The 10 Obstacles Keeping You From Great Product Design
From the hazards of linear thinking to "feature creep," roadblocks between your product design team and success, and how to overcome them.
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The digital product design industry is booming, with new releases seen almost daily. But why, with so many experienced professionals being put to the task and with solid design guidelines in place, do we still see so many poorly designed results? As design director of the San Francisco-based software company Milkinside, I've come to a few conclusions about the fundamental issues at hand.
1. Lack of empathy for users
Empathy is the ability to understand another person's feelings and thoughts without having had the same experiences, and is a foundational quality for a good product designer, yet far too few apply it well in the user experience realm. Why? Because empathy is not a set of rules that can be followed, it's a mental habit. Designers need to make a true study of their core audience's needs and turn that into design decisions, but this is easier said than done.
It's a very common situation: a designer is asked to create an app that they will never use in real life. As a result, there is less empathy with users, since they do not belong to the target audience, and are often not particularly motivated to learn their problems.
At my company, we follow a "Walk in their shoes" approach — learn as much as we can about target users and evaluate every product design decision according to the value provided for them. Any other approach will simply not provide such insights, and the results will be unsatisfactory, and unprofitable.
2. Confirmation bias
The tendency to search for, favor and recall information that confirms or supports prior beliefs or values, confirmation bias is among a designer's worst enemies, because it makes them ignore real user feedback and so design products for themselves rather than users. The goal of designers is not to honor our egos but to improve people's lives. If research tells you that a design isn't suitable for users, the need is to develop a different solution — a principle that should be baked into the design culture of any organization.
3. Lack of support and guidance for a product team
Design is a team sport: multiple people are responsible for creating just about any product. And when a digital product team experiences a need for new team members, it typically goes to a user experience (UX) professional, but it's not enough to simply hire a new member. It's vital to guide and support this person or persons — a task that's especially important when hiring a junior designer.
Covid-19 changed the way we onboard people. Newcomers, seemingly overnight, were denied in-person training, and the hard truth is that remote training does not guarantee the same level of knowledge sharing. So, at my company, we assign a mentor for every new staff member, and have a per-role onboarding checklist that new person can refer to. That mentor, among other tasks, arranges regular one-on-one check-ins during a trial period (one month) to ensure that the new work experience is going smoothly.
Related: User Experience Is the Most Important Metric You Aren't Measuring
4. Feature creep
This term encompasses excessive ongoing addition of new features in a product. Too frequently, a team will follow the idea, "The more features we add, the more valuable the product becomes for users", but in truth, such value is rarely tied directly to number of features. Product teams can be too focused on short-term metrics and forget to see the big design picture.
The "Pareto principle" states that roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. (Named for Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist who conceived that ratio at the University of Lausanne in 1896.) In the context of product design, this principle is adapted to point out that 80% of value comes from 20% of features, which makes it all the more essential to conduct solid user and market research in order to understand the true needs of a target audience.
5. Too-frequent reuse of designs
Reapplying the same decisions in numerous projects is one of the most common mistakes designers make, and for two key reasons. First, what works in one context doesn't necessarily work in another. Second, this approach can easily lead to generic design rather than true innovation. Product teams shouldn't be afraid to follow new approaches when conceiving products, and the only way to do that is to leave their comfort zone.
Related: A Guide to Turning Your Customers Into Your Product Designers
6. New trends obsession
New visual ideas appear constantly, of course. Dribbble and Behance, to name a few examples, are platforms where thousands of designers compete for viewers' attention, and some of them do come up with impressive new solutions, yet not all design notions are good for users. For example, the neomorphism trend — a purely decorative aesthetic that reimagines the older skeuomorphism design movement — became popular at Dribble in 2020, but didn't particularly boost user experiences.
To be sure, designers should be aware of new trends, yet need to carefully analyze each, and choose only those demonstrating valuable results, not just gimmickry.
7. A strictly linear process
A particularly common problem in organizations with a fixed budget and timeline, linear design afflicts a team when it works in a "waterfall model", in which requirements are set in stone at the beginning of the design process and don't change until the product release. It's easy to imagine why this approach can lead to failure.
Design by its nature is iterative — a never-ending process of refining a solution, and the more that's learned about users, the better the resulting solutions will be. My team follows a "Build, measure, learn" approach, wherein we start with MVP (minimum value product) and refine it by testing with users.
Related: This Design Platform Is Great for Small Businesses
8. Poor communication
It likely goes without saying that communication plays a key role in the design process, and poorly established information channels, particularly among stakeholders, are among the major precipitating factors of project failure. Communication challenges became even more severe starting in 2020, as we know, since most design teams shifted to remote work and the number of in-person meetings was reduced to pretty much zero.
I've long been firm in the belief that transparency is a significant competitive advantage in a product design team, so we start with a kickoff meeting in which we invite all team members and stakeholders to define project goals and key milestones. Regular weekly meetings happen thereafter with team members, in which we share design ideas and receive feedback from stakeholders in order to keep our hands on the pulse.
9. Lack of creativity
Why do so many products look so generic? The answer is simple: designers follow too-common guidelines in creating them. While these might help create products with decent usability, they'll likely never be an engine for genuinely creative solutions.
Because, creativity is a state of mind, and to produce something new and exciting, it's useful to occasionally embrace a "go crazy" approach, in which you start from scratch and create without looking back on the industry and its standards. At the end of the day, you will need to validate decisions by testing them with users, but the key idea is not to be restricted from the start.
10. Late or no usability testing
"Test early, test often" is a fundamental rule among a great many industries. Early testing can help reveal key product design issues and reduce the cost of addressing them, yet too many teams postpone usability testing until a product is released — essentially a philosophy of, "First, we release, then collect user feedback". One can imagine the resulting misfortune.
A variety of tactics can help avoid situations like that. For example, you can use the "fake door" technique to get a sense of market interest — create the most visual part of a product or its key feature and show it to customers, even if that product/feature is not active yet. This can be as simple as a landing page with basic information and a "Sign up for early access" call to action button.
Related: How to Determine If There's a Market for Your Business Idea
Bonus: Lack of team diversity
Today products are used among increasingly diverse users, cultures and environments. It can be hard to consider all factors influencing design, but in my experience, tasks become easier if you diversify a team based on both demographics (members should be from different parts of the world, and encompass different ethnicities and religions) and specialization (ideally a combination of UX designers, UI designers and UX writers on board).