Product Design is Personal

As a new student to UX design in my second week of Designlab’s UX Academy, I have only just begun to reform the way I think about design. However, by beginning to approach the design of everyday items through the lens of a designer, I’ve found that my own expectations for the products I seek out and engage with, as well as my own behavior patterns, have changed.

Thea Chard
Feb 25, 2018 · 7 min read
“Street art writing you here on red plate at Venice Beach” by Marion Michele on Unsplash

I used to find options overwhelming

From my non-designer perspective, life was already filled with more than enough daily (and somewhat mandatory) maintenance rituals, from hygienic, to financial, to social — you name it. I resented the fact that there was a seemingly endless amount of digital products out there requiring time and effort to use and employ, and that if used properly, would inevitably require even more upkeep to maintain. (This is the main reason why I still have hundreds of archaic contacts in my phone — people I haven’t spoken to in years and will likely never interact with again, yet I continue to pass along from SIM card to SIM card, upgrade to upgrade). It was all just too much.

And so, with this stubborn approach close at hand, I would constantly download new digital products and then lament the fact that they didn’t provide an easy solution to the problem at hand. (A budgeting app can only help you if you go through the painstaking work of uploading all of your financial information into it, and then engage with the data it provides you, amiright?!)

Call it laziness, but I just flat out refused to put in the work, especially when it came to products that were designed to take the place of a tangible, physical process — such as password keeping, healthcare tracking, or backing up my Rolodex (there’s a word you don’t hear much anymore!). Not wanting to put all my eggs in the wrong basket, I would look for an affordable catchall solution to all of my needs, download three to five competing products, lose steam after playing with just one or two, and stop using all of them all together (but refuse to delete them from my phone, further cluttering up my digital plate).

I couldn’t find viable solutions for my personal needs because I had no idea what problems I was trying to fix.

I would often find myself wondering why I could never find the solution I was looking for. It look a little study into the nature of product design to realize that, plain and simple, I was making it more complicated than it needed to be — I couldn’t find viable solutions for my personal needs because I had no idea what problems I was trying to fix.

Then I started to seek out clean, concise and intuitive design

When I got my first smartphone (an iPhone) I was pretty late to the game. I had been an Apple user for some time, having gotten my first MacBook in college and loving the ease of use and seamless product interactions it provided, but my experience was pretty much exclusive to this line. When it came to cell phones, I had always been a loyal Samsung user (fro giant antenna-ed phone, to flip phone — I even had the Matrix-esque slider phone AND LOVED IT).

I nearly cried when the screen on my slider phone broke, and I was pushed to upgrade to an iPhone (shows what I knew)

And then I got my first iPhone and it was game over.

It wasn’t that the iPhone was necessarily better than its Android counterparts, so much as it was that it spoke to and connected with my other products seemingly seamlessly, without me having to learn a different operating system, or jerry-rig some way for all of my favorite different devices to communicate. I could compose a file on my computer, then open, edit and print it from my phone without having to email it to myself. The product did the heavy lifting — the intuitive, interconnectivity — for me; it solved (at least a very large part) of my digital maintenance problem.

Of course, in doing so, it also created a series of child problems that would grow and fester over the years, culminating in the most nefarious: addiction, or rather, dependency (which by that damned Murphy’s Law, always managed to reveal itself at the most inopportune of times).

The dramatic reaction you have to losing your phone crutch.

Earlier this week, while on my way to an appointment (in a nearby, but new building I had never been to before) my phone decided it was time to die. The battery hadn’t failed — it was fully charged — and nothing severe had happened to it, but the screen flat quit and that was that. I could hear that it was on, but I had no way to interact with it; calls and alerts would come in, it would ping and vibrate, but there was absolutely no way to engage. And just like that, my phone became a sleek paperweight equipped with the ability to let me know I’d received an email. It could no longer tell me the fastest, most efficient route to my meeting and since I was already on my way, I was just plain out of luck.

Having failed to prepare a navigational contingency plan, to no one’s surprise, I was late.

Now my favorite products are highly personal

This got me thinking about the digital products and applications I used regularly in a broader, almost clinical sense. Which products actually served a real need in my life — solved a real personal problem — and which in fact created more problems than they set out to address in the first place? Which provided the features that I truly needed?

Once I started approaching the products I used everyday from the perspective of usefulness, I found I was able to sift through the digital chaos and zero in on the ones that catered to my very specific needs, and discard the rest. Suddenly it wasn’t damn near impossible to part ways with robust and popular apps that, while well designed, weren’t fulfilling my own personal needs.

…the products I use and favor most are the ones that support personal value, rather than replace it.

Of course there will always be products built for their reliability — and we will all use them, because they are there for us all the time, especially in a pinch. That said, I now find that the products I use and favor most are the ones that support personal value, rather than replace it.

I use a handful of products for keeping track of my notes, documents, and ideas; others for regular business services like invoicing and financial management; others for inspiration or meditation; others to help me eat healthy or exercise regularly — all things that support my overall well-being and my ability to work and create in my daily life. If they frequently distract me or regularly reinforce negative emotional responses (I’m looking at you Facebook), they are slowly semi- (if not fully) retired from my repertoire.

How I feel when I find products that are just right—MINE!

But it took beginning to study design and product development, even just a little, to unlock this new ability, allowing me to see and evaluate the design around me in my everyday life. The result has been curated, elective interaction with products with design that suits me, that which heightens both my productivity and overall well-being. These two characteristics represent both tangible and intangible qualities respectively that, when combined and executed well, result in the most useful, usable and desirable products specific to my needs. They may not be the ones that fill that need for everyone, but that’s the beauty of product design in the digital age — what I used to see as an overwhelming over-saturation of options, I now see as highly specialized market of personal products — design allows there to truly be something for everyone.

And once I realized I could approach design the same way I consume it, the clutter of having too many product options all but fell away.

I am journaling my experience as a part-time student in the UX Academy Weingart cohort with weekly reflections—follow my progress here, on Designlab, or on the Designlab Blog.

Thea Chard

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I'm a writer, editor and designer live/working in Seattle. Designlab UX Academy student. Nat Towsen’s Downtown Variety Hour (at UCB East!) producer-at-large.