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Principles of Product Design

"The details are not the details. They make the design." - Charles Eames
  1. Usefulness is job #1

    If your product is not useful, if humans do not find use for it, then the design has failed. Your product must help people do something valuable in their lives. This value through use could be functional (my Timex tells the time), social (my Rolex impresses my friends), or emotional (my watch was a gift from my spouse). The usage lifecycle of products includes the ability to understand a product's usefulness, a good first experience using it, the ability use it and be successful over time.

  2. The experience is the product

    There is your product and then there is the experience someone has using your product. It's easy to see the difference from afar, but to the person using your product they are one in the same. Every interaction matters and becomes part of the product experience. The original iPod is a canonical example: the iPod experience included everything from picking up and feeling the heft of the device to finding music with the scroll wheel to syncing with your computer to purchasing music from the iTunes store. All of those interactions taken together made up the total product experience and ultimately what the customer was buying. [#]

  3. Solve existing problems

    In our attempt to create world-changing products we often want to create something the world has never seen. But product innovation isn't about new products that solve new problems. Product innovation is about new products that solve existing problems better than they're currently solved. Take Google Search, Netflix, and Facebook, for example. Each of these wildly popular services simply solved an existing problem better than they were being solved. [#]

  4. Look for investment

    The best product features are those that will be used. The best way to predict whether a feature will be used is if people are already investing in that area. Are people already investing money, time, or energy into solving this problem? These are the indicators that the problem is worth solving. If people say they have a problem but aren't investing to solve it, then it's not really at the top of their priority list. So look for existing investment before adding that new product or feature. [#]

  5. Model features on real artifacts

    One way you can be sure people are investing in a problem is to look for artifacts of use. Artifacts are real world objects that people use to get a job done. Think post-it notes surrounding a computer screen. Artifacts are often hacks, like placing clear scotch tape on an iPhone to protect the screen, or whipping up an Excel spreadsheet to help organize information. When you come across an artifact treat it like gold...and ask its owner to tell you all about it. Artifacts translate directly into useful features.

  6. Fit and finish matter

    When something looks just right, when the UI has been polished to pixel precision, when the copywriting is absolutely clear, when the branding looks professional, we build trust with users. The implicit message is "well these people really care about what they're doing...just look a their attention to detail". They will then give our product more of a chance to succeed. [#]

  7. Release quality sets expectations

    Releases set expectations. It's become common to release products as quickly as possible and then iterate based on feedback. This is laudable; there is no substitute for real-world use. But whatever you release, make sure that it's your best. If all your releases are 80% finished then that's what people will come to expect…they'll have lower expectations each time thus their trust will wane. But if each one of your releases, no matter how small, is of the highest quality, your users will know that it's worth their time to pay attention. They might even get excited about it.

  8. Release a smaller, better product

    It's easy to build features these days. Development tools have made adding features faster than ever before. But feature creep is still the same old problem. Every feature you add is friction in the interface and an added burden, however small, on your users. If your product is truly focused it won't try to do too much, and you'll say no to many more features than you say yes to.

  9. The last 10% is the hardest

    The difference between a good and great product is the last 10%. Everyone has the same 90%…the same core features and similar pricing and a similar story. But that last 10% is the real differentiator. It is the part that separates you from your competitors. It's the blood, sweat, and tears of detail. And it might take 50% of your time. But time is not what you're measuring...you're measuring the difference between good and great.

  10. Know who your real competitors are

    Email and Excel are two of the most formidable software competitors ever: people use them to do just about everything. Yet we don't often think about them as competitors because they don't compete directly...they compete indirectly instead. It's too easy to follow the product categories analysts create in each industry. But those categories rarely cover the entire competitive field. So look for indirect competitors which are often as dangerous as direct ones. Phones with cameras, for example, were an indirect but deadly competitor to digital cameras and handheld video cameras. You need to know who your direct and indirect competitors are in order to create a truly innovative product.

  11. Actual vs desired use

    There is often a difference between what you want people to use your product for and what it's actually used for. Don't confuse the two. Be honest about how people are actually using your product. In some cases it won't be what you intended. This is worth paying attention to. In other cases people use the product incorrectly because they haven't learned the right way and just need help. The worst case scenario is when people are using a product in an unintended way without you as the designer knowing.

  12. Personal value precedes social value

    It's easy to get excited about the social value of software. Ooh, if we build this right then everyone will share with their friends! But people rarely use software merely because it's social. They use it because it provides some personal value first…they can use it without involving others. (it may include others…but the act of sharing is usually secondary). [#]

  13. Users are not product designers

    Users have endless opinions about your product, but they are not the designer. You are. "When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong." This quote from Neil Gaiman is right on…people are very aware when a problem exists but don't know how to solve (if they knew how to solve it they wouldn't have the problem!) So don't dismiss problems quickly...make sure that you dig deeper to understand the underlying issue, it might only seem unrelated. A designer who blindly followers users will quickly fall prey to their inability to accurately self-report. Do not resent them for this…this is the nature of the user.

  14. The behavior you’re seeing is the behavior you’ve designed for

    No matter how you've planned, people often behave in unexpected ways. Don't dismiss the behavior, accept that the behavior you're seeing is the behavior you've designed for…whether or not it was intentional. If it was something you didn't plan for, your probably need to focus more on the core interactions more...make them as tight as possible to focus the user's efforts.

  15. Great products are focused on a single problem

    Too often people create products in the hopes of appealing to everyone. But the best products are those that appeal in a special way to people trying to do something specific…they are specialized for the task at hand. It is counter-intuitive to focus on a small market, but the journey to a big market starts there.

  16. Disruptive products look like toys

    Products that end up being disruptive often start out looking like a toy. They don't look like much, but what they have is an edge that is more useful in some way than the incumbent products. Maybe they're cheaper, easier to use, or more collaborative. It likely won't have polish or maturity or a big customer base and so it appears like a toy. And that unassuming aspect is exactly why it will be too late when the incumbent realizes that this product has legs. [#][#]

  17. Positioning is crucial

    The way people think about your product is crucial to its adoption and use. The way you position your product, how you talk about it, how you describe it, how you compare it to other products, gives people a framework to understand it and how it might be useful to them. You can position your product as a new product category or as an improvement in an existing category. It usually makes sense to position it based on an existing category...people learn by comparing with something they already understand. [#]

  18. Product/market fit is when people sell for you

    Product market fit is a funny term, but here's a concrete way to think about it. When people understand and use your product enough to recognize it's value that's a huge win. But when they begin to share their positive experience with others, when you can replicate the experience with every new user who your existing users tell, then you have product market fit on your hands. And when this occurs something magical happens. All of a sudden your customers become your salespeople.

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Written by Joshua Porter, creator of the What to Wear daily report and publisher of Bokardo.com. If you're interested in product design you can follow me on Twitter here.