parts.’

Between the consistency of colors, sizing, spacing, materials, positioning, type, relationship of elements, patterns, symbolism, navigation, interactions and so forth, good design can instantly communicate and express, group or differentiate, set the tone and incite action. You can think of design consistency as the glue that holds a brand together.

Take Facebook vs Myspace as an example: why did the website that forces conformity rather than personalization win?

In a dedicated post dating back to 2010, Kevin Kelleher remarks,

“MySpace, like everyone else in 2004, wasn’t sure what would make a social network click. So it let its members figure it out, offering them to design their own pages with widgets, songs, videos, and whatever design they pleased. The result was a wasteland of cluttered and annoying pages that were as garish as the self-designed home pages on MySpace’s 1.0 predecessor, Geocities.
Facebook, meanwhile, opted for a cleaner, Google-like interface that resonated with a broader audience. The design was predominantly blue and white, and the company rolled out features piecemeal: email, instant messaging and then live feeds of their activities. The platform was unadorned, intuitive, structured to reflect how people were already communicating online — and in contrast to MySpace’s anything-goes approach, it was soothingly Spartan.”

If you ask the average Facebook user to draw out how they recall the interface’s appearance, they’d likely rearrange widgets subconsciously, misplace elements and get details like size or color wrong. Yet, according to social media today, most users spend roughly 35 minutes a day scrolling through the platform — more than enough time to commit the webpage/app’s layout to memory.

In a sense, Facebook’s balancing act between customization and conformity lends the platform a sense of invisibility. By pre-defining the infrastructure and only enabling users control of content, each page within the website/app becomes easier to navigate and more familiar.

Ultimately MySpace, though well-intentioned in offering customization, actually provided too many options for its users. The platform was largely visible, and ultimately became a ‘wasteland of clutter’ as a result of giving people everything at once, instead of sticking to what they needed (A.K.A. featuritis strikes again).

Unbeknownst to the company, MySpace was attempting to sell its users the equivalent of a white pill in Japan — its mission of being the “leading social entertainment destination powered by the passions of fans” pales in comparison to Facebook’s original mission of “empowering people to build community and bring the world closer together.”

Having dethroned MySpace some time ago, Facebook continues to provide users the feeling of making the platform their own without forgoing control over what the platform is as a whole. Nowadays most companies have followed in the modern social goliath’s footsteps, finding a middle ground between globalizing their brand and offering each customer a unique perspective.

Consistency is the result of understanding the purpose of what it is you’re doing, and uniquely articulating that in everything that you do.


The purpose of this blog entry was less so to define what User Experience Design is, and more so to draw attention to the notion that everything you touch, see, interact with, feel and think about has been, in some form or another, designed. A boring class is poor design. A life-alert is good design. Snuggies are questionable.

If you design blindly, you’ll miss incredibly valuable insight that could help you attain more customers, make more sales, and build a better product overall.

Whether someone likes your design ultimately comes down to the principles discussed above, Invisibility, Designing for an Intended Audience, and Consistency, among others things.

Hopefully some of these examples (ie: making eye contact, selling white pills in Japan, buttering your users up before their coffee, etc…) will inspire you to think critically of what you’re using and why. How can you make it better? What is it missing? What does it have too much of?

As one evolves from using to creating, the intricacies of something as simple as a shopping cart come to the fore. The more you make, the more you actively involve yourself in thinking about making, and flexing that muscle will only yield fruitful results for those interested in UX, product design, business/entrepreneurship and just about any creative field.

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