Usefulness of Useful

Origami Frog

The biggest challenge in designing a great product is figuring out what the core features are that will fulfil the users’ needs. Not only should the product fulfil those needs, but also deliver it in a way that is easy to understand and pleasant to use.

It is easy to go overboard with features; and just as easy to not deliver enough. This is especially true when you’re working with many different stakeholders who all have an important feature that they want to see in the product.

Now of course stakeholders aren’t the only ones to blame. We are our own worst enemy at the best of times as explained by the IKEA effect, which basically says that we as humans place way too much value on our own creations or ideas – or in this case features.

To emphasise the importance of building useful products, I’d like to look at three separate examples that will help lead us to build better products.

IKEA effect:

The IKEA effect is a cognitive bias that occurs when consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created. The name derives from the Swedish manufacturer and furniture retailer IKEA, which sells many furniture products that require assembly.

To illustrate the IKEA effect, Dan Ariely conducted his own experiment that concludes that the IKEA effect can affect our judgement when managers (and anyone making software) devote too much time and money to products that may very well be failing.

…we asked people to fold origami and then to bid on their own creations along with other people’s. They were consistently willing to pay more for their own origami. In fact, they were so enamored with their amateurish creations that they valued them as highly as origami made by experts.

It contributes to the sunk cost effect, whereby managers continue to devote resources to (sometimes failing) projects in which they have invested their labor, and to the not-invented-here syndrome, whereby they discount good ideas developed elsewhere in favor of their (sometimes inferior) internally developed ideas.

The next example comes from a recent post about Marissa Mayer’s point of view when it comes to designing apps. She breaks it down into 3 Rules Of App Design, but rule number three stood out for me:

The 98% Rule
Mayer believes that every product should be designed for the way it will be used 98% of the time. As an example, Carlson says, Mayer will often point to a Xerox copy machine. You can do all sorts of things on a copier, but all 98% of people really want to do is make a single photocopy, which is why using a Xerox is as easy as slapping your paper on the glass and hitting a big green button.

Finally, I’d like to look at the way Rian van der Merwe views this issue by comparing it to all the unused features you see on washing machines (and other everyday household appliances). He also wrote a whole book about it called Making it Right (I highly recommend anyone designing or building products read this).

User Needs
The first thing we need to clarify is the difference between needs and features. We often make the mistake of equating product features with user needs. If you’ve ever used a household appliance you’ll know that this isn’t the case. Have you ever used more than one or two of the preset cycles on your washing machine? And how many different ways do you need to toast your bread?

We should all learn from these examples that if we want to create products that are useful for our users – we should stop thinking that more features will make better products and rather spend our time to understand users and figure out what their needs are.

Once you’ve figured that out, it’s time to design that product.

Image Credits:

I took the original illustration of the origami frog from Wikimedia Commons

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