When design is not about you

If I were to tell you that people couldn’t wait to stop using your product, how would you react?

We may assume that there is something fundamentally broken with the product, a problem which must be fixed, because a well-designed product is one that people want to use.

A good designer would work through that assumption with several questions, particularly about the people in that story. For the past few months (roughly around the time I joined Automattic–talk about hitting the ground running), the WordPress.com design team has dropped everything to take on an impressive amount of design research and strategy work, the sort that would make many an in-house designer green with envy.

As a designer whose career has been concentrated in the government and enterprise sectors, working on a consumer-facing product with such a pervasive presence on the web has been fascinating, not necessarily because of its differences, but because of some surprising similarities. One of the most striking insights from our research for me was the joy and dedication with which our customers described what they do when they’re away from their screens.

With enterprise software, you’re designing for people who will use your application because their employer is making them. This creates several opportunities for them to hate your work. Migrating a business to a new software system is riddled with long hours, missed deadlines, and employees who feel technologically-inept. It would be foolish to believe that as a designer you could create something that people will just love to use because fundamentally, most people would prefer not to be at work at all. A well-designed product for the enterprise empathizes with our desire for Friday to get here already and delivers.

It’s the same idea with small business owners who want a website. The era of Geocities is no longer. People create websites as a means to an end, and they expect a return on their investment. They don’t want to spend time using a product because there’s something else far more rewarding and important that they would much rather be spending their time on. It can be difficult to accept that your product is not the center of the universe.

In the tech industry, however, sometimes it can seem like you’re accepting defeat if you don’t aspire to that goal. We should be designing for ultimate engagement, for unconditional conversion–or even its more extreme form, addiction. There is no scarcity of best practices for designers on how to keep people using your product and getting them to keep coming back. This isn’t intrinsically bad, but it might be nearsighted, and probably also creatively stunting.

This is why in parallel to our design research work, we’ve been finding our Automattic Design Principles, which are about people, instead of things. Here’s a fun one:

“Consistency builds trust. Speed builds trust. Simplicity builds trust.”

To get a user done with their day at the office and out the door (or back to what they truly care about) you need to design something that is at its core, unapologetically, efficient. Software cannot be efficient if it is not consistent, speedy, and simple. Efficiency is different than promising the fastest results or unconditional ease. Setting that expectation for enterprise products, or just anything that is meant for people to produce substantive things with, not only sets it up for failure, but can even ridicule the domain expertise of the user. There’s no faster way to lose someone’s trust than by telling them that curing cancer is as easy as 1-2-3. Efficiency relates to a giving and taking; it is not instant gratification.

Luckily, efficiency is something that can be measured. Are workers able to take on more complex work in the same amount of time? Or are they still trying to figure out how the hell to use the thing? If people are spending more time creating workarounds or reading documentation than the work itself, you lost their trust long before. And when a business loses trust in your product, it is telling you that you are in the way of the business; that you are costing it money, not making it; that you are a liability, not an asset.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at this sentence again, but with a little more context this time:

If I were to tell you that people couldn’t wait to stop using your product, because they were so excited to go back to working on their dreams, how would you react?

 

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