Avoiding Selfish Design

A few lessons learned from my first product design iteration

As a designer, the user is the center of our world. We are their advocate from beginning to end. Sometimes though, we find design inspiration in our own lives, in the form of problems we encounter or passions that we have. When this happens, it becomes dangerously easy to become selfish, creating an elastic user that along the way looks less like your user persona and a whole lot more like you.

That’s self-centered design, not user-centered design.

A few months ago I found myself in this exact place. It all started optimistically enough, as the design process is wont to do.

As a training sommelier, I decided that I wanted to be the one to democratize wine. I knew a bunch about wine, and I wanted to disrupt the wine space, one of the oldest industries in the history of mankind. I wanted to create an app to improve the wine drinking experience for novice wine drinkers. Vivino was too much. Buzzfeed quizzes were too little. My app, Jami (read: “Jammy”) was going to be just right.

I’ve come a long way since then, and I feel secure enough in the way I’ve grown as a designer (in large part due to these failings) to now look critically at what went wrong; more specifically, when I was selfish. That is not to say that the whole project was a wash (design never should be once and done); there are nuggets from this iteration that I’ve brought with me into this next phase of exploration and iteration as I work towards creating a product that is actually useful, usable, and delightful.

Even so, I’ve identified some key missteps and tried to extrapolate was actually comprises selfish design and designers and some important distinctions to note.

First things first:

Selfish design is not Self design

It should be said that selfish design is NOT self design. Selfish design occurs when a designer intentionally adopts an user-centric experience design approach and then commits one of the below errors. Self design is another design process entirely in which the designer creates products or services that she herself uses out of a direct need she has. Self design typically begins unintentionally, but once the designer refines and adopts the product or service, they’ll typically turn around and find a like-minded customer or user after the fact. Basecamp is well-known for doing this, especially with their creation of Ruby on Rails, which is now integral to some of the most successful companies out there.

Selfish designers fantasize about a solution before they even know the problem.

In creating my product, I asked how we might improve the wine drinking experience for beginners (those who purchase wine at least once a month and/or drink at least 2 glasses a week). It was a valid starting point, but in the days leading up to my first user interview, I immediately reworked that HMW into a full-fledged, assumption-laden solution:

I was going to create an app that helps beginners learn about wine.

Where did this even come from!? I began the design process in the totally wrong way: with a solution. I assumed that all novice wine drinkers wanted to learn about wine. A good designer should never presume to know what the user needs. Otherwise, what’s this whole process for?

It was a crime of passion. I wanted so badly to create value, that I offered a solution that was based on absolutely nothing but my assumption.

Oftentimes, especially for designers on a team of one or those pursuing passion projects, as was the case for me, we get so fixated on proving ourselves right, that we forget who this product is for in the first place. It’s a lot easier to selectively listen to user interviews, letting critical insights and patterns float by as we wait for the validation to prove our “solution” was right all along. When I re-listen to these interviews now, the patterns that emerge are totally different, and describe a relationship to wine powered by the need for social connectivity and the positive emotions that are associated, not the desire for status as a result of accruing wine expertise as I originally thought.

Selfish designers create a problem where there is none

Creating a solution without any formal research and fieldwork around a challenge you’ve identified is one thing; creating a problem where there is no problem is truly selfish…and pretty lazy.

“But you’re starved for information about wine! You must be in constant agony not knowing the difference between varietals because you’re a beginner, right?”

Mmm nope.

Feeling the need to fudge what the problem actually is can happen for a lot of reasons. For me, it was because I generalized my user too much, and made the assumption, albeit unintentionally, that because someone was a “beginner-level” wine drinker, they would be actively seeking to change their status to “intermediate” or “advanced.” These priorities were only mildly supported in my user interviews. (In my second iteration, I’ve removed that word and categorization altogether because my user isn’t actively seeking to “level-up”; instead I’ve focused more narrowly on the emotions, behaviors, and aspirations that characterize the user’s experience).

While there is certainly value in identifying a potential target user, it should be a jumping off point, not the source of valuable information that will directly affect the product you produce.

Selfish design is not the same thing as being a user yourself

Oftentimes the designer is a user of the product she is designing. There is nothing wrong with seeing the value in a product for yourself, but it is important to be cognizant of the biases that your emotional attachment to the product could have on design decisions.

In the case of Jami, while I knew that I wasn’t the product’s target user, I was emotionally attached to the experience of wine exploration and discovery. I put too much weight behind my motivations and created an elastic user, stretching my user and loading them with behaviors that legitimized my decisions.

It’s important to remember that even if you are a user, you are not the user persona. Personas aren’t grafted from any one person, but are instead a composite of the most important behaviors, goals, aspirations, and characteristics of your eventual consumer.

There are quirks and characteristics of your user persona that must be honored throughout the design, even if your personal experience with the product may tell you otherwise.

You are my muse

Design can start off selfishly

Sometimes a designer’s curiosity in the early stage is motivated by self-interest — a desire to improve a workflow or a clunky process that they encounter on a daily basis. This is especially the case for many startups, whose product is often driven forward by founders who sought to fill a distinct pain point they may have felt directly in a past life.

Jami was a tool I wish I would’ve had a few years ago when I was just getting my “wine legs.” But, before long, I started my wine courses and began formal study, which ultimately filled that need and in a much more robust way. What differentiates a product from being one only its creator will use, to one that garners mass appeal, is a user-centered design process that quickly iterates to refine user goals and roll out priority features that meet those.

Having a passion for the task at hand can be a powerful weapon: it keeps you motivated and helps you to empathize and relate to your users, allowing them stay at ease. But that same passion can boil over if you can’t level with yourself and recognize the point at which the product is bigger than you. It needs to mature, slowly working its way up the design chain through usability testing, field research, user interviews, and synthesized insights, to reveal a user persona that may look nothing like the founder.

Selfish designers want it all, and they want it now

Prioritizing features, especially those that make it into the MVP (minimum viable product) is easier said than done. While feature prioritization should be driven directly by feedback provided during lo-fi and med-fi prototype testing, it’s easy for a designer to overload the product, adding everything a user could possibly need, citing an “edge case” as the reason. This feature saturation is typically the downstream effect of greediness during the goal defining stage of the design process. In the case of Jami, I was able to abandon the idea of it as an education tool when it began to emerge as a personalized wine selection tool.

I was working with the goal of wanting novice users to feel empowered by their wine selection process.

Jami in theory would allow them to filter in creative ways — by contextual elements of the wine-drinking experience such as weather, mood, food, and occasion — rather than the typical, oftentimes elitist way it currently is (i.e. “notes of rhubarb and rich dirt”). (It was almost something resembling user-generated IA).

Eh yeah, of course.

Apart from trying to slice this info too many ways before understanding what tasks were most important, it was simply an impossible promise to make so quickly. Selfish design is design that’s void of iteration, a process that let’s us put down what we’re currently holding so that we can pick up and move forward with what we need.

Selfish designers don’t seek criticism

Selfish design is self-centered. That’s pretty obvious.

Sometimes we feel the unjustifiable need to keep our work to ourselves, and away from prying eyes, because we fear that they just won’t “get it.” It’s not their product, they didn’t conduct the interviews, so how could they possibly understand? Well, it’s your job to make them understand.

If a designer has done their job well, the artifacts accumulated throughout the design process should speak for themselves, and should also be easily understandable to those seeing it for the first time (after all, that’s what they’re there for).

During my the formal design process, very few people saw my sketches, user flows or interfaces because I was scared that any puff of criticism would blow down my house of cards. I didn’t think that someone without my level of understanding about wine could be in a place to criticize. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Design is by its nature a collaborative process, and collaboration by its nature requires varying viewpoints on how to get to a common end. Since reviving Jami, I am much more open about the process, taking my own motivations out of it, and instead serving as the conduit of the design research.

What now…

This has been a self-critical experience, but in facing the realities of where I went wrong, I feel much lighter. Selfish design weighs you down in ways you don’t realize. When you slowly bleed so much of your own self into your design, the criticism and challenges you will face will feel like personal affronts, and as a result, you’ll close yourself off even further from the outside world. I now find myself more inspired than ever to get this product to a place where it has true usability and garners the same sort of emotional connection many of my interviewees already feel about wine.

Let the light in, people!

Also, If you are interested to stay in the loop on my progress and other design musings, be sure to follow me. I’ll be looking for testers soon :)

Happy drinking!
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