Designing the opportunity

1. At the top of the product design process, you have the surface-level work of designing the interface — the visible manifestation of the design process in layouts, colors, styles, and interactions. Organizations that only focus on the top layer won’t succeed because the underlying structure, function, and features haven’t been considered thoughtfully and systematically.

2. More success comes when you dig to the middle layer — designing the experience. This means applying design thinking to understanding the problem, goals, and users, and then designing the right set of features and product architecture to meet those needs. There are plenty of products that do reasonably well by only addressing the top two layers.

3. But the products and companies that have true success, the ones we look to as revolutionary, are the companies that go one level deeper and apply design innovation. I think of this layer as designing the opportunity.

Designing the opportunity means understanding the system itself, the people who use it, and the external landscape in which that system exists. By comprehensively looking at all three of these factors, one can start to identify hidden opportunities and gaps.

Alexis Lloyd: Designing the opportunity: the deep layer of product design


OKR summary

OKRs are usually attributed to Google, but while reading this book, I realised that in fact, they originated here. Andy Grove developed Peter Drucker’s Management by objectives into OKRs, and then John Doerr learned them at Intel and took them to Google. Reading them here was the first time that they actually made sense to me rather than feeling cargo-culted.

Objectives are what you need to do; key results are how you know you are on your way. The example that really made it clear to me was: your objective is to reach the airport in an hour. Key results are: pass through town A at 10 mins, B at 20 mins, C at 30 mins. If after 30 mins there is no sign of town A, you know you’ve gone off track. So they need to be clear enough that you know you’ve met them, and that you are on track.

He points out that the system requires judgment and common sense. Objectives are not a legal document. If the manager mechanically relies on the OKRs for the review, or the report ignores an emerging opportunity because it wasn’t one of the objectives, “then both are behaving in a petty and unprofessional fashion”.

And finally, a very important point: you should not have too many! “To focus on everything is to focus on nothing”.

Anna Shipman in her book notes from High Output Management by Andy Grove

7 principles of universal design

  1. Equitable Use
    • “The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.” For example:
    • High Contrast: Having high contrast helps both users with weak vision, and users simply standing in the sunlight.
    • Alt Texts: Screen readers need alt texts, of course, but they also help users on slow or unstable connections, and act as a fallback if the image path is broken.
    • Mouse-Only Interactions: Hiding information behind a mouse-only interaction (like hover or double-click) makes it impossible to access for many users. Devices without pointers are in the majority, which changes the interaction ‘abilities’ of your users regardless of their personal physical state.
  2. Flexibility in Use
    • “The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.” For example:
    • Scroll-Jacking: The arguments against scroll-jacking are often in line with this principle. If you take away the user’s ability to navigate your website at their own speed, they may not have time to take everything in. This can get frustrating, causing them to leave.
    • Text Resizing: Allow for the sizing up and down of text in your layouts. A simple browser or OS text adjustment shouldn’t ruin your beautifully crafted application.
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use
    • “Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.”
  4. Perceptible Information
    • “The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.” For example:
    • Information Organization: Besides having adequate text contrast and sizing, breaking your information down into easily digestible pieces will make your content more accessible. Specifically, things like using subheadings in a long text post will make speed reading and skimming more effective.
    • Graphics: A graphic to emphasize a point you’re making in text helps more visual users (and can convince a skimmer to slow down and read more closely).
    • Charts and Graphs: Supplying both graph and table views of data allows users not only the flexibility to choose how to get information (#2 Flexibility in Use), but also can help make patterns in the data more discernible. Who doesn’t want that?
  5. Tolerance for Error
    • “The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.” For example:
    • Avoiding Accidents: Account for these inevitabilities by putting permanent functions inside menus and/or behind “are you sure?” confirmation prompts. This makes them harder (practically impossible) to accidentally execute.
    • Allow for Undo: An alternative to prompting users all the time is to give them an “undo” option, or a way to dig into archives to retrieve old items.
  6. Low Physical Effort
    • “The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.” For example:
    • Action Grouping: Group actions together in specific areas of the screen. This minimizes the amount of mouse dragging or thumb stretching needed, which is helpful for anyone. It is especially helpful for users with either very large screens, or for users who have super-zoomed into their operating system and have to scroll through interfaces that would normally fit on a “default” screen.
    • Minimize Requests: Don’t require users to fill out lengthy forms or jump through multiple ‘hoops’ to gain access to their goal (account creation, a trial period of your application, a sample of a new book etc.). The less effort you require, the more involvement you’ll get.
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use
    • “Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.” For example:
    • Action Targets: Take into account varying hand size and dexterity, especially for one-handed mobile device use. Make action targets large enough to click or tap easily, and put your primary actions within easy reach.
    • Posture: Some users are walking down the street, laying in bed, or doing other things that may make their reach a challenge. We can’t assume all users are sitting in a chair, at a desk, with a keyboard and mouse.
    • Dynamic Spaces: Virtual keyboards (and other accessibility tools) cover part of the screen. Keep dynamic space usage in mind through all states of onscreen keyboards, dropdown menus, etc. to avoid causing the user to block their own actions forward.