By Stewart McCoy


Vulnerability and feedback in product design

In the last 10 years, design has come into its own—the pinnacle being the recent promotion of Jony Ive at Apple to Chief Design Officer. Despite the fact that we are in the midst of a design heyday, designing user experiences for apps is sort of a shit show. Most of the time we have no idea what we are doing and our users are confused. Startup failure is the rule rather than the exception and large-scale consumer and enterprise products are shelved every day.

We designers take pride in our craft. In our formative years we learn visual literacy with grids, typography, and color theory. We learn the conventions of our discipline, like app and web heuristics and interface guidelines. We learn and adopt cult mentality about “agile” and “learn”. But for all the confidence we have in our craft, and for all the belief we have in our processes, we too often design with a strong belief in our personal magic — that people will just get our painstakingly-considered “simple, beautiful user experiences that elegantly solve business requirements and user needs”. We don’t like to admit how often we are wrong; how often our co-workers and executives disagree with our intuitions; how often our implemented designs don’t perform as expected. We don’t like to admit that we really have no idea what we’re doing. We have hunches, best guesses, and hypotheses. We might even have data and research reports. But we end up designing subjectively, based on our opinions and the opinions of our co-workers.

In the last 5 years I’ve worked as a designer, I’ve learned that a core trait of successful design is vulnerability. I’ve learned to admit I don’t have all the answers, and the ones I do probably need lots of refinement. I’ve had to internalize what it means to “kill my darlings” and listen and incorporate the critical feedback of my co-workers. And I’ve learned that real vulnerability comes in the form of user feedback. Real users can— uncaring of the hours I’ve put in or how proud my co-workers are of my latest designs — dismantle any notion of successful design in less than 30 seconds.

Being vulnerable means knowing you don’t have all the answers and embracing the uncertainty of user feedback. And research, as it turns out, is an opportunity to channel that vulnerability into a position of leadership.

Maybe you already understand user research and it’s value. And perhaps you already work with researchers or conduct research yourself. But do you think of research as fundamental to design? Are research and design so wrapped up in your process that it’s almost impossible to imagine one without the other? Because if not, you could be doing much better work.

The value of user research is that you can uncover assumptions you’ve made about the user experience and also mitigate subjective design requirements made by yourself, your colleagues, and higher-ups. Users will tell you that their perceptions and expectations do not align with the behaviors your design intends to elicit. By doing so, you can prevent yourself from spending engineering effort (and likely, a shit ton of money) on ineffective design.

Being a successful designer necessitates embracing the vulnerability of user feedback. It means understanding that your design isn’t good enough until the user tells you it’s good enough. Perception is reality. If your user doesn’t perceive the design the way you intended, then you’re not meeting your goals.

I’ve found clickable prototyping to be a very quick and effective way to put high-fidelity user experiences in front of people and determine whether to move forward with a design. I never get the designs right on the first go (or the second and sometimes third iterations).

User researchers are my favorite people because they help me validate the hypotheses my prototypes put forth. Good researchers know that it’s not good enough to take a design and go do a study or produce a report. Good user research is applied, and as such, good researchers will encourage you participate in the design of the research protocol, asking your feedback on key questions you want to answer through research. They will give you insightful feedback on your prototype, anticipating where users will get tripped up, so you can make changes before embarrassing yourself. Good researchers will also encourage you to sit in on the research sessions, so you can see and hear for yourself just how confused they are (or where they get really excited or the ‘light bulb’ goes off).

It can be difficult to find people to participate in your research sessions. Scheduling, location, and demographics all get in the way, which is why I’ve become a fan of usertesting.com. The service takes care of sourcing participants based on your requirements. I just supply a prototype and a script for participants to follow, and the UserTesting gives me back recorded video of users giving feedback on my design. After each round of testing, I watch each video and make note of good suggestions and common points of confusion, and then incorporate that feedback into another iteration of design. It’s not uncommon for me to do 3 or 4 rounds of design and user research before I feel confident in a design direction.

If you work in a company small enough or without the budget or cultural appreciation for user research, be an advocate and take on the responsibility yourself. If you’re an entrepreneur or a co-founder of a company, prioritize user research before all else. Make the time to list questions about the value and usability of your designs. Make time to put those questions and designs in front of users. Make time to incorporate their feedback into your designs and test your assumptions again. And make time to share your reasoning, process, and findings with your collaborators and stakeholders. Prioritizing user research will give you insight and confidence in how to manage your projects and resources, and is one of the primary ways to set yourself up for success.

I’ve found research sessions to be dumbfounding, hilarious, and inspirational. Participants willingly tell you what they want and don’t, and they point the way to successful design—it’s just up to you to turn the horse into a car.

Addendum: Data is another important from helpful for analyzing user behavior and is an important aspect of validating the success of a design solution against business goals — but I’ll leave that for another time.

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