A Short Handbook On Digital Product Design: Chapter Two — Good Design
If you have stumbled upon this post, you should know that this is the second chapter in a short handbook on digital product design. If you missed the previous chapters, they are linked below.
Table of Contents
In the first chapter, I introduced you to the topic of product design, what it is, and how it relates to building digital products. In this chapter, I aim to answer why good design is important by taking a look at a few fundamental principles that all product designers should understand before they start.
Chapter Two: What is Good Design?
Yes, there is a big difference between good design and bad design. If you are jumping around and did not read the first section, let me give you a quick refresh on the definition of design.
Design is a method of problem-solving. It is less about aesthetics and more about function.
To get a taste for good design, we will take a look at a few principles along with examples in both digital and physical product design. I am barely scratching the surface. However, these examples are an excellent place to start.
If you like to read lists, check out these principles of good design:
Good Design is Frictionless
“A wealth of information leads to a poverty of attention.”
— Herbert A. Simon
Friction is anything that gets in the way of a person reading or using something. The more friction, the harder it is for the user to accomplish the goal behind a design.
Bad Design — Hard to read text, information overload, not digestible.
Good Design — Simple, good use of visuals, and color.
For digital products, sometimes friction is needed and can be used to improve the user’s overall experience. Read Designing Friction For A Better User Experience to learn how to leverage friction in your design.
Good Design is Intuitive
“The main thing in our design is that we have to make things intuitively obvious,”
— Steve Jobs
Bad Design — This can be confusing. Handles are meant to be pulled.
Good Design — This is intuitive, a bar is made to be pushed.
For how to create an intuitive design, check out this great guide, How to Create an Intuitive Design.
Good Design is Simple
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”
— Leonardo da Vinci
Bad Design — This is an example of charting software used in hospitals. It is visually complex and constrained to a large desktop that does not follow the nurse or care provider.
This screen has a sad story behind it (How Bad UX Killed Jenny). Ultimately, poor design can have tragic consequences. As product designers, we must not settle for bad design.
Good Design — Not only is this example visually more appealing and less complex, but it is also functional. Charting software that is designed for an iPad gives mobility to the nurse or provider caring for the patient.
Good Design Stands the Test of Time
“It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years — even in today’s throwaway society.”
— Dieter Rams
When I think of a design that stands the test of time, my mind goes immediately to Craigslist.
Yes, it may not be the most aesthetically pleasing design, but it sure does work well. Craigslist, which has been around for nearly 20 years, gets 50 billion page views per month. 
With stats like those, I would say Craigslist is meeting the needs of its users pretty well. You do not always have to have a fancy UI maintain good design.
Good Design Inspires
“With iPod, Apple has invented a whole new category of digital music player that lets you put your entire music collection in your pocket and listen to it wherever you go,”
— Steve Jobs in the first iPod press release.
The iPod may not have been the first portable music play, but it sure is the one everyone remembers (sorry Walkman).
It is a cultural icon. Its minimalistic white design and its simplicity inspired a generation of products that have gone on to change how we interact with machines. For a fun look back at the iPod’s cultural impact Cult of Mac did a great writeup for its tenth anniversary: An illustrated history of the iPod and its massive impact.
For a fun reminder of design that fails to inspire, remember the Zune?
Check out this great list of all the design inspiration you will ever need.
Good Design is Functional and Beautiful
Balancing functionality and beauty is not an easy task.
Since this is a handbook on digital product design, we should take a look at a few examples of products that are visually beautiful and solve real problems.
Below are a few examples of digital products or services that do a great job of balancing function and beauty. If you have others that should be on this shortlist, send them my way.
- Things — to-do list app
- Trippeo — expense management
- Asana — work management
- Streaks — good habits
- Airbnb — services
- Slack — communication
“Functional design enables people. Beauty signals respect and worth. To give people beautiful and functional design is to empower them. The gift of empowering others makes you a force of nature”.
— Stephanie Engle
Why is Good Design Important?
We have taken a look at just a few practices and principles that make up good design. The resources I shared should provide you with plenty of reading. In this next section, we will discuss the importance of design.
In many ways, what makes a good design is fairly intuitive. If something works well and helps you accomplish a goal, you recognize it as being a good design. Humans have a general intuition of good and bad design.
Design can be wonderful in our lives. It can inspire us, delight us, enable us, and change us. Design can also be a hindrance in our lives. It can divide us, feed addiction, mislead us, and it can even kill us.
Humans are subconsciously affected by design. Because of this, a designer carries a great responsibility for bringing a design into the world.
Lately, there has been much discussion on the ethics of design. This discussion is primarily due to the rise of technology, and the reach digital products have on society. A digital product designer can positively or negatively affect lives at scale.
Many of today’s digital products can meet the standards of good design, yet at the same time, capitalize on the cognitive vulnerabilities we all have as human beings.
In a 2016 study, research group DScout reported that ‘heavy users’ touch their smartphones 5,427 times a day. 
Tristan Harris, a self-proclaimed philosopher and ex-Google design ethicist, published an industry-wide wake-up call in a 144-page Google Slides presentation, “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention.”
In it, he declared…
“Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in SF, aged 25–35) working at 3 companies” — Google, Apple, and Facebook — “had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention … We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right.” 
For a more detailed look into digital addiction, check out The Atlantic’s piece on Tristan titled The Binge Breaker.
Aaron Weyenberg, Director of Research and Development at TED, has a great piece titled The ethics of good design: A principle for the connected age that discusses good design and the power shift of control from the product user to the product designer.
On the topic of this power shift, he says this:
“Today, that kind of control is shifting away from a product’s user and toward its designer, by capitalizing on cognitive vulnerabilities we all have as human beings. It’s both perplexing and impressive to me how creators of such products have evaded scrutiny, let alone responsibility. For example, studies showing how many times we check our devices each day (75 to 150 depending on the study) are often followed by narratives using the language and tone of self-blame (addiction, narcissism, boredom, etc.). Those narratives are rarely accompanied by what’s happening on the other side of the product development cycle: The designer’s invisible hand meddling with the controls.”
He goes on to argue that we reframe the principles of good design for the connected age and suggests an amendment to Ram’s principles of good design.
Here’s the amendment:
“11. Good design is ethical. The product places the user’s interest at the center of its purpose. Any effort to influence the user’s agency or behavior is in the spirit of their own positive wellbeing, and the wellbeing of those around them.”
You might be thinking: Well, who defines what is ethical? He does address this in the post; you can read it for yourself. You can also check out this quick primer for ethics in design.
The topic of ethics and its importance in design is well beyond any one person or this guide. You can spend a lifetime thinking, discussing, and debating decisions made by product designers and their impact. All I aim to do here is highlight the importance of this topic, and make you aware that as a product designer, you play a central role in safeguarding digital products, so they not only empower but also protect users
This is why design is extremely important.
If I can leave you with one thought, remember this:
“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled.”
“Question everything generally thought to be obvious.”
— Dieter Rams
On your team, in your company, in your city, let us keep the conversation going by asking the tough questions.
For more reading on this topic, I have listed a few great resources below.
- Read How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind — from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist by Tristan Harris
- Read Addicted to Engagement and the Ethics of Product Design by Damian Cranney
- Read The Ethics of Digital Design by Cennydd Bowles
- Read The Binge Breaker by Bianca Bosker
- Read The ethics of good design: A principle for the connected age by Aaron Weyenberg
- Read Dear Zuck (and Facebook Product Teams), re: Meaningful Interaction and Time Well Spent by Joe Edelman
It is not all negative:
- Watch How better tech could protect us from distraction by Tristan Harris
- Read America Has Its Problems, But Design Can Help Solve Them by Liz Stinson and Margaret Rhodes
- Read How to Design Social Systems (Without Causing Depression and War) by Joe Edelman
Continue to Chapter Three: Design Thinking →
Follow me on Medium and Twitter (@andrewzallie), and don’t forget to clap if you liked this short handbook on digital product design!
 “craigslist.org Competitive Analysis, Marketing Mix and Traffic — Alexa.” https://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/craigslist.org. Accessed 2 Sep. 2019.
 “Putting a Finger on Our Phone Obsession — dscout.” https://blog.dscout.com/mobile-touches.
 “Google Deck on Digital Wellbeing ‘A Call to Minimize … — SlideShare.” 13 Aug. 2018, https://www.slideshare.net/paulsmarsden/google-deck-on-digital-wellbeing-a-call-to-minimize-distraction-and-respect-users-attention.
 “The ethics of good design: A principle for the connected age — Medium.” 20 Nov. 2016, https://medium.com/swlh/dieter-rams-ten-principles-for-good-design-the-1st-amendment-4e73111a18e4.