Hierarchy of good service/product/ experience/thing design

Imperfectly-shaped triangular framework diagram. Sometimes it is far more difficult than it should be to draw a diagram before the second cup of coffee.

So this is actually a pretty simple five-question framework, which upon learning, seems so obvious, but from experience I know this framework is not always followed, especially at the more granular levels of considering touch points and “features.”

Whether you’re sitting at the table brainstorming for The Next Google, or a stakeholder with a loud voice or deep pockets has made a feature deman — err…request, asking these five questions in this order will lead to a positive outcome, for your customers/users, yourself and your employees, and your investors. When a question can be answered with a “yes,” and there’s research and analytics to back up the answer, then move on to the next question.

When all five are true, then it just becomes a matter of differentiating yourself from everyone else by fulfilling your promise to your customer — make transparent, honest customer service a top priority and reward your CS reps not for “resolving issues quickly” but by maintaining and growing customer relationships.


  1. Does it fulfill an actual need?
  2. Is it usable?
  3. Is it simple/easy?
  4. Is it learnable?
  5. Does it either: connect, delight, or empower the user?

1. Does it fulfill an actual need?

First of all, if you’ve begun from a point of “how can we use new cool thing/technology XYZ” then, while you may have an answer to this question, it’s worth thinking about exactly what need or “job” this new service/product/thing is going to fulfill. There is a bit of emphasis on actual for this very reason — are you inventing a need? Are you sure that your idea is actually going to help someone (or hopefully, group of someones) and you’re not just creating another useless app? And if you are, say, trying to create the next Amazon or Jet, then how are you differentiating yourself — not just within your vertical, but against all services out there, which is what your users and potential users are evaluating your experience against.

2. Is it usable?

Does your thing pass a basic heuristic evaluation? You know, those building blocks of creating a minimally usable experience, such as asking the user to employ recognition and not recall and while preventing errors whenever possible, using actionable human-language error messages and easy-to-escape interactions, because people will use your thing in unintended ways, and some will try to push it to its limits, and others think and process their environment and information differently than you do. Which is why perhaps it may be better to hire an HCI professional consultant to do your heuristic evaluations — they are trained to confront and be aware of their own biases in an attempt to not let them influence such evaluations, and they have no “history” with your product/service/thing.

3. Is it simple/easy?

So your thing is usable; that’s great! Now look closely — did you actually fill that actual need (question 1) in way that has made that task/job easier/faster/simpler than the other, prior options which existed for this group of users/people? If you immediately answered “yes,” then, to paraphrase a great South Park episode, look closelier at your thing. No, more closelier. Test your thing with as many people as possible — target users and non-user populations, and you’ll quickly see whether you’ve made someone’s life easier or whether you’re only mucking things up further.

4. Is it learnable?

Perform a streamlined cognitive walkthrough on your service/product — list out a few core tasks or jobs for which a user is anticipated to use your thing, and then step through those tasks, at each point asking yourself, will a user know what to do to proceed from this point, and is it clear to the user how to get out of the task if an erroneous click or tap has been made. If you can answer “yes” to both of these questions for each step of the most common task flows, then you have created a learnable thing. See question 2 for a thought on why this is another task you may want to hire an outside consultant to perform.

5. Does it either: connect, delight, or empower the user?

Have you read Karen Holtzblatt’s latest book, Contextual Inquiry: Design for Life? In it she discusses this topic at great length and in much more depth. But the idea is that your thing needs to speak to people at a level that is nearly unconscious, and in one of a few, universally human ways. Connect people — people care more about what other people who are in their immediate, close network say and think than than just about anyone else’s opinion on any issue, so if your product/service/thing can strengthen those connections or use them in some way, then you have a winner. Delight is one of those words that is just plain overused, to the point of being virtually meaningless now, but what is meant here by “delight” is really getting back to question 3, “is it simple/easy?” What is delight, after all? It could mean such different things to different people, so the way it is meant here is in terms of whether you have made something complex or seemingly complex, delightfully simple and easy to use. The fact that I can pay my rent from my phone in under one minute, while running to catch the train to work, is delightfully simple for me. I’m not sure I’d use those words if asked in a user research session, but then that’s why we don’t directly ask people (users) “didja like it?” And lastly, is your thing able to make someone feel empowered? Empowered to do something, take action, make a difference, take a stand — make their voice heard in a way that is meaningful to that person? This can be the most difficult to set out to have a success with, but if you are able to harness this one, in addition to connection and delight, then you may just have The Next Big Thing on your hands.


Answer these five questions positively, in this order, and while I guarantee nothing, I do promise that your chances of success will be greater than if you had started with the questions, “what cool thing can I build next?” or “our biggest investor is demanding we use XYZ technology — what can we use it for?”


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