20 Things I've Learned in 20 Years of Making Digital Products7 min read
Top 20 Digital Product Observations
Over the past two decades, I’ve learned a ton about making user-centered apps, sites, and software. You can shortcut the slings and arrows of hard-won knowledge by taking these reflections to heart.
There are a zillion opinions about UX but one simple definition.
What is UX? That depends on whether you are talking to an agency, development shop, in-house team, off-shore group, HR, a CEO, the average person on the street, or my mother.
Here’s the simple definition: UX is the entire involvement a person has with a thing. That’s it. That thing can be your product. The involvement can be online, offline, or both.
Everyone talks about users.
If I had a dollar for every time I have heard an offhand reference to the “user,” I’d buy a gem mint copy of Action Comics #1 from 1938. Then I’d go to buy an island. Product teams, marketers, stakeholders, executives, scrum masters, and more all endlessly drone on about the user.
If everyone is so attuned, why are so many apps, sites, and software awful? Because few digital product makers spend actual quality time with users, interviewing, observing, and testing designs with them. Talk is cheap.
Users are real, flesh and blood people.
Your user is not an audience segment, persona, datapoint, analytics statistic, customer in disguise, or abstract placeholder in your development process. Each user is a unique person. When you embrace this, you will have a UX epiphany and your standards, work, and process will never be the same.
Folks get massively frustrated by your digital product.
Most folks are pressed for time, easily annoyed, and have precious little patience. Even mild-mannered people can be driven to irrational rage when using your product. And they’ll vote with their feet.
You can’t trust what people tell you about your product.
People are notoriously bad at predicting their own behavior, especially online. Folks may tell you they’d use a feature, but you won’t know until you see what they do. On Instagram, everyone eats right, avoids TV, and exercises daily. In reality, they sit on the couch, devouring a whole row of Oreos while binge-watching Euphoria. Observe behavior. Don’t listen to words.
You are not that important.
I hate to break this to you, but no one really cares about you or your organization. People are not interested in your mission, internal perspective, “About” content, honors, awards, or pets. Most people would rather pick toe lint than read a message from your CEO. They probably don’t even want your amazing newsletter.
People just want to get something done. They want it to be easy, painless, and fast. You are not part of that equation.
Content isn’t something you read; it’s something you do.
Online, words help people navigate, search, fill out forms, compare things, understand errors, find answers, take action, and buy or sell. These are all things we do. Language forms the backbone of all interaction. That means every single word in your digital product is deeply important.
Technology changes, but people remain the same.
In the deep past, we fashioned crude stone tools. Less than six hundred years ago, we gained the ability to mass-produce books. Today, we interact with digital screens. Tomorrow, it will be virtual worlds, holograms, and who knows what.
Technology changes, but human biology and behavior does not. The same rules that governed how we used technology in the past govern how we use it today and how we will use it tomorrow. These rules are timeless. You can learn them. And that is exciting.
Accessibility and usability are the same thing.
Accessibility is more than something nice we do for disabled folks as we seek to avoid lawsuits. Accessibility is usability for everyone.
This includes the color blind, completely blind, those with hearing loss, people with cognitive disabilities, poor motor control, no use of their hands, or even those beset by injuries. Accessibility is for the elderly, the very young, middle-agers like me who need reading glasses, and those for whom your language is a second language. That’s a significant set of folks.
Training and “help” won’t save you.
Organizations that rely on software products rely heavily on training. The more mission-critical the software, the more elaborate the instruction. It’s how things are done: death, taxes, training.
But no matter how they are helped or trained, people will bristle against confusing, difficult interfaces. Digital products cannot be fixed with expensive help systems or training programs. They must be fixed at their core.
Development processes still lag significantly when it comes to UX.
Most digital products, particularly complex ones, are conceived, planned, and built using development-centered processes. These approaches are intended to address development-specific problems.
Agile processes are not conceived with user experience in mind and so do not inherently solve user experience problems. This is why Agile teams often fail to embrace UX strategy, principles, activities, and deliverables. This is also a core reason why we remain awash in hard-to-use apps, sites, and software.
Development-dominated teams are relics of the past.
Digital products are still largely made by development teams. These teams include architects, developers, scrum masters, business analysts, project managers, program managers, and product managers, to name a few. But rarely, if ever, do these teams include UX strategists or researchers, information architects, content strategists, front-end specialists, or visual designers.
The best digital products are made by well-rounded, highly collaborative teams. This teamwork starts early and extends through product launch and beyond. Such modern teams will increasingly out-compete their ancient, provincial, development-centric counterparts by making higher quality, more user-friendly, more loved products.
Your digital product should do less.
Most sites, apps, and software do too much, achieving nothing more than full-featured mediocrity. Does your product really need that super-nifty widget that serves perhaps 5% of your user base? Probably not. Do you need a different version of your product for each customer? Unlikely. Your strategic “no” is easily one of the most important things you can do to improve your chances of staying competitive.
Even the most stubborn opinions can be changed.
Want to convince a notoriously headstrong executive or stakeholder to abandon their ill-conceived, pre-conceived notions? Make a quick product prototype that conforms to their vision and have them watch people attempt to use it. Nothing changes the inflexible mind faster than watching a darling idea get mercilessly eviscerated by confused users.
Products thrive when everyone takes responsibility for user experience.
UX is not the exclusive province of a select few with special knowledge. Show me an organization where everyone from the CEO to the newest intern cares about and cultivates user experience, and I’ll show you an organization with amazing digital products.
Firms making strides with UX have first acknowledged their need.
Organizations are constantly forced by the market to make ever-better digital products. Some leaders come to understand UX is an essential ingredient that they’re lacking. This simple realization is seismic. Once motivated players see a need, they do everything they can to address it.
Organizations cannot be brow-beaten or educated into this mindset. They will be ready when they are ready. This usually means when the pain of bad user experience becomes too much to bear.
Small successes build on themselves (if you prove value).
You can’t solve all your digital product problems in one fell swoop. But you can make a difference one feature at a time. The trick is to prove value to keep the UX ball rolling.
Smart teams create self-sustaining wins by methodically defining desired UX outcomes in small chunks. They measure current state at project outset and again after launch to better compare progress. This approach allows for tangible demonstration of success, builds trust, and releases budget and resources to do more.
Ignorance is a virtue.
Ignorance gets a bad rap. The real problem is hubris, assuming we know more about something that we really do. Do you think you know your users? Think again. We have done innumerable user tests over the past twenty years. Want to know how many times we’ve learned nothing? Zero times. Precisely never. We almost always discover something foundationally important.
Only by acknowledging we don’t know our users can we begin to truly know them. It’s a paradoxical, beautiful place to start.
Get vision right, and everything else will fall into place.
Your starting point matters. If you just want to get to the next MVP release as rapidly as possible, you can do that. If you want to build quality digital products that will last and be loved, you can do that, too. Organizations that agonize over purpose and vision have a far better chance of moving beyond normal, run-of-the-mill products. They also have a better chance at changing processes and teams for the better.
You are almost always doing better than you think.
If you are trying to do UX, even if you are taking your first unsure steps, you are already doing better than most. Have you reached UX nirvana? No. But the very act of trying to make your apps, sites, or software more user-friendly opens you up a world of ideas, tactics, and processes that will radically improve products over time. You will also move your organization up the user experience ladder. Keep going!