Truth and Magic

Guidelines for the future of digital product design


We have this big sign hanging in our conference room at Design Commission proclaiming “Truth and Magic” and it’s become a bit of a mantra for us as we’re designing digital products for our clients. In order to explain the sign, it’s important to understand what’s happening in the world of technology and design.

The number of digital product experiences in our every-day lives is proliferating at a staggering rate. Nielsen recently reported that adults spend eleven hours a day with electronics, which points to a vast amount of exposure to digital product design. With that exposure, consumers have become pretty good at recognizing well-designed experiences and favoring them. Products that are well designed get used more. But, well-designed products are hard to create.

To combat this, our industry has created an expansive system of tools and axioms to help us do better work. Much of these were built on the backs of past giants like library science, graphic design, and social psychology. And we have accomplished a lot. But, all these principles and methods can complicate the process — clouding our vision of what it takes to do great work. To simplify this designers should have two basic objectives — to seek truth and magic in their work.

Truth

By truth I’m referring to that quality in a product that makes it intuitive. A truthful product is one that works as expected without excessive explanation. It’s a product that is usable and doesn’t frustrate. Truth in design is craft in its purest form. It’s pure intention given over to those who experience it, and it’s table-stakes. We don’t use products we don’t understand, so truth is always the first ingredient.

In interaction design, truth is about proper affordances. Labels are clear and buttons are easy to press. It’s about accurate mapping of architecture, meaning content can be found it its logical place. It’s about honest messaging and prioritization of content. It’s about clear flows that take the user by the hand and lead them, quickly and quietly to their desired destination.

When you need to pay a parking ticket online with the city of Seattle, it takes thirteen screens to do so–a process that should only take two screens. While it’s a clear process, it’s a frustrating one and it fails to honor the idea of truth.

If truth is about users getting what they require from an experience, then magic is why they choose to do it with your product.

Magic

The best, most memorable products and experiences have an aspect of mysterious wonder to them. Designers need to make interfaces that are wonderful and exciting in unexpected ways. These experiences should hide away complexity, revealing it only at the exact right moment — teasing the user into more inquiry.

But, magical experiences are just about hiding things from users. They also bring delightful interactions to their users in unexpected ways. These don’t need to be grand, sweeping gestures. Simple, thoughtful touches that bring a smile to the user’s face are often enough to leave an impression. Whether it’s clever copy writing or animation, remember that magic is often hidden in the details. It may not ever even be consciously discovered. But the cumulative effects of the experience are unforgettable.

These unforgettable experiences result in products that form habits through repeated use. They scratch an itch for us and so we’re compelled to keep coming back. There’s a lot of great thinking about habitual behavior design, (Hooked is a great place to start) which is critical to what we perceive as a magical experience. Magical products are ones that keep us coming back again-and-again.

As designers continue to test the boundaries of digital products, we’ll do well to continue to search for solutions that embrace truth and magic. Products that are only one or the other will not hold our attention and won’t find a place in our already crowded life. These design concepts aid the designer in navigating the many decisions required to create the complex products that today’s market demands.

End Note:

I first heard the phrase “Truth and Magic” in Mark Maron’s incredible interview with Dave Grohl. If you don’t already listen to WTF you should be. Go. Subscribe now. Go ahead.

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