Saturday, July 5, 2014

Amazingly Great Design Howto

Video or Blog

Originally, I created this content for a presentation. I then recorded a video, now on YouTube. This post is the third incarnation, the long-form blog. Please read on, or watch the 18 minute video if that's more to your liking.

Design Defined

de·sign (verb) \di-ˈzīn\
to plan something in your mind
Everything built or planned is designed. Putting forethought into something is designing. The difference isn't whether or not something is designed but rather how well designed it is — how much forethought was put into it.

Five Examples

ps vållö

All a watering can needs is a handle, a reservoir and a spout. Ikea manages to surprise and delight with this seemingly simple product. The proof is in the details.

more with less — Start with the handle. It is tapered so people with different sized hands can find a comfortable grip. Next, notice how it supports pouring. Its long tapered spout makes it easy to pour precisely. It even excels at the simple task of holding water. Being a single plastic mold it is unlikely to ever spring a leak. The lightweight plastic ensures that even with a small amount of water and a tapered base it is not very tippy. The design also minimizes production costs. It allowing Ikea to sell it for an amazing 99 cents and as a bonus, they stack.

emotional — Beyond function, it is beautiful. The lines are graceful. The shape is alluring. It makes you want to pick it up and feel it.


The goal of the Together iPad app from the World Wildlife Foundation is to increase awareness of endangered species and accept donations. The minimal requirements are a list of animals, their current status, and link to a donations webpage. Instead, they developed a deeply emotional experience.

compelling first impression — The app starts with a light, playful soundtrack. The screen then folds into an oragami panda. The music chreshendoes as we pans to a whole pack of pandas and the app's welcome screen. Tap "start" and the soundtrack morphs to a softer, pleasent background piece. Up until this point everything has been in black and white. A three second shuffling-card-slideshow of full-color animals transitions you into the app's home-screen.

beautiful, pervasive aesthetic — They brought a sense of elegance by integrating the origami theme. The theme is echoed at all levels of the app from the opening sequence to the sharing UI. Even the 3D globe appears to be made out of paper. The app's primary color palette is shades of grey. This makes the color portions of the app, such as the vividly colorful photos of the animals, stand out dramatically.

strategic — Charities often fail to clearly communicate why we should care. They are often too pushy, full of doom and gloom and ladened with guilt. This amazingly well designed app has none of those shortcomings. The majority of the app is about praising the majesty of the animals. It is inspiring and uplifting. It is anything but pushy. To even see the donation screen, you have to "unlock" the last animal ensuring the user is deeply engaged before asking for money.


invisible engineering — The Jawbone JAMBOX is an engineering triumph. It packs an amazing amount of sound in a tiny package, but it doesn't stop there. The packaging hides the speakers, and the box shape communicates a promise of simplicity. It is designed to run totally wireless. It has excellent battery life and uses bluetooth for audio. It's built-in microphone allows it to be used as a speakerphone. Though it targets wire-free use, the inclusion of a 3.5mm jack supports older devices and gives you an alternative when bluetooth doesn't work perfectly.

holistic excellence — This is a highly focused product. The goal is wireless, high-quality sound, simplicity and style. Individually these are goals any portable sound system might target, together with Jambox's flawless execution elevates the product to another level. It invites everyone to take off their headphones and share their music.


streamlined — The Balanced iPhone app by Jaidev Soin helps you track your daily goals with minimum distractions. Balance says completing your goals can be hard, your goal tracking app shouldn't be. Setup is accelerated by providing a catalog of common tasks reducing the number of taps required by over 90%. Logging when you complete a task is a single swipe gesture. Minimizing the most common and critical path makes the app effortless to use.

differentiated — Balance uses a unique set of fonts setting it apart from other apps, and the one fancy 3D transition manages to not be distracting and furthers its differentiation.


simple — The last example is the Nest thermostat. Targeting an industry that has been stagnant for decades, they reduced the number of controls to one dial. Even more amazing, the dial only does one thing: it sets the desired temperature. The display is minimal including only the current temperature, the desired temperature, a visual of their delta aligned with the dial and an estimate for how long the temperature change will take.

empathic — The elegance of the interface is a brilliant bit of design, but the true genius of Nest is what happens behind the scenes. It tracks every time you set the temperature and automatically learns your daily routine. It automatically programs itself and soon it starts adjusting the temperature for you according to your past preferences.

Extreme focus takes what used to be a heinously painful task of programming your thermostat and transforms it into an effortless and joyful interaction.

Amazingly Great Design Defined

a·maz·ing·ly great de·sign (noun) \əˈmeɪzɪŋl'ē grāt di-ˈzīn\
Design that exceeds expectations down to the last detail.

Three Pillars of Amazingly Great Design

Focus, details and tools are essential for amazingly great design. They can take a lifetime to master, but even a novice can make use of them immediately. With these basic ideas and a lifetime commitment to learning and improving their application, anyone can become a great designer.

First Pillar: Focus

"Focus is about saying no." - Steve Jobs

Time is your most valuable resource. Focus is the ultimate time management tool. Focus means learning how to use every moment of time for only the single most important thing you can do with it. Say 'no' to everything else.

customer archetype

The first thing to focus on is your customer. Instead of describing the average or most common customer, I recommend inventing a customer archetype. Your archetype describes a potentially real person. An archetype is like an average person, but there is difference. Your average customer may have 2.5 children. The archetype forces you to choose a real mom with, say, exactly 2 children. With that choice, you can achieve amazingly great design for moms with 2 children instead of merely good design for moms of 2 or 3.

use-story archetype

When the customer interacts with your product you are guiding them down a specific designed path. This path has a story. It has a beginning, middle and end. In the beginning the customer has a task they want to accomplish. They must decide to use your product and take action to begin their journey. In the middle they are working on the task. This is where they spend the most time with your product. By the end they have accomplished the task. They are rewarded not only by the desired result, but also some set of positive emotions. The very best stories have excellent beginnings, middles and endings. They are just the right length. You certainly don't want your story to be too long, but you also don't want it to be too short. Write down the archetypical story for your product, step by step, with storyboards. This is a single linear path through time. Think of it as a movie rather than an interactive product. Focus on this single story exclusively, and making it the best possible story it can be.

singular focus

This singular focus on one customer and one story ultimately leads to a better product. A highly focused product is easier to use. The product itself can communicate to the customer what it is for and how to use it. The product tells its own story. Another benefit of a highly focused product involves human perception. Our minds are tuned to notice things that stand out. Doing one and only one thing amazing is better than doing many things merely "good." An amazing product will be cherished and remembered. A merely good product will be quickly replaced and forgotten, even if it does more.

time = features * quality

In the end, Focus is the key to solving this equation. The time required to complete a project is proportional to the product's features and its quality. All too often people assume the feature-list is a hard requirement. If they have to meet a certain deadline, then quality has to be sacrificed. This decision always results in a mediocre product. Instead, if you want to make amazingly great products, then quality must be fixed a maximum. To meet a deadline, then, it is the feature list which must be culled. As you practice this methodology of extreme focus you'll find there are very few features which are requirements. As Jobs said, focus is about saying "no." To produce with maximum quality, keep saying "no" to features until the list is so short every last one of them can be implemented with excellence. The result will be a far better product.

Second Pillar: Details

"The details are not the details. They make the design." - Charles Eemes

The question then becomes, what details matter? This is a question which takes a lifetime to master. The first step is to learn how to broaden your scope. To inspire you, I'm going to cover four of the many types of details that might be important to consider when designing your product.


  • Where is the product used?
  • Is it loud or quiet, bright or dark?
  • Who is around?
  • What time of day will it be used?


Assuming the product is some sort of application or website:
  • Are all elements aligned exactly?
  • Is there adequate white-space to make the viewer comfortable?
  • What colors are used and are they used consistently?
  • Is the app perceived to be performant and immediately responsive?
  • Do the animations reduce distractions or are they themselves distracting?
  • Are the fonts legible? Do they invoke the right emotional response?
  • How are errors handled?

customer archetype

  • What is their day like?
  • Who are the important figures in their life?
  • What social groups do they belong to?
  • What are their hopes and desires?
  • What will the person be thinking just before they use the product? Just after? 
  • Will they be thinking about the product while not using it?
  • What do we want them to feel when they use the product?
  • How will our customer want to be perceived while using our product publicly?


  • How will the customer learn about the product?
  • Where will they first see it?
  • Where will they first "touch" it?
  • When is their first real engagement?
  • What is their daily engagement?
  • What is their last engagement?
  • How does the product reoccur in their thoughts after their last engagement?
  • What details will help to reengage the user with this or other products?

Third Pillar: Tools

"Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it." - Jim Jarmusch
The third and final pillar of great design is your idea toolbox. These are the tools and patterns you use to create the product and exceed expectations in the details. A designer's toolbox is constantly expanding and evolving. The best designers make a continual effort to improve it by all means available.


Keep a design notebook. As you start noticing good and bad design in the world, start taking notes. This helps you clarify your thinking on the design and gives you something concrete to come back to when you need it.


Develop a well-considered opinion. In order to be a great designer you need to learn to care deeply about great design. You need to be able to not only distinguish between good and bad design, but also articulate why it is so. Be prepared to offend people. If you don't, then you aren't pushing the envelope.


Constantly experiment with your tools. Free yourself of the constraints of your real projects and allow yourself to explore freely to discover great new possibilities.


Creativity is equal parts experimentation and inspiration. You need to constantly feed your brain new stimulus from the outside world. This includes trying out competitors products, but it also includes getting inspiration from completely different fields. Visit great works of art and architecture. Read voraciously, explore nature, take classes, go to conferences, read blogs and listen to podcasts.

Designer's Amnesia

In addition to the three pillars, I have one important word of caution. The processes of design and implementation unavoidably leads to the designer memorizing the design. Any design, good or bad, can become "intuitive" to anyone who memorizes it. One loses objectivity and empathy for new users the more one uses a product, and it's worse if you are the designer.

Keep the following questions in mind:
  • Is your focus the right one?
  • Are there failures in details you can no longer see because you've memorized them?
  • Is there a tool that obviously solves a problem better but you can no longer see it?
Explaining what you are working on to someone new is a good way to expose these shortcomings. It is even better to give them a prototype and watch them use it. Video the session and study it in detail for every little success and failure. Often you'll be slapping your forehead in minutes.

Impact of Amazingly Great Design

Many companies are committed to amazingly great design including Apple, Herman Miller, Blizzard, Jawbone, 53 and IKEA. Each of these companies have been successful largely because of their great design.


perceived value — Repeatedly exceeding expectations dramatically increases the customers perception of your product's value. You can charge more, customers will seek you out and you will stand out amongst the competition.

brand — Great design creates good will towards your brand. It is one of the most effective ways to show your customers you care about them. They will, in turn, begin to care about your brand and even come to love it.

actual value — Great design adds real, tangible value for the customer. Historically design has been considered window dressing - a frivolous veneer on the product which may sell 10% more. Thankfully, it is now clear that great design dramatically increases the value for the customer, and here's why.


time — Great design saves time. Just as time is the designers ultimate resource, it's also our customer's most important asset. All great design takes the customer's time into account and gives them the most bang-per-second.

reduced stress - Great design reduces stress and fatigue. Rough edges both literally and metaphorically wear us down and suck our energy. A poorly design product may get the job done, but we'll be emotionally and physically exhausted after using it. Instead, an amazingly designed product could actually energize, excite and slingshotting us to the next task of the day.

beauty and delight - Great design brings beauty and delight to our lives. Great design goes beyond the veneer of frivolous window dressing. Its beauty reaches deep inside the product and impacts us on many levels. It can inspire, sooth and bring joy. It can even impact us when we are not using the product. These positive emotions impact the bottom line for everyone. We are more productive under their influence and happier in life.

Zen of Amazingly Great Design

Each of the three pillars of great design is a never ending path towards mastery. We are constantly inventing and discovering new tools. There is always the next layer of details to consider, and a good designer is constantly refining their ability to separate the important from the unnecessary.

focus — Say "no" to everything but the most important features. Practice deep empathy with the customer to identify those essential features. Reduce the scope of the project until there is enough time to implement every aspect with excellence. Paradoxically, reducing a products features usually results in a better product.

details — Train your mind to be precise and attentive. Learn to see products from every angle and see every minute flaw. Discovering what details matter is equal parts science and experience gathered over a lifetime.

tools — As you progress you will learn thousands of tricks, patterns and solutions you can employ to implement your design. Each time you finish one design you'll have new and better ideas for the next one.

Overall, the key to becoming an amazingly great designer is to be aware of these pillars, follow your own passion and keep an open mind. Insight can come from the strangest places.

Further Reading