Design Products As a User

April 3rd, 2013

When Apple announced the iPhone in 2007, they presented it as a device that did three things: made calls, played music and video, and browsed the web. When I saw the announcement, I knew that day that I had to have one when it was released.

That wasn’t because I was an Apple geek (although I certainly was). It was because I immediately knew what it did and what it would do for me. It would do what I’d tried to do with a PocketPC for a couple years—put the web, my contacts and calendar in my pocket, wherever I am—and combine my phone and iPod into a single device that is superior to them at their intended function. I knew it because that’s how Apple presented it. They presented it as a device that did those three things.

They could have presented it as a technological marvel, a device that combines a high-resolution multitouch screen, fast mobile processor, cell and WiFi radios, and proximity, ambient light and accelerometer sensors into a handheld device with desktop-breed software and surprisingly-good battery life, a PC in your pocket. But they didn’t; rather, they presented it in terms of what it did for users and what they would find useful about it.

This isn’t important just for presenting the iPhone, however; of course, doing so made it immediately intelligible to me and many others, even those for whom the technology underneath it is closer to magic than science. They presented it from the user’s perspective, rather than from the creator’s, and showed what role it could play in our own lives, rather than make the viewer do that translation on their own. That’s an important lesson for how to market a product, but I think what’s even more important is that this focus on what it does for the user didn’t start at Apple when they began creating the presentation to introduce the iPhone—it began all the way at the beginning of the project itself. They envisioned and designed the product as a user, rather than as a designer or engineer.

What this means is starting with a problem or unfulfilled need that people have, something that, if it were improved, would make people’s lives better in some way. Then, you must understand precisely what that problem is, what the person really wants, and what the underlying causes of it are. Only then will you start designing a product or service. By doing so, the entire product creation process—from generating ideas (“ideation,” a word I loathe) to packaging and delivering it to customers—is within the context of solving a concrete problem. Every design and engineering decision made happens within it, and there is a built-in decision process for whether to add or remove something, and metric for how well each part succeeds: does it better solve the problem for the user?

This goes beyond “empathizing” with users.1 Instead, it means thinking as a user, from beginning to end, and using that perspective to decide what you should or shouldn’t do, and what your product or service should or shouldn’t be.

Apple does this better than any other company, and that’s the case in part because they are ruthlessly focused on it. One of Jobs’s more well-known sayings is that he is as proud of the products they didn’t ship as the ones they have shipped. This line is held up as a reminder that to do great work, companies must focus. But focus on what? This provides us with an answer: focus on what will do the most good for users. All decisions flow from that.

  1. “Empathize with your users” has always seemed rather disgusting a concept to me—it shouldn’t be some great insight to empathize with your users, and in fact, it sounds clinically calculating to me: empathize with your users and you will have more success! Empathy—understanding the feelings of others and caring for them—should be the starting point for all businesses rather than something to bolt on in order to increase sales. []