Insights
Jan 22, 2024

Digital product design: understanding what not to do, too

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Opinion

As a team of user-centric designers and developers, we are truly obsessed with creating digital products that delight users. Great digital product design goes so much deeper than the aesthetics of the interface, and here, we’re picking that apart with our resident expert and all round design aficionado, our Design Director, Jon Aizlewood. So buckle up as we dive into design and find out why it’s so important to know what not to do, too…

Talk to us about product design Jon! Why is good digital product design so important?

Jon: First let’s talk about digital design as a whole. It’s a broad term that contains so many aspects and subsets, of which product design is just one. Design as a whole is an incredible value driver, and simply put, it's a method of problem solving. Great digital design, and specifically the design of software like apps, digital products and services, is and always should be, in the service of the user. 

Product design is all about understanding that user, and combining good surface, or interface design, with seamless and non-disruptive system design so that the user’s experience is flawless. The well-known framework of jobs to be done (JTBD) underlines the point that people are using products simply to accomplish something: they ‘hire’ the product as a means to an end. So the use of a productivity app isn’t always to be more productive, but perhaps it’s a way of freeing up time to spend with loved ones. Similarly, when someone buys a product to use, they are far more likely to engage more deeply and for longer with the platforms that provide an easy-to-use experience (function) as well as a visually appealing interface or design (form). 

To back this claim up I turn to an oldie but a goodie: The Design Value Index showed that design-driven companies outperform the S&P 500 by 219% (DMI and Motiv Strategies, 2015). The best products we all know and love, from AirBNB to Strava, Trainline and so many more couple both form and function in unique and compelling ways. And honestly, great product design frequently goes unnoticed by a user but conversely, poor product design (or just okay design) can significantly hamper businesses. As humans, we recall and remember visceral reactions to things, and that blends into our digital experiences. Think about the times you’ve been on websites or apps and have become frustrated by not being able to accomplish your task, or found it cumbersome and hard to use. That experience has degraded your view of that brand and by extension, its company. And the more often that happens, you will associate those brands negatively. Bad design will hamper your conversions which can be very, very costly. That’s why getting the form and function just right is incredibly important and that goes so much deeper than the surface level user interface.


Jon Aizlewood, Design Director at ASquared


What makes a really, really good digital product designer?

Jon: If you’re a carpenter or a marble sculptor, you need to know everything about how your material works and acts inside out before you start building with it or carving it. So my take on this is that you really need to understand the web and digital before you can design successfully for it, and digital design in itself is a very different skill set to print design, for example. It’s really important to understand the building blocks of the web itself (on a basic level: HTML, CSS and JavaScript) and how they work in order to design around them. There’s an old adage that designers should know how to code, because ultimately it’s easy to make something look pretty, but it’s not so easy to make it work well too. If you don’t have a basic grasp and understanding of how digital products function, you can’t understand the constraints you’re designing within. You need to really understand the medium you're actually building for, and a lack of that understanding can be quite hampering.

That’s why designer and developer collaboration is so important in an agency, because if you have designers and developers who are on the same wavelength, or speaking a lingua franca, it makes a huge difference to the final outcome of the product. If you have a designer who’s saying "let's do this, this and this”, and the developers look at it and go “we can't do any of that” but they try and make their best impression of it, the end result can be a bit of a halfway house. This outcome can be costly, timely and frustrating. Whereas, if you have designers and developers working really well together, and collaborating far earlier in the process, for instance in the discovery phase, the end product will usually be of a much higher quality because there's been consistent dialogue, communication and idea sharing throughout. 

Another thing we specifically focus on at ASquared is hiring T-shaped people: people who know a lot about their specialism as well as enough about a cross-section of other disciplines, i.e. designers who appreciate development too, because generally they’ll produce better collaborative outcomes. They can have conversations that aren't like aliens speaking to each other and we find they make the best blended teams. 

Can you explain the importance of a designer recognising what not to do (instead of just what to do)?

The typical story is having a stakeholder, founder or owner who has what’s known as the sunk cost fallacy: they’ve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into their product or idea and it’s natural and understandable that they think they know it best, to the point where they’re reluctant or unwilling to consider changes. Usability testing tends to come to the rescue here.

We use usability testing to put the product in front of its actual users. This highlights any issues or stumbling blocks people might be facing, which can have a really profound effect on stakeholders who are now confronted with fact, not opinion. This is where excellent product designers who have a true user-centred mindset really come into their own. 

Because here’s the surprise: you don’t have to personally like everything you design. Ultimately it's not about you, it’s about the end user and whether they can use it. I love the phrase ‘kill your darlings’ which originates from writing, and essentially encourages one to eliminate any part of their work which isn’t truly serving their project or truly adding value. That's really hard to do, especially on projects that have taken a lot of time, passion and energy. Ultimately a great designer wants to put something in front of a user to find something wrong with it, which can be improved. I think that is only truly encouraged in supportive environments where everyone genuinely wants the best outcomes.

Design is key in successful product execution because it's not about you and the work that you've done and you defending it. If it can be improved by being critiqued, that's a positive outcome for everybody. It's a very important aspect of being a designer, I think, that they can take critical feedback on board and not take it personally.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

How do you guide your team in identifying and learning from design mistakes or unsuccessful approaches?

Jon: I've got a lot of thoughts on this! Retrospectives (or retros), and design reviews or design critiques are great for sure, because they allow teams to reflect on a project and what went well, and what didn’t go so well, and how the next one can be improved. But the caveat here is that they have to be well run, because they need to be a safe space where people can actually say what they want to say. 

From a design point of view, you should be able to learn from your mistakes and improve - and I would say again, good designers are able to adeptly present their work in a way that is providing empathy to the user and the problems that user is trying to solve. Essentially the context of the user is the priority, then the business and then the implementation. And if this work can be even further improved through a collaborative approach - before it goes across to a client - then great. 

With regards to presenting work and what to look out for in a really good design, it’s important to take a step back and truly understand why the design has been approached in the way it has: who is it for and how has the potential solution addressed a specific need first. This definitely comes with experience versus just: ”this looks nice”. 

Sometimes in fact, it’s completely the opposite. Utilitarian design has its place in many projects, because too often people make things look pretty, but as a digital product it isn’t getting the job done. And then the design proves useless. 

That's why the GOV.UK website won the Design Museum’s ‘Design of the Year’ a while back and it confused lots of people! But it was right in my opinion, because an incredible amount of complexities were overcome to take a vastly disparate array of information and content from different factions, and consolidate it all into an easy-to-use and accessible digital service for a diverse user group of 60 million people. Some of the best examples were the DVLA and passport sections: they cut so much of the process down by digitising and simplifying what used to be incredibly difficult services. 

That is a great example of design because it took an offline process and reduced it into its simplest form. Aesthetically, people might look at it and go ‘meh’ but it's because it's getting lots of incredibly complex jobs done without unnecessary distractions. So it’s beautiful in its own right. 

But other times, you definitely want a ton of brand elements and flavour and whimsy and that’s great too, it’s just understanding what’s needed and when, in the right balance. And that’s about the context and relevance and how something is being used, rather than a personal preference which you kind of have to be agnostic to as a truly effective designer.

As a digital product agency, we obsess over providing 5-star services that drive 5-star ratings from end-users, helping brands connect, engage and grow with their audiences. We understand the problem, speak to your users and uncover the complexities of your unique business. We blend knowledge, precision and speed with true UX design thinking and progressive development to create great products for great companies.