No One Wants to Use Your Product

Know it. Accept it. Keep this mind and you’ll be a better UX designer for it.

You’re a UX designer. You’ve dedicated months of your working life to developing a new product. You’ve loved and nurtured your baby from its earliest iterations, and the big day has finally come.

It’s release day!

Photo by Tim Bish

The rollout begins, and as your magnum opus is presented to the masses, rather than a standing ovation, it’s met with a, “Wait — can I get the old version back?”

What happened? It was beautiful! You agonized over the colors! The typeface was meticulously selected. The workflow was a glorious journey through a virtual meadow of wildflowers and rainbows, and yet here we are. It’s landed with a thud, creating a seismic ripple of rejection the likes of which haven’t been felt since Windows 8.

Most designers will experience this soul crushing disappointment at some point. But there’s one thing you can do to mitigate this disappointing outcome. It’s something I learned early in my career, and knowing it and accepting it has changed the way I design the user experience. Remind yourself of this early and often:

No one wants to use your product.

No one.

Not even your mom.

Your product is annoying. It’s a necessary evil and nothing more. People only use it because they have to. If it was replaced tomorrow no one would miss it. It comes at the cost of something infinitely more desirable. The time spent using your product is time that could have been spent doing something else. Anything else. Your baby, your pride and joy, is ugly and unwanted.

Are you getting the picture yet?

Now wipe away those tears and say it again with me. “No one wants to use my product.”

Why should I call my baby ugly?

You might think I’m overstating my derision, but as a designer you have to be as critical of your own product as an overbearing pageant mom after a bottle of cheap wine. Because when you accept that your product is just a tool — a means to an end, that’s when you can begin to empathize with your users.

UX design is all about empathy. It’s about putting yourself in the user’s shoes on their worst day, and imagining you’ve been handed this new product.

Consider Brenda from accounting. Brenda’s system isn’t perfect, but she knows her system and it works for her. It’s worked for her for years. But one day Brenda’s boss comes to her and says, “Hey Brenda, good news. We’re getting a new reporting system!”

“This is going to save you so much time, Brenda!”

But Brenda wasn’t worried about saving time. She had a routine. Brenda likes routines. And now she has to learn this stupid new software and she couldn’t care less that it has dark mode, or a more intuitive UI, or runs reports 17% faster.

It’s different.

It’s disrupted her system.

Brenda is immediately annoyed by your product and she hasn’t even logged in yet.

As a UX designer, you have to make Brenda happy. You have to convince Brenda that the inconvenience of changing her routine will be worth it in the long run. She doesn’t care about you. She doesn’t care about your design. She doesn’t care about all the new features. She doesn’t care about your work. She cares about her work. And she just wants to get her work done and go home.

The Brendas of the world may be the lowest common denominator of your user base, but these people can kill adoption for an entire company. There’s a surprisingly large percentage of users that are resistant to change, even change for the better. So your goal with these users isn’t to wow them, because they aren’t looking to be wowed.

Your goal is to annoy them as little as possible.

What the tool does is more important than the tool

There’s a old saying in marketing. “The customer doesn’t want a drill. He wants a hole.” In the example above, Brenda doesn’t want a reporting tool, she wants a report. What’s between Brenda and what she wants? The reporting software. Yes, the software facilitates the process of getting the report, but if that software could be removed and the reports would magically appear exactly when Brenda needs them, do you think she’d miss the software? If the customer needing the hole could snap his fingers and the hole would appear, do you think he’d miss the drill?

It might have a certain Buck Rogers aesthetic to it, but it also has the wrist-spraining ergonomics of a brick.

Drills have come a long way since the drill-vs-hole proverb was first coined. The power tools industry has become a full-on arms race between the big box stores. Stiff competition has pushed the evolution of drills dramatically, resulting in amazing designs that could be straight out of Pininfarina. They have the bright colors and angular lines of an Italian supercar, and grippy textures of an expensive pair of running shoes. Just holding one is an effective treatment for low testosterone.

The drill designers have turned a necessary evil into something that you actually want to buy. Someone, somewhere along the line, was willing to say, “hey, our baby is pretty darn ugly. What can we do about that?”

Now these make you want to find a reason to put a hole in something. I know. I own two of them.

But this focus on aesthetics only works when you have a quality product first. Customers are never more than one bad experience away from swearing off a brand forever. That perfectly balanced ergonomic handle means nothing the second the drill stops producing holes the way it’s supposed to. The instant the drill doesn’t work, the snazzy design and extra features become incredibly annoying because it appears to the customer that aesthetics was given a higher priority than function and quality.

Customers like me are enticed by the colors and extra features, and that design definitely makes me feel better about parting with my money to get it. Aesthetics makes a necessary evil a little less evil, but ultimately aesthetics can’t be the entire user experience. The old adage is just as true now as it was before drills were cool. I don’t need that drill, I need a hole.

No one even wants to use Slack. Wait, what?

The CEO of Slack, Stewart Butterfield, gets it. At Silicon Slopes Summit 2018, he described the challenge of introducing an unwanted product in the workplace.

“If we were able to effectively explain [Slack], it would be much easier to lead people and more clearly explain the benefits and the value… Instead what happens is you had some project you were working on that’s important to you and a performance review coming up and someone says, ‘Hey we’re going to change the way we’re communicating internally,’ and it just shows up for you as a pain in the butt.”

Stewart Butterfield gets it

As an admitted fanboy, it was surprising to me to hear Butterfield call his baby ugly. In my opinion he and his company have produced one of the most useful, elegant and intuitive communication tools on the market today. (Seriously, if you’re not using Slack at work, why aren’t you?)

But in hindsight I can remember the day my boss said, “hey we’re switching to Slack,” and my response was exactly what Butterfield described. “Seriously? We’re switching IM’s again? Why?”

I was annoyed before I even tried it.

Owner’s Delusion

Butterfield describes the scenario where a designer or developer can mistakenly believe that people will instantly love their product. He uses the example of a restaurant. A potential customer goes to the restaurant website to preview the menu or get a phone number, only to be inundated with unnecessary distractions like scrolling photos and autoplay music. The restaurant owner was so in love with their own product that they ignored the immediate need of the customer.

He calls this phenomenon Owner’s Delusion.

I’ve fallen prey to Owner’s Delusion myself. Years ago I was in a meeting with the CEO discussing how we could increase adoption of our SAAS product. The product is mainly a reporting and compliance tool. It’s the kind of thing that Brenda in accounting would use to reconcile credit card statements and make sure the company’s travel policy is adhered to.

In this discussion about increasing adoption I had a brilliant idea that struck me like a sign from the heavens above… Themes. Themes was the answer! If we could just allow the user to change the colors and background image, that’ll increase adoption!

At the time, everyone involved loved the idea. But honestly, does Brenda in accounting give a crap about a background image? Sure, a placid background photo might be nice, but I was focusing on prettying up a drill that could barely produce a hole. I wasn’t even asking why adoption was low in the first place, which of course had very little to do with aesthetics. If Brenda spends 15 minutes every day tapping her fingers while a report struggles to load, or 45 seconds hunting for a buried function, that carefully curated photo of San Francisco wasn’t going to make her any happier about the product. If anything it would have the opposite effect.

In God we trust. All others must present data.

Fortunately my fabulous themes idea never made it to production. It was a wild guess that was based on what I thought we could do, not what we should do. It was nothing more than a whim coming from an infatuation with my own artwork.

In the years since my near-disaster, my product team and I have made huge strides in listening to the needs of our users and putting them first. We make data-driven decisions using tools like Domo, Fullstory, Pendo and Qualtrics. Rather than adding new features just because we can, we’ve gone to great lengths to chop out any unnecessary bloat. Rather than asking, “how can I make this look cooler?” my question is, “how can I make this less annoying?” or, more generously, “how can I make this so Brenda in accounting can get in, get what she wants, and get out?”

And above all else, I constantly remind myself that while people need the information that my product gives them, no one, not even my mom, really wants to use my product.