Too Busy for Bad Design.

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 · 
23rd October 2023
 · 
6 min read

Let me tell you a very quick story.

I'm 192cm tall, my wife is 158cm. Needless to say, when she drives my car, the rear view mirror needs some adjustment.

I realised the other day that I was hunching slightly to see out the back window of my car from the rear view mirror. I'd readjusted the mirror at some point, but I could see now it was still a little bit off. And I can't even remember the last time my wife drove the car.

See, when I'm getting in the car, the last thing I'm thinking about is whether or not the rear view mirror is tuned to my exact specification. Rather, I'm thinking about where I need to go, if I have enough time to get there, and what I've probably forgotten to bring with me. I'd likely been driving the car for weeks, putting up with a slightly skew rear view mirror.

I was too busy to notice the mirror was off.

Too Busy To Notice.

Most people are too busy to realise the products they use everyday are just a little bit off.

People only care about what they need to get done. To most people, your design is only a means to that end. They don't care about the design, or they've stopped caring shortly after purchase. They don't care it could be better. And they don't have the time to think about it anyway.

Your product could be best in class. But if users and customers aren't aware of the improvements, aren't aware of the problems, or don't care enough to educate themselves about either, then your great design is lost on them. You may even lose customers based on other more easily quantified metrics, like price or availability. Or fashion.

It Takes Time to Care.

Good or bad, for users to appreciate design two things need to happen; they need to care, and they need to have the time to care.

Users either purchase whichever device was the cheapest, most available, or fashionable. Or they research and analyse, and split hairs over details. Invariably, they buy and go about their day, and cope with their choices. They work around and adapt to the shortcomings.

They hunch slightly to suit the product, instead of picking a product that fits better.

People buy and use and throw away an astounding amount of badly designed products (or well designed bad products, a la Juicero).

I get it, we're all busy.

Our lives are packed full of people to see and places to go, and we fill the gaps with social media.

We do not have the time and cognitive capacity needed to reflect on the [many] products we own. To understand the design of those products and how they impact our quality of life. To interpret what we learn into better purchasing choices.

If you're developing a new device, simply not creating an inferior product isn't enough to stand above the competition. To elevate your product, you have yank your potential customers out of their apathy. And to do that, three things need to happen; a bit of luck, a lot of education, and eye-wateringly good design.

A Little Luck.

In some markets the business strategy isn't to deliver the best product to market, only to cannibalise market share from competitors. Usually where price is a strong driver, and goods are commoditised, it's a game of how bad can a product get before people notice. In a race to the bottom, eventually users will notice.

Sadly, I believe that a large portion of the population will not truly appreciate good design until they've been burnt by bad design1. A product that has left such an overwhelmingly bad impression that the experience could only be described as educational. You might be lucky and enter a market at a time when it's crying out for change.

Educate.

Where bad design fails to educate the market for us, it's necessary to do it ourselves. It is not enough to quietly go about solving the problem. If your design solves a problem users are too busy to notice, they also won't notice you've fixed it. They won't be compelled to buy your product over a [inferior] competitor.

You need to make them painfully aware of problems they didn't know they had. Amplify the problems the market is currently putting up with, and illustrate how your device addresses those problems.

You must educate them on their problems, before they can be educated on the solution.

But educating potential customers on their existing problems also isn't easy or simple. Sub-par design is often nuanced. Just a little bit off. Users don't have the time to recognise they're compensating for bad design. They don't have the time to reflect and understand the reasons why. They also don't have the time to be educated on these nuances. In which case, there's only one thing for it.

Be So Good They Can't Ignore You.

You can solve the problems and improve the user experience. You can educate them on why your product is better. But first you have to make them see the value.

You have to slap them over the head with something.

In a sea of good design, you have to make them see great design. You must make an immediate impact. You have to show them why your product is better in the least time possible, using the least cognitive load possible. You have get them to buy, not just so you make a sale, but so your users then have the time to spend with it. To be educated on all the other improvements you've made, and experience them for themselves. And so they can share it with others.

But you do have to back it up. If it looks like great design, it should be great design. Not an empty promise. Great products don't stop being great after purchase, they don't turn out to be a little bit off. They continue to demonstrate their value, continue to educate the user on why they bought it in the first place.

Hit Them in the Feels

An effective way to make an immediate impression is trigger an emotional response. An emotional response undermines any of a customers higher functions. They literally don't have to think about it, and it takes no time at all.

People want to be entertained. They want to be delighted. They want to feel good. Get the basics down, solve their problems, and then find opportunity to elevate the user experience that delivers that enjoyment.

Fabio Verdelli - Jellyfish

But you don't have to make cutesy products to do this. There are other, more grounded, ways.

Meet them where they are. Show that on a fundamental level their needs have been heard. Show how those needs are met. Improve their quality of life in ways they didn't even know it could be improved. An emotional connection is made when we feel we've been listened to.

Bring a tear to their eye.

It sounds simple, but it's hard to do. That's why there is always room at the top for something better.

Engage your users asap. Put aside your assumptions (and arrogance) aside, and really listen to them. Relentlessly test your designs with them. Prototype, prototype, prototype. It's fast and cheap, and you're allowed to make mistakes. Be bold in striving to delight your users to the point they feel their lives are better for using this device, rather than just not bad.

Invest (figuratively and literally) into your users early and intensely. Value them. It'll show in your design, and they'll notice.

  1. I believe this to be a major contributor to the chronic undervalue of design, but that is a discussion for a different day. ↩︎

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ⓒ Lincoln Black 2024

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