Users Are People Too - Getting Product Design Right

Quick poll:

What do you call the people who use your app/website/product/system?

  • users
  • leads
  • inquiries
  • roles
  • personas
  • actors
  • clients
  • customers
  • tickets
  • market
  • consumers

Call them users, clients, leads, inquiries, roles, actors, or personas, the language is used to describe one entity- people. No matter what labels we place on people to make it easier for us to make business,  technology, or design decisions, they are real live people. They are people with lives outside of your app. They are humans with families and stresses and ambitions and life dreams. They are using your product because there’s a belief - instilled by either marketing or friends or need - that using it will make their lives better. 

But does it? 

I reflect on my current upgrade to OS 10 on my iPhone 6 Plus. To be sure, I can’t live in modern times without this “device” but over the years and through several upgrades, my excitement about my iPhone has waned. With this new upgrade on the Home button and all the things it “knows” about me , I can definitely say, this product is becoming cumbersome and intrusive instead of delightfully enjoyable. 

These are new feelings… I’ve been a Mac person all my life, starting when my dad brought an Apple IIE home in the 80s.  I want to love my iPhone again, but now I can’t figure how to use the damn camera when my phone is locked - there are 3 different ways to swipe now and forget it if I had music playing.

It’s not just the digital world where it appears no one thinks about people in product design. I remember a time when I worked in consumer goods and the president of the division was giving his vision at the beginning of year. He said something like, “We have an excellent proficiency in wafer technology, and so we’re going to make a lot of wafer products.” Were people asking for crunchy food filled with tasteless wafers? Did it make food better or healthier? No, it didn’t. The sales numbers soon showed that in the next year when the wafer products came out into stores with a big thud. I left that meeting knowing exactly what would happen - you don’t think of people, your products fail*. And personally, I prefer it when my business leaders create and start from visions of human happiness and success, not from technology proficiency.

So let’s talk about your product… You may want to ask yourself “does my product* make people’s lives better? And the next question, do I even know if it does?

There’s a lot of talk and practice of empathy in product design and engineering. Getting to know your users with personas and research and bringing on UX and user-centered design and testing and making it beautiful and intuitive – that’s wonderful! Unfortunately, I'm not sure it's working. I don’t see or hear about a lot of products on the market though that fills me and my friends/family/colleagues with joy at every use. (To be sure, there are a lot of great products out there that just let us live and we don't notice them, and that's great too - they are helping without harming. I'm talking about the idea that if each product we use throughout the day gives us joy, then we'll walk round with smiles on our faces that beam out rays of sunshine and the world will be a better place... hey, I can dream!) 

 I have seen a lot of attempts at empathy and user-centered design that unfortunately miss the mark for a few reasons:

  • Research reports and persona work live long lives as PDFs in the dark basement of email inboxes and are only recalled with sentences like, “We did a study on that once…”
  • Everyone on the team is a user expert but no one is a true advocate. Team members commonly start sentences using the phrase, “From a users point of view…” What they really mean is that no one is buying my argument and I’ve never spoken with one person or seen research, but I’m going to try this. 
  • Designers look at their designs on huge monitors and have no idea how the product looks and acts in the real world. This applies to digital and physical products, but my favorite story on this is Tropicana’s packaging redesign failure. This happened 7 years ago, cost $35 million and knocked the juice out of the #1 category position because no one could find the juice on the shelves.  It’s still being talked about today. 
  • There’s a lot of talk of BRAND IS THE EXPERIENCE and DESIGN-THINKING by people in very stylish clothing with artful hair in minimalist offices,  but there’s no talk of what about those elements make people happy or how the product makes people’s lives better
  • The team suffers from feature- vision, which is a way of seeing the world as a set of features and not a whole product. These teams never ask, “What’s this all for?” or even simpler, “Why?”
  • There is no budget or time for testing - everything big needs to go in front of people, not in focus groups, but in real usability/user testing
  • Leadership has many competing priorities - I call this “shiny object” syndrome. It's usually seen as the VP who comes up with new ideas and or competition prioritize at every review  and soon the product looks like Homer Simpson’s self-designed car
  • There's a poisonous legacy present. This can manifest itself as old systems, old thoughts, and old ways of doing things. I will never forget Bob in IT at one of my first jobs who said a phrase that I wanted printed on an ironic t-shirt, "The Web will go the way of Citizen Band (CB) radio."  These cobwebs in the organization have caused cataracts and no one can see the people  who use and probably hate their product beyond these attitudes.

These situations – while often mired in good intent of empathy and user-centered design-  can be avoided in product design in two ways:

  • Every project team member puts their own bullshit aside and becomes an advocate for the people, they show up with a true belief that what they are doing will help people and make them happy. 
  • Ask one question at the start of every project “From a person’s point of view - in their language - what do they consider success?”  

Start from there and you will always help and not harm, and maybe, just maybe give people something that makes their lives better. 


* In this Fortune.com article, YCombinator estimated that 42% of new products fail because they fail to meet a market need. To translate, someone put out a product that almost half of a specific group of people did not want at all.