Product Designers: Artists of the Intangible

I spend a good amount of time advising people on product design. I define product design as the empathic decision-making process from the inkling of an idea to the moment it reaches product-market-fit. This has always been a very introverted process for me, and at times I find it challenging to articulate my advice from an intellectual standpoint. The process is more sensory than cerebral. And then today it hit me — product design is no different from traditional art forms, except the paint brush is empathy and the canvas is human behavior.

Let me explain, through music. 🎶

Since my early 20s, I’ve had a swelling desire to create music. Last May, I had an opportunity to help build a music studio in my friend Justin’s new apartment. I had limited knowledge, but unlimited excitement, so I gladly obliged. And for 4 months, I spent 8-16 hours a day as the only producer in the studio and published eight full songs — an average of 40 hours of work each. I was probably there more than Justin himself (thanks guys!).

At the outset, I jumped right in because I like to learn by getting my hands dirty. After finishing my first song, I hit the threshold of my musical ability and thought maybe structured learning would help me get to the next level. I read books and blogs, watched YouTube tutorials and soaked up bottomless information about Music Theory and production techniques. All of this convinced me I needed to approach music more intellectually. So, I changed my creative process. Before hitting notes on the keyboard, I would explicitly choose a musical key (a set of notes) to work in. In other words, my approach became much stricter. And if I felt stuck, I would open the books and try to find solutions intellectually.

As I continued down this path, I became increasingly frustrated. My brain hurt. So, I called up the smartest music theorist that I knew at the time, my friend Aston. I asked him for a quick lesson on Music Theory, thinking he would tell me the secrets of making great music. His casual response surprised me and forever changed my thinking:

“Don’t worry about all of that, just train your ear.”

With that, I stopped laboring over the intellectual details and went back to just doing what I thought sounded good. I was immediately unblocked and started producing passable music for months to come.

Product design is no different.

Good product designers have a strong empathic sense. They can “hear” what “sounds good” and have a knack for composing products that resonate with people. The best product designers I know are deeply in tune with the motivations, emotional and mental models, values, priorities, preferences, and inner conflicts of their target audience. They can sense “harmonies”, “dissonance” and “rhythm” in the user experience. And since most consumers can recognize dissonance in a product or a song, what we don’t want is creators who are tone deaf.

I often see people trying to design product with an intellectual, almost mathematical approach, and they almost always fall short. Groundbreaking consumer products aren’t conceived from sheer objective data, they’re built on intuition and unique subjective perspectives. They’re built by humans, for humans. Computers operate on data, we operate on instinct — that is a product designer’s strength. The more information we have, we tend to rely on intellect to find solutions instead of instinct — which can be a weakness.

That’s not to say there isn’t merit in the scientific aspect of product design. There are widely adopted techniques to improve how our products “sound”. We log digital behavior, test our hypotheses on focus groups and observe users to identify usability issues. We analyze behavioral patterns by reviewing funnels, navigational paths and user segments. We use retention and daily actives as objective measuring sticks. We organize ourselves with documents, bug trackers and user stories. These are tools we can use to guide and shape our product from its original mold. But just like music, if your original basis is garbage, you can’t optimize your way into a masterpiece. Optimizing discovers local maxima, gut discovers new global maxima.

I believe that empathy, just like the musical ear, is a sense that can be trained. Through repetition, you can hone your intuition and build a more nuanced awareness of how people think and feel. Repeatedly putting something out there, receiving feedback, and iterating is the simplest feedback loop for improving your sense. For some, it comes naturally. Others get there through persistence and perseverance. In either case, an investment of time and and openness to feedback is necessary for growth.

“Design like you’re right, and listen like you’re wrong.”—John Lilly, former Mozilla CEO

The greatest consumer products of our century have been at the intersection of art and science. When we think of the art aspect, we tend to think of tangible visual and interaction design. But, beneath those is a deeper layer of art that is intangible, where the artists are the empaths who can see the colors and hear the sounds of the fundamentals that drive human behavior. To me, that is a product person.

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