Daniel McKenzie

digital product design


I can’t remember where I read it but the story went something like this:

Actor “A” prepares for the part of being a homeless person in a movie. As part of the preparation for his role, he decides he’s going to live homeless for a week—finding food wherever he can, sleeping on sidewalks, passing cold nights with strangers—in order to develop a better understanding of his role and feel empathy for his character. Eventually word of this gets around to actor “B”. Not being impressed by the extent to which actor “A” will go to know to his character, actor “B” remarks, “I have a better idea. Why doesn’t he try acting?”

Actor “B” was obviously a very confident (maybe even arrogant) actor who had confidence in the ability to fulfill his role when needed. Acting is a craft that like anything, requires skill, experience and raw talent to succeed.

In the same way, a talented and seasoned designer has honed their skills from years of experience. They have a natural ability to create things that are functional, useful and aesthetically pleasing. They have an innate ability to connect all the moving parts and create something that not only meets the business’ goals, but pleasantly surprises and delights the user or customer. They know that good design is less about art than craft and like a good carpenter, pride themselves on making something that is both functional and beautiful at the same time. They are confident not out of contempt, but because they have already solved thousands of similar design problems before.

A couple of recent writings on the Web reminded me of the story about the two actors. The first one is about a major online brand who has crowd sourced their usability testing. Like many other big sites such as Google and Yahoo!, this company has decided to test their new tools to willing users in a separate sub-section of the website before rolling them out.

The second one is about another online favorite that has taken user input to a whole new level–they let their users design the interface–which reminds me of the famous Henry Ford quote, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would’ve asked for a faster horse.” The process involves giving their test participants a sort of magnetic board where they put the pieces (some pre-created, others blank allowing the participants to create their own) together as they see fit.

The first product team appears to be so concerned users might reject their new design and go somewhere else, they’ve put the new features in a special location where it has no possibility of “contaminating the waters”. They or their executive staff are insecure and lack the confidence needed to make the right decision. The actors are nervous about their role and not sure how they will be perceived by the public. They move on stage with trepidation and fear of failure.

The second website appears so uncertain about creating the right user experience, they let the users create it for them. In this case, research and usability testing may have become a crutch or replacement for creativity, imagination and confidence. The actor is on stage asking the audience what they’d like to see. He’s playing the role of Cyrano de Bergerac and asking if the audience would like to see him play the part bravely or more sensitively.

While both product teams may be just placating a very skeptical and jittery executive team, in both examples there seems to be a lack of conviction in their craft. Design has taken the back seat to fear and politics (none of which, according to Henry Ford’s quote, supports innovation very well).

Which brings us to the question, why not just try designing?

Surveys, interviews, competitive analysis, ethnography, usability testing, heuristics…these are all very important design tools and shouldn’t be discredited. Ignore them at your own peril! Even the best designers must use these tools to get their brain wrapped around the problem at hand. But at some point, an experienced designer needs to sit down and apply their craft using all their knowledge, experience and talent.

Take Apple for example. This is a company that has the upmost confidence and conviction in their design. Does Apple let their customers design their products? Not a chance. Do they ever launch a product or service with trepidation? No, they call an event and announce it to the world. There are no betas, no soft launches, no disclaimers, no focus groups and this is part of their success both in-house and with their externally projected brand. Apple and Jobs, are absolutely fearless when it comes to design.

Some people say that the days of the star designer are over and this is true to the extent that the design process is now more collaborative than ever. I’m not suggesting we go back to the days where arrogant and conceited super-stars stomped out of the room when their designs weren’t taken seriously. This is unacceptable behavior. Rather, we need to recognize that good design is often lead by individuals who have mastered their craft and because of this, are able to present their design with confidence and conviction. Like actor “B’s” advice to actor “A”, maybe we should just try designing.


Update: Hugh Dubberly kindly informed me the two actors were Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman. Olivier made the comment to Hoffman regarding method acting while filming Marathon Man.



  1. 1 Ben Liyanage

    I have to say, Apple is not a great example. I bought a first generation iphone. Sure it was innovative, but the product had a lot of problems, and plenty more innovation needed. My experiences with the device changed my opinion on Apple.

    When they came out with the first iPhone, I told everyone I knew not to buy a first generation iPhone. Apple was testing the waters on their consumers just like they did with the iPod. I recommended to people to wait one year while Apple ironed out the problems and release a new and better version.

    I recommend patience with the iPad as well.

  2. 2 Jim Washok

    I can see your interpretations of the actions of both companies. Perhaps their actions are reflective of design laziness or fear. On the other hand, the actions of Company A in releasing updates to a subset of users for “testing” may be more reflective of the nature of their software offering such that inaccuracies are not tolerated (such as an online stock trading firm). They may have such a large user base that 100% rollout could result in infrastructure issues or a flood of support requests. The approach may be to simply empower users with the choice of when to switch from an interface they are comfortable with to a new one. You use Apple as an example and I agree that they are fearless in their designs, but they don’t force you to upgrade to their latest OS or buy newest generation of iPhone… the consumer has that choice. The user of a SaaS product is at the company’s mercy. In other words, the company may be just as comfortable as Apple with their designs, but also cognizant of the issues with forcing their users to change.

    I’m with you on Company B. While they may think they are being considerate by involving mass users in interface design, most users don’t know what they want. If they want some user input, it would be more appropriate to identify a few select users that they know from past interactions are appropriate to participate in UI design.

    @Ben I had an original iPhone and did not experience any glaring problems… not saying there weren’t any. It would be beneficial for you to identify a few rather than using generalizations without evidence. Though you did not specifically state the “problems” were actually a lack of features, such as multitasking or syncing to-dos, if it may be the case, I suggest refraining from equating “problems” with purposeful withholding of features. Apple does not design around features, they design around the user and ease of use; yet, they somehow manage to make the device/software work just as well, if not better, than competing products. I think Apple’s reputation and confidence are such that they wouldn’t risk testing a product with a first version to users. I think it’s just natural for companies, like individuals, to learn more and appropriately adapt when in the “real world”.

    In light of both of your comments, I’m hopeful that increased interest among companies for user / interactive experience designers will help improve the condition of product and software design… with the welcome side effect of improved customer service.

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