Great Digital Products Don’t Happen By Accident.
When I was a kid in the 80’s, personal computers were just coming into the world. They were these new, strange, magical things. But they were also crude enough that you could sort of figure out how they worked just by hacking around.
As a result, the idea of personal computing felt like something we could define to be anything we wanted. I remember spending hours making stuff in Hypercard on my dad’s SE/3o, and having this pervading sense of creative optimism. The future was full of possibility.
Now I go to work and help make digital products every day. It’s both an exciting and daunting challenge. The sense of possibility is still there, but conceiving and making products that truly have an impact requires a lot more: experience, opinion, tenacity, a process, and more than a small amount of faith — the conviction that we actually have it within ourselves to make something great.
~ Based on a talk I gave at Reaktor Design Day, 2014 ~
We have this saying at Teehan+Lax that “Great Digital Products Don’t Happen By Accident.”
Now, when we say “great” digital products, we have in mind a few markers: They get used, they’re loved, we’re proud of them, and we learn from making them.
Values, Process, Resources
A couple of years ago, the other partners and I got into a room and tried to write down “that which we know to be true” about making great products. What steps and conditions were important, based on the lessons we’d learned in our experience over the years as a company?
We landed on 6 process principles. 6 things that we believed gave us a repeatable way to produce the best possible work. They were:
- The right team — Multi-disciplinary, constrained in size, experienced, mutual learning mindset, given focus.
- Real problems for real people — Validate the problems we are working on vs. solving made-up problems for imaginary personas or hypothetical addressable markets.
- Measurable outcomes — Precise, clear, unambiguous goals to help us focus, make decisions, and optimize over time.
- Make decisions through use — Usage is like oxygen for ideas, so get out of Photoshop or Sketch and validate design direction by making something and using it; let what you’ve built serve as a vantage point to see where to go next.
- Iterate and refactor — No sacred cows, no commitments to cleverness or pet ideas or sunk costs. Making something new is not a linear process. If something isn’t working, tear it down and build something that does.
- Seamless UX — The best experiences are seamless. They promote flow across sessions, devices and use cases. If we’re constantly focusing-in, we also have to build in times where we pause, zoom-out, and reconcile everything to the larger picture of what we’re making.
From these principles, we built a new process and client engagement model.
A little later on, we started to think about the kinds of resources we had in our company. What were we good at and where could we improve? We created an index of skills and tools, grouped into categories for both designers and developers. And then we graded ourselves overall, and individually, and set out goals for where we wanted to be, knowing we couldn’t be great at everything.
This exercise gave us better clarity on where to invest and evolve as a company in light of our strengths and weaknesses.
Good, But Not Great
These initiatives were important stepping stones in the evolution of how we approached product design at T+L. But, there was a problem. Our projects were running smoothly and the things we were making were good, but they weren’t necessarily or consistently…great. Our work could be thoughtful, but not compelling; well-crafted, yet somehow less than whole. Something was missing: perhaps a deeper sense of conviction, passion, true purpose? Like I said: good, but not great.
Now, the idea that great digital products don’t happen by accident may sound like a truism, but many would hold just the opposite view: that chance does play a definitive role; that there isn’t a repeatable approach or established discipline that leads to digital product greatness.
This comes from a few places, I think:
Making digital products is hard, and doing it well in a constantly evolving technological landscape is extremely difficult. The act of design is vital, but not alone sufficient. Without sound operations, for example, even the most visionary, well-crafted products falter and fail.
We mythologize greatness.
We tend to mythologize products that have risen to greatness, partially because they burst into our collective consciousness as fully-formed, apparently overnight success stories — even if they have been years in the making. We don’t see all of the effort and energy that brought them to us.
Market determines fit.
The prevailing philosophy for digital product makers stresses “product/market fit” above all else. And really smart people have assured us that this fit is really all about what the market wants to do, and less about the quality of a product or its design per se.
Put all of this together, and it’s easy to start thinking in a fatalistic, almost paranoid way: do we actually know what we are talking about? What if it really is all about that serendipitous, providential pivot to the right opportunity? What if the best we can do is “throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks?” What if that sense of unlimited possibility turns out to have been masking infinitesimal probability?
But, we believe — and if you’re reading this, I have to think that you share in this belief — that we have a deeper contribution to make as product designers and makers; that great digital products don’t happen by accident. Which raises the obvious question: if not by accident, then how?
Making things that people love to use
Let’s go back to the first 2 markers of a great digital product I mentioned: they get used and they get loved.
At the 2009 IxDA conference in Vancouver, Robert Fabricant, then at Frog design, gave a seminal talk entitled “Behaviour is our Medium”. The point of his talk was that we as interaction and user experience designers shouldn’t think of computing technology as our medium — that the ultimate goal, and where our craft needs to evolve, is all about impacting, eliciting and shaping human behaviour. In other words, we shouldn’t be designing merely functional or usable things, but persuasive and transformative things.
For digital product designers, one of the most basic ways we aspire to change human behaviour is by making things that people actually use. But nobody wakes up in the morning and decides to use something simply because it exists in the world, has some good features, or is nicely designed.
Our challenge is even greater when we ask people to switch from a competing product to ours — since they will tend to over-value currently used products by a factor of 3X, and under-estimate alternatives by a factor of 3x. This is why Andy Grove posited that entrepreneurs need to create a 10x improvement in performance or experience to pull people away from the inertia of their existing habits and solutions.
So yes, the things we make must be clearly superior. But they have to be more than that: They have to be compelling. They have to be magnetic. They have to be persuasive.
So, how do we do that?
Ethos, Pathos, Logos
Now at this point, I think that there are two general paths we can take.
The first path, which has been especially popular in the last 5 years, is to view this as a question about the science of cognition. Based on what we know about our cognitive, perceptual and behavioural wiring, what psychological patterns and pathways can we tap into to drive demand for the products we make?
The second path is to recognize that this is also an age-old question about the art of persuasion. And here, I would argue that the best and most foundational starting point was established a long time ago by Aristotle. He figured out that persuasive appeals fall into 3 broad categories: ethos, pathos and logos.
- Ethos is an appeal to the speaker’s personal credibility. It’s about trust.
- Pathos is an appeal to the passions and emotions of the audience. It’s about engendering empathy.
- Logos is an appeal to reason. It’s about the logic of the argument itself.
I want to make the case that great digital products all have ethos, pathos and logos. These are the elements that make them compelling. This is the secret of products that not only function, but also persuade.
Ethos is about establishing trust, which is a relational concept. So when we think about how people will relate to the products we are making at a fundamentally human level, we’re thinking about ethos.
As designers (and speaking very much from personal experience), we are often guilty of creating experiences that are functional, usable and elegant…yet entirely impersonal and therefore un-trustworthy. That’s a huge problem we need to fix.
Now, to cultivate a compelling ethos through the act of design, we must answer this question: What is the product’s voice, and why should people trust it?
What is your product’s voice, and why should people trust it?
A strong product voice delivers a clear sense of authorship, identity and personality. And one of the primary and most direct ways we define this voice is through our writing.
It is no secret that good writing is good interface design. We often think about this in terms of mean functional/instructional UI “micro-copy,” necessary for comprehension, orientation, and task-flow. But to leave it there would be a cop-out. Great writing in product design is critical for communicating:
- Authority, expertise, good sense (what Aristotle called phronesis, or practical wisdom).
- A sense of mission and pure-heartedness (areté, or virtue).
- Friendship, affection and care for the user (eunoia, or good-will).
These are the traits of a voice I can trust.
When approaching a new product, whether consciously or not, I want to understand: Where is this coming from? Who brought this into the world? How are they qualified? What larger sense of purpose drove them to make this? Are they seeking to actually serve me in some meaningful way, or just use me?
For example, take Mailchimp. In their online style guide — which is a great case study for framing up and articulating a trustworthy voice — they articulate a voice that is:
Fun but not childish
Clever but not silly
Confident but not cocky
Smart but not stodgy
Cool but not alienating
Informal but not sloppy
Helpful but not overbearing
Expert but not bossy
I think they’ve worked really hard to figure this out. They are walking that fine balance of casual-yet-credible, and they totally pull it off. Even for a fun-hearted brand like Mailchimp, there is a discerning, practical and prudent aspect to the way they communicate.
Basecamp is a company that nails it when it comes to conveying a sense of pure-heartedness and mission. And I want to highlight them to show that this isn’t necessarily about altruism. It’s about honesty and clarity of purpose, even in a business context. On their about page (which reads more like a manifesto), they explain what they’re about:
We’re also big believers in business 101. We don’t spend more than we earn, we don’t waste money on things that don’t matter, we don’t give away everything for free and hope we’ll figure it out before we run out of cash. We’re in business to stay in business, and we have 15 profitable years in a row to back it up…
Clear, principled and earnest: build an honest-to-goodness business around a (hopefully) indispensable tool for teams to get work done. This vibe comes through everywhere in their writing. Even the privacy and terms-of-use pages contribute to the overall message.
And it works. I get Basecamp. And when I use their product, I can’t help but appreciate and enjoy being a part of what they are trying to do.
Or finally, look at Slack. From the moment you are greeted by the helpful and friendly Slackbot during on-boarding, to the brief love notes woven into initial loading screens, there is a clear demonstration of good-will towards me as a customer and a user.
I know this isn’t an accident, because this is exactly the kind of vibe I got from Flickr in its early days.
One final point before I move on. It is said that a company’s leadership sets the tone for its internal culture. By extension, I would argue that this internal culture ultimately sets the tone for the ethos of its products and services. This is why I feel that troubling signs inside of a company like Uber, for example, may portend ominously for the long term potential of its products in a highly competitive space.
Pathos is all about the emotional appeal of your product or service. Whereas ethos is a relational concept, pathos is more of an intrinsically personal or private experiential concept. A product has pathos when it elicits empathy from its users.
Adrian Slywotzky is an author and consultant who has done some fascinating research into why some products drive incredible demand, vs. their competitors (who are seemingly comparable on paper). He coined the term ‘magnetic products’ to describe the idea of intentional emotional resonance built into a product or service. Here is a quote from him that I love:
…when it comes to creating demand, it’s not the first mover that wins; it’s the first to create and capture the emotional space (ergonomics, aesthetics, message, feel, story) in the market.
Do you remember the video that Apple opened up their 2013 WWDC keynote presentation with? It still connects with me in a way that’s hard to describe, even though I’ve watched it many, many times. The spot is called “Intention”; at around the half-way mark, they say:
the first thing we ask is / what do we want people to feel? / delight / surprise / love / connection / then we begin to craft around our intention.
Now, say what you want about Apple products in terms of features or functionality. The critical thing they get right every time — the thing that sets them apart — is this mastery of intangible, emotional appeal.
“The first thing we ask is what do we want people to feel,” is a claim that could easily be dismissed as marketing fluff — but I take it very much at face value. And I would argue that this is another central question that designers and makers should be working on from the very beginning.
How do you want people to feel when they use your product?
We don’t ask this question enough. Feelings are subjective, ephemeral, difficult to measure. And so just like with ethos, it is very easy to shirk away from the challenge and focus on the more tangible things we have to work on instead.
But emotionalizing the things we make is a tractable design problem. Don Norman breaks emotional design down to 3 levels: visceral, behavioural and reflective.
- Visceral = the look and feel of a product.
- Behavioral = the interactive experience of using a product.
- Reflective = the way a product affects how we feel about ourselves and our place in the world.
Now what I find interesting is that for screen-based digital products, these first two levels — visceral and behavioral — feed and fold into one another. Users see the product one screenful at a time, and so the visceral experience is delivered as they interact with and flow through these screens.
Google’s Material Design is a great example of a rationalized design system that uses animation to integrate look and feel with joy of use.
From the the Material Design guidelines site:
The most basic use of animation is in transitions, but an app can truly delight a user when animation is used in ways beyond the obvious. [These animations] serve dual functions: to inform the user and to imbue your app with a moment of wonder and a sense of superb craftsmanship. Users do notice such small details.
Animations, transitions, dynamics, behaviour. It is hard to overstate the importance of these elements when it comes to imbuing digital products with a sense of charisma, charm and enchantment. We emotionally respond to things that seem to magically come alive with energy and enthusiasm.
What about reflective design? This is a layer of design that is all about story and narrative — but not that of your product or brand. It’s the story you construct for your users to inhabit by using your product.
When I come to a product like Airbnb, there’s a strong sense of who I’m cast as, recognized to be, empowered to become.
I’m an: adventurer, a citizen of the world, part of a community of explorers. Who knows where I’ll end up and who I might meet along the way?
Reflective design is crafting an identity for your users that makes them feel a certain way about themselves and their place in the world.
So that’s pathos. It is the sense of being charmed, amused, stoked, uplifted, inspired, intrigued, challenged, recognized, rewarded — often subtly, yet purposefully built into the core of a product. I’m convinced that it is the secret to building experiences that are memorable and motivating.
And it starts with a very simple yet powerful question: how do you want people to feel when they use your product?
Finally, the products we make need to have logos, or logical appeal. In other words, they need to make sense. So what does this mean in practice?
Julie Zhuo, one of Facebook’s design directors, wrote a post on Medium about building products for high-concept problems:
What problem is your product or service trying to solve? If you cannot describe it to someone else and have them instantly understand the pain/frustration/annoyance of this problem, then what you’re building is probably never going to get much traction.
What problem is your product or service trying to solve?
Now, we often trip out of the gate and launch right into solving for ill-defined, unvalidated, or even non-existent problems. So it’s important to be completely forthright about this question.
And as Julie points out, the answer can’t just be, ‘Uber (or whatever) for X, or mobile/social Y.’ Those may be helpful descriptors, but they aren’t problems. They are slides from a pitch deck.
No. What is the actual problem in the real-life world that we are trying to solve? And what evidence do we have to suggest that this represents an important, yet underserved need in the marketplace? Only after answering these questions does it make sense to begin thinking about solutions, or what our “unfair advantage” is, or what the total addressable market might be, or anything like that.
Find out the jobs-to-be-done
So how do we get to a great problem statement? Well, the first thing we want to do is question the ostensible problem that we have in mind. If we just accept our own intuition, a client brief, a set of requirements, or a backlog of ideas and to-dos, we are setting ourselves up for failure.
Now, we really love the jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) framework, and have written about why it works for us on our blog. It is a great tool for discovering deeper, more causal reasons for consumer behavior.
Basically, this theory asserts that people don’t buy/use products simply because they happen to belong to a particular marketing segment. Rather, we all have important jobs in our lives that we hire products and services to help us make progress towards accomplishing.
As product designers, we can actually find out what those jobs are, by identifying people who recently switched from one product-to-another, and talking to them about what that process looked like. The interview methodology is a bit like a (friendly) police investigation: what were the triggers, what led to what, what were the anxieties, and where did the energy to overcome those hurdles come from?
We’re not asking them to tell us what they want, we are simply trying to figure out: what happened?
For example, last year we worked with an Android smartphone OEM. We interviewed switchers and identified JTBD like:
An ark for my memories — a vessle for capturing and safeguarding moments that I will treasure forever.
A lightweight mobile office — a tool for enabling quick moments of productivity that supplement my 9–5.
Inner circle lifeline — a way to maintain strong ties to my close-knit social circle.
No one is suggesting that these are blinding insights. But what they do represent is a finite set of clear, concise, unambiguous, meaningful jobs that give us a directional heading so that we can begin to design with greater intentionality.
Define what success is and relentlessly focus
Once we’ve got some workable jobs-to-be-done, the next thing to do is define what it would look like to address these with our product. What would its core value need to be, and how would we objectively know whether it was successfully delivering that value to users?
Define measurable indicators and use these as a tool for filtering and prioritizing the backlog. What should we do first, second, third? If a feature doesn’t clearly map onto our success criteria, is it necessary to do at all?
When we were working on Medium (meta, I know), one of the things we learned from Ev was how to relentlessly focus.
We had a ton of ideas around sharing stories, collaborative writing, different media types — and a lot of these the team built out to a pretty high level of production readiness.
To be clear, I am not saying that this ‘going wide’ phase is wasteful. Designing innovative solutions for underserved problems is not going to be a linear process. Oftentimes you need to diverge and explore in order to understand which ideas are working and which are not. But this means that we can’t be afraid to go back if we’ve gone down the wrong track.
In fact, I would argue that only after some measure of exploration do we have enough information to start talking about a minimum viable product. MVPs are not about precognition — they are about focus and refinement.
For Medium, Ev ultimately brought us back to a simple story authoring and reading experience for the initial product launch. He wanted Medium to be super focused on what problem it was solving.
And now, it’s simple.
So that’s what I have to say about logos. The point to remember here: validate the problem first, then define clear goals that force us to focus on the product’s core value. Doing these steps helps us avoid the trap of our own cleverness and propensity to overthink — and ultimately deliver products that actually make sense.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference where Clayton Christensen spoke. He opened up his talk with a story about the prevalance of “lemons” in the car industry, which peaked during the 1970s. (“Lemons” were basically cars so full of defective components that they would chronically break down as soon as you drove them off the lot.)
One of the main reasons lemons existed back then, Clay explained, was that manufacturers had come to accept randomness as a fundamental factor in their process. But this complacency was ultimately overturned. Legislation was introduced. Competition — mainly coming from Japanese companies who probed more deeply into the underlying causes and contributors of component defects — proved that quality could be controled to a much higher degree. Nowadays we don’t have as many lemons coming off the assembly line.
If there is one thing that writing all of this down has reminded me of, it is that making great digital products is hard. Yet, the joy and privilege of what we designers get to do every day lies in the depths of this challenge. And of course luck plays a role; of course randomness emerges out of complexity. But I want to approach what I do as a craft, not a lottery. Great digital products don’t happen by accident.
And so — ethos, pathos, logos. We want to make products that are more meaningful, more whole, more persuasive because they have all 3 of these elements. I have argued that this leads us to these critical questions:
What is your product’s voice and why will people trust it?
What do you want people to feel when they use your product?
What problem is your product or service trying to solve?
If we as designers and makers can answer these questions well, I believe that we will have the opportunity to tip the odds in our favor — and ultimately, bring more products into the world that have a much better chance of being truly great.