​Why you should be boring before you're creative (when designing a product)

his morning I was drinking coffee and checking email before work.

In the middle of the night, I had received an interesting question from a reader. They wanted to know how I would approach the product design process of an app they were building.

This is what I told them:

“I would probably approach the above problem in the following way:

    • I would download every single decently-rated related application out there and see how they handle onboarding and the rest of the UX
    • I would break down the application you're trying to build into feature & experience blocks
      • For example, Facebook's feature/UX blocks are:
        • Onboarding/Information Gathering
        • Profile
        • Feed
          • Commenting
        • Messaging
        • Events
        • Etc.
    • I would then look at how the most widely used/popular apps do each of these things.
    • I would create a collection of best-in-class design patterns for each of these features/UX blocks

Then, I would spend some time figuring out *what's the magic moment* for this product/service?

In other words, at which moment will a user say: "Wow! I love this service!"

Usually, this is when the application is able to provide its core value proposition to the user.

With Uber, it's when you order your first ride and see it coming towards you.

With Facebook, it's when your first friend request is accepted and you can see your first post and/or get your first wall posting.

With Instagram, it's when you take your first photo and add your first filter--you feel like you're *actually* a good photographer because of its tools.


Then, I would spend your time figuring out how to get a new user to that point as quickly as possible.

We'll call this task: The Quest for Wow.

What information do you need from a user to provide them with this value-filled "Wow" moment?

How can you collect that information as efficiently & quickly as possible?

In other words: How can you make the path to that moment as short as possible

Look at the best-in-class design patterns you collected. Can you take some of these, modify them, and use them in your UX flow?

Treat those design patterns as building blocks. Use them as necessary to make the creation process easier.

That would be my approach.

As you’re going about this, you'll realize which data you need to collect—what kind of user observations you’re going to want to do, what kind of user tests you’ll want to run, etc.”

When building a product or feature from the ground up, I’ve found that this is the best process to go through.

To recap: Figure out what the market is doing for the user-experience issue you’re trying to solve, and then modify the common design patterns as needed to create an elegant experience for the feature you're building. Always focus on getting users to the "magic moment" as quickly as possible.

"But wouldn't that create a boring, lame product?"

No. It creates an understandable product.


That's where the behavioral science comes in...

You see, each of us walks around with a model of the world and how to operate within it.

Through trial and error, we modify our model and learn how to do different things.

The first time you drove a car, you were probably a bit confused. How do you get into the right gear? How do you signal properly? How do you turn on the emergency flashers? And so on.

This learning process occurs every time we encounter something new.

After you learned how to drive your first car, I bet you it was much easier to figure out how to drive you second and your third…

Why? Because all of them have, roughly, the same layout and same controls.

All of them have two or three pedals. The right one is always the gas pedal. The one to the left of the gas is always the break pedal.

Pushing down on the switch jutting out of the steering wheel always turns on the left turn signal, and pushing up on it always turns on the right turn signal… etc.

The standardization makes it easy for you to know what you’re doing when you’re switching from car to car. You don’t need to start from scratch and re-learn how to drive each time.

You already have *procedural memory* in your mind that you can access to effectively operate each vehicle you encounter.

But the same thing can’t always be said in app/product world.

Just because you know how to use Facebook doesn’t mean you’re going to know how to use some random new social app. Just because you know how to use Amazon doesn’t mean you’ll know how to use Craigslist. This is because while there is some standardization, there’s lot of variability from app to app in how they’re laid out, etc. Each app designer is free to decide whether they want a hidden menu or a persistent menu stuck to the bottom of the screen. They’re free to use whatever style of button they want, and so on.

Their creativity is unlimited.

But if they get too creative, and invent new ways of structuring their application or presenting the key information in their product, it’s highly likely that users will be confused when they open it for the first time.

Their users will be like experienced drivers entering a car with no pedals or with two knobs instead of a steering wheel.

Yes—those that stick around will probably be able to figure out how to drive this non-standard car… but most people will get out right after they get in, looking for something that’s more familiar and thus easier to use.

And in the cutthroat world of product design, you have to make your product as comfortable as an old pair of leather shoes. You can’t put your users through an awkward, “breaking in” period. They have too many options.

So my advice for you, product designer, is to learn the app language that all of your users know. Study the products they’re using today, and speak to your users in the same dialect. They’ll understand what you’re saying, and will then make a decision of whether you’re telling them a good story or not (promising, and providing, the right benefits).

If you’re talking gibberish to them, though, you won’t even get to make your pitch. They’ll be walking away, tuning out the noise you spew.

Fit into the models they already have in their head. Take advantage of the knowledge they already have. It's your only hope of even having a shot at their loyalty.



Jason Hreha