How do you design for continuously evolving products?

For many years, products were designed to function in isolation, and they did not evolve continuously. Consider a common toaster. The toaster is a simple home appliance charged with the task of heating slices of bread to a user’s preferred level of crispiness. Quick research shows that our present-day idea of a toaster showed up some time in the 1920s. The product had slots for bread, a lever to expose the bread to a heating element, and a dial to adjust the heat. If you look at a toaster today, you’ll realize that not much has changed. The slots are there, a method for adjusting heat still remains, and the toast pops out of the appliance once it is done. A toasting model that was developed in to 1920s has been embraced, and there hasn’t been much deviation to the products design since then. That’s almost 100 years of the same “user interface.”

This stability, unfortunately, doesn’t translate into the digital world. It seems my iPhone goes through a metamorphosis every month as each of the applications shed old features, adopt new ones, and reorient themselves with new user interfaces. Imagine waking up in the morning, walking over to your toaster, and you find a completely new object sitting on your counter where your toaster used to be. Welcome to the realities of the digital world.

Design practices need to evolve to suit the digital age because capabilities of products are evolving too quickly for traditional design methods to keep pace. As operating platforms adopt new capabilities and open up new channels of interaction – say, your smart watch becomes a health monitor, or your phone becomes a camera with dual lenses – the nature of the product itself changes. By contrast, a toaster is still pretty much a toaster. If you design a toaster today, the laws of thermodynamics – the laws that make for a piece of bread – are not going to change. But in the digital space, we might design for a certain capability, and then tomorrow we wake up and then that capability changes instantly.

What’s the answer for designing experiences that change fundamentally? I believe design by principle, not feature, is key.

When you design by principle, not feature, you design for the user in an emotional, meaningful way. These principles are discovered by going out and talking to users to understand their fundamental needs long before you design the product. You gather as much information as you can. You distill learnings about user wants and needs, not about features, and then create principles that guide the creation of the product. In fact, the process for design by principle is simple:

  1. Listen to your users
  2. Gather all of the information
  3. Distill your learnings into overarching statements that guide your work.

For example, iTunes used to be a platform to allow you to manage your personal music library, which required users to file content on their local devices. But now Apple Music has superseded iTunes with streaming. Designers of the streaming interface have needed to go beyond designing for a feature – storage – to designing for meeting an essential need: experiencing music. So far, the growth of Apple Music demonstrates that Apple has adapted to the streaming era.

Designing for the enjoyment of music makes it possible for a business to actually create an ecosystem of products. Understanding how to design for how people enjoy music would make it possible for Apple to even launch products for people who love vinyl records if Apple wanted to do so – either by itself or in partnership with a business such as IKEA.

Amazon is designing for ecosystems right now as it launches new versions of the Echo that focus on meeting everyday user needs such as listening to music, getting recipes, communicating with others, retrieving the news, or getting ready for the day – whether through an Echo, Echo Dot, or Echo Show.

Shouldn’t all design operate this way – for the person and the relationship you are trying to establish with them, not the feature? It should. But product owners don’t always think this way. Product owners don’t always go into a user’s home and conduct immersive, ethnographic research where users are spending time showing them how they use their closets to manage their wardrobe, which is what our team did recently when creating a lovable experience for a fashion client. We needed to gather first-hand to understand this interplay and then identify principles that would guide the design, such as the reality that everyone has a very personal relationship with their wardrobe that they hold very close to their heart. This understanding influences how we design any features or components that may provide guidance because we need to be sensitive to this relationship.

Designing around the wants and needs of the user instead of taking a product-centric approach does not happen by accident. Moonshot applies tools such as design sprints to help our clients prototype product development ideas that are focused on the customer, as we have shared in blog posts and articles such as “How to Apply a Design Sprint to Voice-Based Products,” by my colleague Mike Edmonds.

Taking a mindset of “How can we create a meaningful relationship with our users” rather than “How can we create a product” makes a product team ready to design for products that may not even exist. Doing so ensures that your product remains continuously relevant to your customers as their wants and needs change, which means that your product will be more lovable. Adaptable design helps achieve lovable, sustainable outcomes no matter what’s around the corner.

Ben Hillson

Ben Hillson

Experience Strategist