What are the essentials of good product design?

Four guiding ideas

What makes good product design?

Spoiler: I don't know for certain, but I do have a framework that works for me. In looking back 20 years on things I've helped create and reflecting on patterns I've studied in the wild, some through-lines emerged. I'm thinking of digital products, but I think it applies to physical products as well. Dieter Rams' Principles of Good Design had a huge influence on me and inspired a structure to my approach.

I think good product designs can be reduced to four essential qualities. I should note that these are character qualities, not measurable metrics. While a product might be "successful" in terms of profit or lots of active users, that doesn't make it good.

With that in mind, here's my framework: Good products are

  1. Evidence-based

  2. Simple

  3. Ethical

  4. Purposeful

I'll step through each of these and examine what kinds of questions they provoke.

1. Good product design is evidence-based

Good product designs are based on what is, not what we hope or assume might be.

Successful products built on faith have the appearance of having come from gifted vision, but they’re mostly just lucky. And since we don't see all the ones that fail, we're persuaded by survivorship bias. A fatal mistake a product team can make is operating in a fantasy world built on the myth of the lone genius. In this world, a brilliant leader radiates an enlightened product vision. They seem to have special knowledge that doesn't need validating. Teams can rescue themselves from this type of dynamic by acting like scientists, basing decisions by revealing facts about the world as it is.

The people building good products have done the work to know, beyond instinct and guesswork, if and where there is a product-market fit. They’ve talked to real humans in the spaces in which they intend the product to thrive. The best research teams I've seen don't go more than two weeks without talking to users. Too much research, though, and things start to grind and sink in a sea of information.

Continuous learning

Giving special privilege to information that supports what we want to be true is a human tendency. It’s bad for social media and it’s bad for product work. Constantly gather and interpret data to inform decisions. When data comes in that appears to support a hypothesis, that is not an excuse to become complacent. Continue experimenting and measuring even after things feel validated. Always be measuring. Conditions change. A light breeze, given enough time, can blow you way off course.

Questions to ask

  • How might you reduce the role of luck or randomness in your design decisions?

  • If you knew you were going to be called upon to explain why something was designed the way it is, how would that figure into your design process today?

2. Good product design is simple

Good product designs have few parts. Fewer parts means less for users to comprehend, less that can break, less to maintain, less to instrument for analytics, and so on. More abstractly, there’s a kind of elegance in simplicity — from visual design to engineering — that’s easy to admire. Most product designs start out simple. The challenge is keeping them that way. In real world product design, forces almost always push toward complexity, not away from it.

Complexity is a symptom of distraction and misalignment, which creeps in when a team loses focus what they set out to create. Shiny ideas turn into new feature sets. To help guard against that, create a description of the future you want and store it in an easily accessible place. One way to do this is to craft a future press release. Google Design Sprints and Amazon are known for this.

You should also measure your own team’s understanding of what they’re creating. Here's a fun test I like to do: Ask a few people who you think know what the product is to go ahead and explain it. Do this more than once and at different points in the development cycle. Everyone’s answer should be about the same, and ideally fit in one breath. If that’s not happening, then see it as a sign of misalignment, complexity, or both. Work backwards and investigate how they formed those interpretations.

Justify and obscure

Things get complicated in the real world. When considering a piece of complexity, put it on trial and justify it through evidence. Then use the core promise of the product as a guide for what to optimize the experience for. Finally, look for opportunities to obscure the rest through techniques like progressive disclosure.

Questions to ask

  • When a product manager, an engineer, and a designer explain the product, how similar are their explanations? How long does it take them to explain it?

  • How well does your current backlog or feature set map to your press release?

  • Where are the opportunities to hide complexity? How can you make sure a feature earns its way into the product?

3. Good product design is ethical

Good product designs are imbued with moral responsibility and inclusivity. Determining what is and isn’t ethical can be squishy, but it helps to understand that a product’s measure of business success can be totally unrelated to its capacity to do harm. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. To be agnostic about ethics is to forfeit control to forces driven by narrow interests that may have no moral considerations at all.

Watch for side effects

Design is a little like medication. It has a desirable effect, but maybe some undesirable ones. What are those things? What are the externalities?

For example, AirBnB’s “trust-based” design required guests to have profile photos. Well, that lead to widespread discrimination by hosts. They removed that requirement and tweaked the booking process. Then the hosts complained, citing security reasons (they wanted to ensure that the person who checks in is the same person who booked). OK, but their own feedback reveals frustration around losing the ability to reject bookings based on name and photo itself. Many hosts may want the ability to make sure the Hakim that shows up to the property is actually the same Hakim that booked. But they also wanted the ability to reject bookings from people named Hakim. AirBnB’s move is in the right direction. While they may be unable to take discrimination out of people’s heads and hearts, they aimed to stop being an accessory to it.

Questions to ask

Design ethics in particular demand you ask critical questions that stress test your design.

  • Will the product cause casualties? Who are the losers? What are the impacts on society in general?

  • How could the product be misused? What will you do to prevent that?

  • How inclusive is the product? Who does it leave behind? Do you consider accessibility to be part of its usability, or something extra?

  • What does your product do with (and to) its users without their conscious awareness? Is that on purpose?

  • How can we reward ethical design wins?

4. Good product design is purposeful

Good product designs advance a meaningful ideal. Let's say you’ve got a validated, simple, responsible product with a firm market fit. It may solve a problem. It may even be profitable. But what kind of world is it shaping? If it were to go away tomorrow, what would we lose that couldn’t be replaced by money or some other distraction? The central question isn't why did you create it, it's why should we have it?

Takers and givers

Many years ago I helped create a product people seemed to want, but nobody really needed. In fact, I didn’t want it to exist. I compartmentalized that feeling and gave my best efforts because I liked the process. Like people, products can give or take. This product I helped build had the illusion of a giver, but it was a taker. Like a parasite, it subsisted on some of our culture’s worst tendencies and vulnerabilities. There was a kind of emptiness to its purpose. It served nothing, and if it disappeared, nobody would be worse off. It took something from the world and gave nothing of real value in return. Taker products often enjoy shortcuts to good metrics. And we often mistake good numbers for good products.

Finding motivation in the “why”

You might know what you are setting out to create. You may also know roughly how you're going to do it. But think through why you should before you start. Simon Sinek tells us that motivation comes from one of two sources: manipulation and inspiration. Manipulated teams can yield short term wins, but inspired teams achieve things in a purposeful, long term way. And inspired teams are “why” focused teams.

Questions to ask

  • Why does your product exist? Does the answer easily transfer to other products, or even companies?

  • What exchange does the product make with the world it will live in? What does it get? What does it offer in return?

  • If your product fails, what do we lose?

What's your checklist?

I use these four qualities and the questions they provoke as a kind of checklist before and during my involvement in any product. And looking back, it's clear to me now that my entire career in product design can be divided into two parts: Before I had a set of guiding standards, and after. Whether you agree with these four in particular or not, I hope every designer has thought through what their checklist is, and can explain how they apply it to anything they create.

©2023 Aaron Weyenberg

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