Recently, I gave a talk on digital product design at Google’s Mountain View headquarters to a group of aspiring entrepreneurs and product veterans. While the audience asked a ton of great questions, I was surprised by how many of both audience types approached me afterward to thank me for sharing (what I thought were) fairly basic mistakes that stand in the way of great product design.
Perhaps those points weren’t so basic after all.
Here are five common mistakes that I believe stand in the way of successful product design. Follow these tips and you’ll start building better products in no time.
1. YOU are not the audience
The good news is, you are not going to be the only person who uses your product. The (sort of) bad news is that what you are making needs to extend way beyond your individual comfort zone.
Realizing that you are not the audience helps in two ways: First, it helps you see that not everyone uses a browser or an app the same way you do. Taking the time to understand the use-cases for your intended audience can do wonders to focus your initial feature set.
You would be surprised how often the phrase “well, I do things this way” or “I like this” comes up. Just because you don’t like the color blue, doesn’t mean it’s wrong for your product.
Second, you don’t have to be your target audience to design a great product. If that weren’t the case, I never could have worked on experiences like Rent The Runway (I will never rent a dress) or Skift.com (I do not work in the travel industry).
2. Your initial feature-set ≠ strategy
I often tell my clients: Throwing every feature you think the user wants into your initial product does not give it a purpose, nor is it a long-term strategy. Your goal in launching the first version of your product is to focus on what your users truly need to accomplish when they first use it, and then to evolve it over time — adding the right features at the right time.
Users don’t know what you didn’t launch with (nor do they care), so having a strategy around what you add and when can make updates seem like little gifts to your users over time. For example: Amazon wasn’t always “the everything store” and wouldn’t have the success it has if it launched with the simple search bar that now serves as its navigation.
Amazon earned that navigation over years of smartly adding features. An excess of features feels confusing to the user. So much so that they may not come back.
3. Don’t let the offline world dictate the digital experience
For anyone who has never built a digital product, it’s easy to make the mistake of drawing elements from the offline world and attempting to bring them into a digital counterpart. The most common example is the skeuomorphic movement, where digital products were designed to look like real world products, such as Apple’s iCal or the iBooks bookshelves pre-iOS 7.
Yet, people experience digital products differently. One example of this is shopping; brick and mortar stores are designed to handhold a person through a specific experience that inspires and, ultimately, ends in a sale. That handholding is and should be lost when it comes to designing an online shopping experience.
People buying online have different expectations and don’t care how you want them to experience it. They may be looking for inspiration, but may also just want to get in and get out. You need to empower users to consume and purchase in the ways that make the most sense to them.
4. Always collaborate to build the best products
Newer businesses often try to save money on product design by finding a jack-of-all-trades employee. This is a mistake. Having one person build a product from soup-to-nuts removes the opportunity to incorporate ideas drawn from a variety of experiences. Embracing the idea that everyone on the team brings their own specialty and point-of-view will allow you to create a solid product that has been checked from all sides.
This method also creates clear role definitions that will serve the team well as the product is built. It creates shared responsibilities that allow designers to work while the user experience is being finished, and allows developers to be initiated while designs are in process.
In the end, you never know where a great idea is going to come from. Why limit the possibilities with one person’s vision?
5. Stop chasing trends
Copying may be the highest form of flattery, but it doesn’t lead to successful products. Adding a trendy feature to your product without true strategy or data can confuse people or create an undesirable experience.
For example: There was a time when almost every news site had a carousel slide show at the top of its site. This was done because it enabled editors to put more stories above the “fold” (See! Offline world dictating digital!), but analytics showed that the engagement after the first panel plummeted. However, sites kept using them, thinking: “if everyone else is doing it, it must be right.”
Similarly, when Pinterest experienced success with its collage-esque interface, the amount of sites that changed their homepage to the collage look was embarrassing. The assumption was simple: “Pinterest is successful, so we need to copy their interface to be successful too.”
Often, companies lose sight of their strategy and move into a knee-jerk mode of adopting a trendy feature. Sometimes it’s worth it to take a quick breath. If your team can avoid these five simple mistakes, you’ll be off to a great start.
Dan Maccarone is the cofounder and CEO of Charming Robot, and the host of Startup Series: The Nuts & Bolts of Product, an upcoming event in NYC. Startup Series is designed to give people an overview of what it really takes to create a great product and business, while learning from people who have done it before.
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