18 April 2016

UX Design as a Problem Solver

Like many of you, I have a place where I write down my ideas when they come to me. It’s called “Blog post & Ideas” and I keep it in my iCloud Notes library. I use Notes because it’s so heavily tied into both the OSX and iOS workflows that it becomes effortless to add an item. I might just add a URL from Safari, a random quote, or a vague idea that comes to me while walking my dog.

I am now coming up on writing articles like this for a full year and that specific note has gotten pretty big. There is one topic in there that I still haven’t managed to tackle, but I think it’s very worthwhile – designing to solve a problem, not to just make it pretty.

Obsessed with redesigns

As designers in the digital age, redesigns are a growing part of our business. We dedicate a lot of time and energy rethinking everything from boarding passes to apps, newspapers, and even brands. Often these are just visual redesigns without any actual input from the company/brand in question. We do it because we think it looks good.

This “design for looks, not function” mentality does have a downside and may explain why we don’t see redesigns for ATM’s, glucose monitoring, or tax return forms on Designer News / Dribble. These are the applications that actually WOULD benefit from a comprehensive redesign.

Don’t get me wrong… I appreciate all the talent and effort that goes into redesigning things like boarding passes, but is it what we really need? Does this really help the product better serve its users?

A great redesign can kickstart a career

Paying attention to the needs of the user can get you pretty far in the field of design. Tobias van Schneider, who launched his .Mail project a couple of years ago did exactly that. He was then able to become a Lead Product Designer at Spotify before venturing out on his own.

Tobias recognized, as many other designers had as well, that email apps are desperate for a redesign. While I do think Mail.app (Apple) isn’t the best software out there, it does it’s job. So does Gmail and I’m pretty sure Outlook does too. Email is email is email, right? What if we had an option to make it a pleasurable experience – one that gets out of your way and just completes the task without effort?

Tobias writes:

“When the first email was sent in the early 1970’s there was no big difference to the email we know today. And that’s the problem.”

Even though there have been some significant gains (HTML emails, attachments, links, signatures, etc), I think Tobias really hits the note when he says “and that’s the problem”. As an example, the first cars in the early 1900’s got you from point A to point B, but today’s cars are faster, more reliable, and have many more options – much like email. They have been redesigned countless times, but has their function improved? It’s still four tires on the pavement resulting in traffic jams, maintenance bills, and fuel costs. The redesign we need is the one that solves those type of problems.

Design as a problem solver

The real question: Is the problem the product or it’s users?

Do users fear the new/upgraded? Is their comfort – or their company’s comfort – with the old solution enough to possibly damage the success of a new one? The answer is yes. Many great ideas have been born and died just because people were hesitant to adopt them.

When Mailbox launched it was seen as a revelation because it offered a new way to attack the increasing problem of a full inbox. (It even had a sign-up queue with hundreds of thousands in line). It allowed users to postpone messages and make them disappear from your inbox only to recur after the selected time had passed. After being acquired by Dropbox, Mailbox didn’t continue to innovate and it’s key features were being poached by other developers. It may have changed the way we interact with email, but didn’t change email itself and came with a pricetag that people weren’t willing to pay for. Mailbox was shutdown in early 2016.

Slack is a communication app launched in 2015 that is trying to solve the problems that email presents. In fact, many say it is the email killer. A year later, email is still very much alive and kicking and I use it daily. However, I do love Slack and all my team communication is handled in Slack. I’m even trying out Slack with a couple of client projects now!

As Intercom so efficiently puts it:

“Products like Slack or Asana don’t replace email, but they do encourage us from sending it in situations where it’s the wrong medium. At Intercom we firmly believe in the right medium for the right message. Want to announce a new product feature? Pop-up a message when customers are in the app and can try it straight away. Looking to re-engage customers you might be about to lose? Send them an email to try and get them back.”

I love Slack for it’s integrations – especially /giphy – and it’s low barrier to sending a quick message, but whenever I feel something is important – I turn to email. My experience has shown me that it is a tool that can be trusted. I love that email isn’t as invasive as a phone call or an iMessage. It is a reliable way to send information and I trust that it is universally accepted – something Slack has yet to accomplish. Slack and email are different enough products that I can’t choose one or the other. Will Slack kill email? Naah… Email is far from dead.

When it comes down to it, a product is only good if it solves a problem – no matter how pretty the design is. No amount of redesign of boarding passes will solve the problems with airline travel to make it worth the investment. No amount of redesign of newspapers will result in more readers to make it worth the investment. A redesign of glucose monitor could help its users have an easier experience using it – bettering their lives. A redesign of a tax form could ease the process of filing – saving time and decreasing stress. I encourage all of you to use your talents to design to solve the problem, not just make it pretty.