When I first got started building products I relied on random inspiration. Most ideas started with me thinking “Wouldn’t it be cool if ______?” and never went much deeper than that. As you can guess, the products I built were hit-or-miss, and I often felt lost in my own head, as if I were wandering aimlessly in a maze.

Now that I’ve been working on products for ~5 years (most notably Product Hunt and Dash), I’ve started to notice patterns in product design, and those patterns have given me a set of mental tools that allow me to think much more clearly about solving product problems than when I first started.

How The Maze Works

Designing a product is basically just making a bunch of decisions, so I find it useful to imagine the space of all the choices you can make in a given product domain as a maze. Early on, there are big decisions that shut off entire sections of the maze from you, and as you work your way towards the finer details, you still encounter endless forks in the road. If you choose wisely, there’s gold waiting for you at the end☺.

If you want to get there, and not feel lost when you’re making product decisions, you need to understand the elementary forces of product design. Once you start thinking in terms of these forces, you can get away from “wouldn’t it be cool if?” and towards a solid, repeatable process for making things that people want.

So, without further adieu, here are the elementary forces of product design:


Needs

The core purpose of any product is to fill some human need. That much is clear. But what’s less obvious is that human needs are fractal: the closer you look, the more needs you find.

For example, everybody wants to feel safe. But there are an infinite number of ways we can get the job done. We could buy a home security system, or move to a gated community, or hire a personal security guard. Let’s say you want the home security system. Should you choose the high-end subscription line? Or a simple D.I.Y kit? Or a system that is focused on beautiful industrial design? Well, it depends on your unique needs.

People usually can’t articulate their needs. It’s your job to observe what they do, and while it can be useful to ask people what they want, don’t expect them to design the product for you.

A useful, yet often overlooked step in product development is to simply write down a big list of the needs you want to fill. This starts at the most core need (“to feel safe”) and works it’s way down the ladder of abstraction to the most minute details (“I want to know something happened when I press the button”).

Of course, as you’re writing this list you’ll inevitably discover that some needs are incompatible with each other. Satisfying one need means you neglect another, and vice versa. This leads us to our second force.

Trade-Offs

Every time you say “yes” to a new feature, you’re saying “no” to a million others — whether you realize it or not. That’s why I find it useful to think about developing a product in terms of “making changes” rather than “adding features”. It’s like yin and yang: the stuff you add is visible, and how this constrains you and changes the experience is invisible, but they are just two sides of the same coin: impossible to separate.

How does this work in practice? In the case of our home security system, there is a direct trade-off between “comprehensive coverage” and “cost”. If you want to add multiple sensors, a rapid response center staffed by humans 24/7, and a video surveillance system, it’s not going to come cheap (unless you are using some powerful new technology or business process that gives you a cost advantage over competitors).

But trade-offs aren’t limited to the dimension of cost vs. performance, they exist everywhere. For example: do you want the buttons to be huge and easily readable, or should the security system have a smaller visual footprint? Which is worse: a false alarm, or a failure to detect an emergency? Should the system depend on a high-speed wireless internet connection and stream HD video to your phone, or go through your phone line and only give you binary information like “window #2 alarm was triggered”?

Developing an amazing product means navigating the complicated web of all the interconnected trade-offs. How do you that? By having a clear sense of what Needs are most important to the people you’re targeting. Which leads us to…

Priorities

The best products are able to make bold choices in the face of Trade-offs because the team behind them had strong, well-communicated priorities. For example, Apple took the CD drive out of the Macbook Air because they knew that portability was the priority for a large segment of people.

There are two ways to prioritize a list of Needs: A) narrow down the type of person you’re building the product for, and B) develop a better understanding of what drives them. Ideally, you should do both.

For example, Canary built an alarm system designed specifically for young people that live in apartments, while ADP focuses on middle-aged and elderly homeowners. It’s hard to label one “better” or “worse” without having some specific user in mind. In my case, Canary fits my needs much better, but that’s probably not be true for my parents.


Let’s stop for a moment and recap. What have we established so far?

  1. People have infinite needs.
  2. Unfortunately, many of these needs trade-off with each other.
  3. But some matter more than others, and you should prioritize those.

Not exactly earth-shattering, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to lose sight of this in your daily work. It happens to me all the time, even after 5 years of building products. So I’ll leave you with 3 ways you can modify your process to help you take advantage of these mental models and see the way out of your maze more clearly.

  1. Keep a big list of user needs. Every time you consider a change to your product, scan down the list of needs and imagine how it would impact your users.
  2. Document your trade-offs. When you add a new feature, don’t just write down not only the needs it fills — you should also document the trade-offs you’re making.
  3. Define your target user, and understand them better than they understand themselves. This is the most important one, and you should never stop refining it. The better job you do here, the more clear your priorities will be, which will allow you to make bold trade-offs, and in turn fill your users needs more completely than anyone else’s product.

Do this, and you’ll be well on your way to navigating the product maze☺

PS — I love helping! Tweet me if you wanna geek out about product stuff.

Let’s Make Things

on the art & craft of constructing software

Thanks to Gordon Wintrob, Tiffany Zhong, Rich Littlehale, Lachlan Campbell, Dan Shipper, Joe Anderson, and Tucker Max

Nathan Bashaw

Written by

co-founder / story maker at Hardbound.co

Let’s Make Things

on the art & craft of constructing software

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