Notes about product design

This gig is about throwing all the toys on the floor and making a giant mess before slowly putting everything into labelled buckets, separating some things, subcategorizing others, binning the trash that needs to go. It’s all about inventing classifications for things — a Dewey Decimal system of desires.

A lot of folks tend to think that product design means fonts and big, rounded corners, splashy gradients and animations. Conversations will focus entirely on how and what instead of why. That’s because the latter feels extremely scary—you have to show people how little you understand and many tend not to be capable of such vulnerability with strangers.

Also most people understandably hate confusing things and cannot bear to be confused themselves—we all naturally shy away from it and move towards the things we understand, things we can control. Working on fonts and rounded corners and the aesthetics of a card all feels productive, calm even. But it’s important to remember that’s because it’s the easy work.

The problem is that being confused just doesn’t feel productive. (I am slowly learning this).

Product design is about mapping that confusion though; it’s in the correlation between things, in the syntax and the words. Diagrams and arrows—endless files overflowing with boxes pointing to other nearby boxes. Product designers must map the thicket of confusing uncontrollable jungle-nightmare-mess in front of them and then clear a pathway straight through it. But the beginning is insurmountable. There’s too much jungle, too much baffling confusion.

It’s hard to accept at first but productive days in this line of work are often spent being entirely confused.

Giving yourself up to that confusion, basking in it even, is the first important step towards making a thing great. Next up is showing other people how confusing everything is, too.

Bad product design is when folks talk more about the UI than what the UI is built on top of. I don’t care if the grid is 8px or if there is no grid at all — that’s not product design. Great product design can survive without a shiny UI but I feel like I’m in the minority when it comes to this argument.

A lot of people just can’t see great product design though. If things make sense then you’ll never think about how much work went into that, how it required learning about how users think and feel and interact with software.

There’s a lot of talk about how great design is invisible—mostly boring conversations with little substance—but! I think that’s true when it comes to product design.

Good work of any kind requires two things. First, we need somewhere to be entirely alone. We need a space without distractions where we can churn on an idea, on a problem, without someone bugging us. We need extended periods of loneliness—no meetings, no catch-ups, no 1x1s. That isn’t the work. We need to pace around freely or talk out loud to ourselves, we need to type or draw (to map the jungle thicket), and we need room for bad ideas to breathe and take shape before we burn them to the ground and start all over again.

Simply put: we need loneliness in ample doses.

But there’ll be a moment when we need to show that work and argue over it. We’ll need to argue loudly (but in a healthy way) about what works and be brutally honest about what doesn’t make a lick of sense.

It’s unnerving whenever I meet designers who don’t like arguing—who don’t appreciate the value of being wrong. (In fact, I distinctly remember talking to an ex-manager of mine who called me out for this—“you often change your mind and I think that’s really bad” she told me. “Ah!” I replied, “but I’m often wrong and other folks have better ideas. I don’t care about who has the best idea, I just care about getting to that place—however much embarrassment it takes to make a thing truly great.” She looked back at me and didn’t get it, couldn’t understand that arguing and being wrong all the time is half the work of this job.)

Anyway, argue (in a healthy way) but make sure to limit the number of people arguing. Great work requires an argument of two, three, four people max. No more than that though.

Bad product design is when your interface looks like your org chart.

So many folks will start a project and call it Project Nifty. They’ll start talking about Project Nifty throughout the company; in meetings and standups. People will familiarize themselves with Nifty to such a degree and over such long periods of time that they can no longer imagine a time before Nifty. So when it comes to naming the feature and making a menu item they’ll call it Nifty and write docs about how Nifty works and how it fits into everything else. But a product designer needs to step back and ignore the team and the project and think about it all from the outside-in; Project Nifty is useful, great even, but we shouldn’t call it that, we shouldn’t force our users to understand what Nifty is.

And we should never show users our org chart.

So to do great product design we need to unlearn the UI—which is hard enough as it is—but we also need to unlearn the org as well.