Design Thoughts

Going from Product Design to (UX) Design

The requirements to deliver a successful user experience is independent of the definition of the product.

(Physical) Product Design

When most people think about product design, they usually think of it in terms of aesthetic appeal, ever since Apple has taken a stand on building lick-worthy products.

Whether it’s the curve of a Tesla or the texture of the Barun shaver, the aesthetic dimension of product design is a sure attention-getter.

A well-designed product is one that looks good to the eye and feels good to the touch.

Another common way people subconsciously think about product design is in functional terms.

A well-designed product is one that does what it promises to do.

And a badly designed product is one that somehow doesn’t: nail cutters that don’t cut even though the blades are sharp, a pen that doesn’t write smoothly though there’s ink, a printer that constantly jams.

Even after taking into account the aesthetic and the functional aspect can still lead to failure of a product.

A product might look great and work well functionally, but designing products with the User Experience (UX) as an explicit outcome means looking beyond the functional or aesthetic.

Most people responsible for creating products may not think in terms of design at all. For them, the process of creating a product is about development: steadily building up version by version and refining the features and functions of the product until they add up to something viable in the marketplace. MVP rings any bell?

In this view, the design of the product is dictated by its functionality — or, as designers sometimes put it, “Form follows function.”

This approach makes complete sense for the inner workings of a product, the parts concealed from the end user.

But when it comes to the parts of a product that are user-facing — the buttons, displays, labels, and so forth — the correct form isn’t dictated by functionality at all. Instead, it’s dictated by the psychology and behaviour of the users themselves.

User experience design often deals with questions of context.

Aesthetic Design makes sure the button on the coffeemaker is of appealing shape and texture. Functional Design makes sure it triggers the appropriate action on the device.

User Experience Design makes sure the aesthetic and functional aspects of the button work in the context of the rest of the product, asking questions like, “Is the button too small for such an important function?”

User experience design also makes sure the button works in the context of what the user is trying to accomplish, asking questions like, “Is the button in the right place relative to the other controls the user would be using at the same time?”

DESIGNING (FOR) EXPERIENCE

What’s the difference between designing a product and designing a user experience?

After all, every product intended for humans has a user, and every time a product is used, it delivers an experience.

Consider a simple product such as a chair or a table. To use the chair you sit on it; to use the table you place other objects on it.

In both cases, the product can fail to deliver a satisfactory experience: if the chair won’t support the weight of a person, for example, or the table is unsteady.

The requirements to deliver a successful user experience are built into the definition of the product itself: In some sense, a chair you can’t sit on isn’t a chair at all. In these simple cases, the manufacturers of chairs and tables may not always tend to employ user experience designers.

However, with more complex products, the requirements to deliver a successful user experience are independent of the definition of the product.

A telephone is defined by its ability to place and/or receive calls; but there are practically infinite variations on the telephone that can deliver on this basic definition — with widely varying degrees of successful user experience.

And the more complex a product gets (from a landline telephone with one or two specific functions, to a smart phone with infinite capabilities), the more difficult it becomes to identify exactly how to deliver a successful experience to the user.

Each additional feature, function, or step in the process of using a product creates another opportunity for the experience to fall short. The iPhone has many, many more functions than a desk phone of, say, the 1950s.

As a result, the process of creating a successful product has to be quite different. That’s where product design has to be supported by user experience design.