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Frictionless Design Choices

Frustrated Woman at Computer With Stack of PaperNo one wants friction in their products. Everyone works to reduce it. Yet it sneaks in everywhere. We collectively praise a service, app, or design that masterfully reduces friction. We also appreciate minimalism. We love when products are artfully distilled down to their essence. How do we achieve these broadly appreciated design goals?

Frictionless and minimalism are related but not necessarily the same. Often they are conflated which can lead to design debates that are difficult to resolve.

A design can be minimal but still have a great deal of friction. The Linux command line interface is a great example of minimal design with high friction. You can do everything through a single prompt, as long as you know what to type and when. The minimalism is wonderful, but the ability to get going comes with high friction. The Unix philosophy of small cooperating tools is wonderfully minimal (every tool does a small number of things and does them well), but the learning and skills required are high friction.

  • Minimalist design is about reducing the surface area of an experience.
  • Frictionless design is about reducing the energy required by an experience.

When debating a design choice, feature addition, or product direction it can help to clarify whether a point of view originates from a perspective of keeping things minimal or reducing friction. If people discussing a decision start from this common understanding, I bet a decision will be reached sooner. Essentially, is the debate about adding a step or experience fork, or is it about adding something at all?

Product managers need to choose features to add. That is what makes all of this so difficult. As great as it is to stay pure and within original intent, if you and the team don’t enhance the capabilities of your product then someone will do what you do, but with a couple of more things or a different factoring and you’ll be left in the dust.

Therefore the real design challenge is not simply maintaining minimalism, but enhancing a product without adding more friction. Let’s assume you built a product that does something very exciting and has a very low friction to usage and does so with a minimal feature set. The next efforts are not about just watching your product, but about deciding how to address shortcoming, enhance, or otherwise improve the product to grow users, revenue, and popularity. The risk with every change is not simply failing to maintain minimalism, but introducing friction that becomes counterproductive to your goals.

When you look back you will be amazed at how the surface area of the product has expanded and how your view of minimalism has changed. Finding the right expression of new features such that you can maintain a minimalist approach is a big part of the design challenge as well.

There’s an additional design challenge. The first people who use your product will likely be the most enthusiastic, often the most technical, and in general the most desirous of features that introduce friction. In other words you will get the most positive feedback by adding features that ultimately will result in a product with a lot more friction.

Product managers and designers need to find the right balance as the extremes of doing nothing (staying minimal) and listening to customers (adding features) will only accelerate your path to replacement either by a product with more features or a product with less friction.

Low-Friction Design Patterns

Assuming you’re adding features to a product, the following are six design patterns to follow, each essentially reducing friction in your product. They cause the need to learn, consider, futz, or otherwise not race through the product to get something done.

  • Decide on a default rather than options
  • Create one path to a feature or task
  • Offer personalization rather than customization
  • Stick with changes you make
  • Build features, not futzers
  • Guess correctly all the time

Decide on a default rather than options. Everything is a choice. Any choice can be A/B tested or debated as to whether it works or not. The more testing you do the more likely you are to find a cohorts of people who prefer different approaches. The natural tendency will be to add an option or setting to allow people to choose their preference or worse you might interrupt their flow to ask preference. Make a choice. Take a stand. Every option is friction in the system (and code to maintain). When we added the wheel to the mouse in Office 97 there was a split in the team over whether the wheel should scroll down or whether it should zoom in/out. From the very first release there was an option to appease the part of the team that felt zoom was more natural. Even worse, the Word team went and did a ton of work to make zoom performant since it was fairly unnatural at the time.

Create one path to a feature or task. You add a new feature all is good—you’re in X in your product and then you can do Z. Then someone points out that there are times when you are doing Y in your product and you also want to do Z. Where there was once one path to get to a feature you now think about adding a second path. Maybe that sounds easy enough. Then a few iterations down the road and you have 5 different ways to get to Z. This whole design process leads to shortcuts, floating buttons, context menus, and more. Again all of which are favored by your early adopters and add friction for everyone else, and also add code. Pick the flow and sequence and stick with it. The most famous debate of all between Windows and Mac was over right click and it still rages. But the design energy to populate context menus and the cognitive load over knowing what you can or cannot do from there is real. How many people have right clicked on a file in the Windows desktop and clicked “Send” only to be launched into some Outlook configuration dialog when it would have been frictionless to always know that insert attachment in mail works and nothing will fail.

Offer personalization rather than customization. Early adopters of a product love to customize and tweak. That’s the nature of being a tech enthusiast. The theory is that customization makes a product easier to use because every use case is different enough that the time and effort saved by customization is worth it and important. In managing a product over time, customization becomes an engineering impossibility to maintain. When you want to change behavior or add a feature but it isn’t there or moved you introduce an engineering impossibility. The ability in Office to reorganize all the toolbars and menus seemed super cool at the time. Then we wanted to introduce a new scaleable structure that would work across resolutions and input devices (the ribbon). The problem was not just the upgrade but the reality that the friction introduced in using Office by never knowing where the menus might be (at the extreme, one could open a document that would rearrange the UX) was so high the product was unusable. Enterprise customers were rearranging the product such that people couldn’t take courses or buy books on how to use Office. The constraint led to the addition of a single place for personalization (Quick Access Toolbar) which ultimately allowed for a much lower friction design overall by enabling personalized efficiency without tweaking the whole experience.

Stick with changes you make. The ultimate design choice is when you change how a feature used by lots of customers works. You are choosing to deliberately upend their flow and add friction. At the same time the job of designing a product is moving it forward to new scenarios and capabilities and sometimes that means revisiting a design choice perhaps one that is the standard. It takes guts to do this, especially because you’re not always right. Often the path is to introduce a “compatibility mode” or a way to turn your new product into the old and comfortable product. This introduces three problems. First, you have to decide what the default will be (see the first rule above). Second, you have to decide if/how to enhance the old way of doing things while you’re also adding new things. Third, you have to decide when down the road you remove the old way, but in reality that will be never because you already told customers you value it enough to keep it around. But adding compatibility mode seems so easy and customer friendly! Ultimately you’re creating a technical debt that you can never dig out of. At the same time, failing to make big changes like this almost certainly means your product will be surpassed in the marketplace. See this HBS case on the Office 2007 Ribbon design http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/item.aspx?num=34113 ($).

Build features, not futzers. Tools for creativity are well-known to have elaborate palettes for formatting, effects, and other composition controls. Often these are built on amazing “engines” that manage shapes, text, or image data. Historically, tools of creativity have prided themselves on exposing the full range of capabilities enabled by these engines. These vast palettes of features and capabilities came to define how products and compete in the marketplace. In today’s world of mobility, touch interfaces, and timely/continuous productivity people do not necessarily want to spend time futzing with all the knobs and dials and seek to minimize time from idea to presentation—call this the Instagram effect. Yet even today we see too many tools that are about debugging your work, which is vastly different than getting work done. When a person needs a chart, a table, a diagram or an image how can you enable them to build that out of high-level concepts rather than the primitives that your engine supports? I was recently talking to the founder of an analytics company struggling with customer input on tweaking visualization which was adding complexity and taking engineering time away from adding whole new classes of visualization (like maps or donut charts). You’ll receive a lot of input from early customers to enable slightly different options or adjustments which will both challenge minimalism and add friction to your product without growing the breadth of scenarios your product enables. Staying focused on delivering features will enable your product to do more.

Guess correctly all the time. Many of the latest features, especially those based on machine learning or statistical models involve taking action based on guessing what comes next. These types of features are magical, when they work. The challenge is they don’t always work and that drives a friction-filled user experience. As you expand your product to these areas you’re going to want to find the right balance of how much to add and when, and patience with guessing too much too soon is a good practice. For better or worse, customers tend to love features that guess right 100% of the time and even if you’re wrong only 1% of the time, that 1% feels like a much higher error rate. Since we know we’re going to be learning and iterating in this regard, a best practice is to consider how frictionless you can make incorrect guesses. In other words, how much energy is required to skip a suggestion, undo an action, or otherwise keep the flow going and not stop to correct what the software thought was right but wasn’t. Let’s just call this, lessons from “bullets and numbering” in Word :-)

Finally, a word of caution on what happens as you expand your customer base when it comes to adding features. Anything you want to do in a product can be “obvious” either from usage data or from customer input. The challenge in product management is to create a core set of principles or beliefs about how you want to move the product forward that allow you to maintain the essential nature of your product while adding new features. The tension between maintaining existing customers via stability or incremental improvements versus keeping pace with where the marketplace is heading is the classic design challenge in technology products.

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but a great deal of product bloat comes from adding the obvious feature or directly listening to customers, or by failing to stick with design patterns. Ironically, efforts to enhance products for today’s customers are often the very features that add friction, reduce minimalism, and lead to overall bloat.

Bauhaus to Bloatware

This march from Bauhaus to Bloatware is well-known in our industry. It is part of a cycle that is very difficult to avoid. It is not without irony that your best and most engaged customers are often those pushing you to move faster down this path. Most every product in every segment starts minimal and adds features over time. At each juncture in the evolution of the product there is a tension over whether additions are the right marketplace response or simply bloat.

This march (and tension) continues until some complete rethinking introduces a new minimal product addressing most of the same need but from a different perspective. The cycle then starts again. Operating systems, databases, instruction sets, peripheral connection, laptops, interfaces, word processors, and anything you can name has gone through this cycle.

This re-evolution or reimagination of a product is key to the long term viability of any technology.

By adhering to a set of design principles you are able to expand the breadth of use cases your product serves while working to avoid simply adding more friction to the core use cases.

—Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

After publication three typos were fixed and the example of personalization clarified. 

Written by Steven Sinofsky

March 16, 2015 at 10:30 am

Don’t ban email—change how you work!

NoEmail1How often do you hear things like “let’s ban email”, “no more attachments”, “death to PowerPoint decks”, “we’re going paperless”, “meeting free friday” or one of dozens of “bans” designed to do away with something that has become annoying or inefficient in the workplace? If you’re around long enough you can see just about anything cross over from innovative new tool to candidate to be banned. The problem is that banning a tool (or process) in an attempt at simplification never solves the problem. Rather, one should to look at a different approach, an approach that focuses on the work not the tool or process.

What’s the problem?

It is well understood that new technologies go through an adoption curve. In the classic sense it is a normal distribution as described by researchers in the 1950’s. More recently and generally cited in the software world is Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm which describes a slightly different path. These models all share a common view of a group of early adopters followed by a growing base of users of a technology.

While adoption is great, we are all too used to experiencing excess enthusiasm for new technologies. As a technology spreads, so does the enthusiasm. Invariably some folks use the technology to the the point of abusing it. From reply all to massive attachments to elaborate scorecards with more dimensions than anyone can understand, the well-intentioned enthusiastic user turns a game-changing tool into a distraction or worse.

Just as with adoption curves, once can create a conceptual “irritation curve” and overlay it with adoption. Of course what is pictured below is not based on any data or specific to any technology, but consistent with our collective anecdotal point of view.

Adoption-and-Irritation

The key is that at some point the adoption of a new product crosses the chasm and becomes widely used within a company. While there is a time delay, sometimes years, at some point the perceived “abuse” of the technology causes a cross-over where for some set of people the irritation outpaces the utility. Just as there are early adopters, there are also irritation canaries who are the first to feel the utility of the new technology declining with increased usage.

We see this same dynamic not just for tools, but for business processes as well. That status report, dashboard, or checkin mail all start off as well-intentioned and then after some period of time the “just one more thing” or spreading over-usage at all levels of a team turn a positive into a burden.

Then at some point people start to reject the tool or process. Some even call for an outright ban or elimination.

What’s the solution?

The way to break the cycle is to dive into the actual work and not the tool. Historically, tools fade away when the work process changes.

It is tough to find examples of popular tools and processes that were simply banned that did not make a comeback. Companies that ban meetings or email on fridays just have more meetings and email on monday-thursday. I’ve personally seen far too many examples of too much information crammed on to a page (smaller fonts or margins anyone) or slides that need to be printed rather than projected in an effort to squeeze more on a page when there are forced limits on story-telling.

On the other hand, from voice mail to fax machines to pagers to typewriters to voice calls we have examples of tools that achieve high and subsequently irritating usage levels can and do go away because new tools take over. If you were around for any of those then you know that people called for them to be banned and yet they continued, until one day we all just stopped using them.

A favorite historical example is a company that told me they removed all the typewriters when PCs were introduced. The company was trying to save time because typewriters were much more difficult to use than PCs with printers (of course!). The problem was immediately seen by those responsible for the workflows in the company–all of a sudden no one could fill out an expense report, transfer to another department, or pay an invoice. All of these work processes, the blizzard of paperwork that folks thought were caused by typewriters, were rendered inoperable. These processes all required a typewriter to fill out the form and the word processors had no way of navigating pre-printed forms in triplicate. Of course what needed to happen was not a pre-printed form that worked in a word processor (what the administrative folks asked for), but a rethinking of the workflow that could be enabled by new tools (what management needed to do).

This sort of rethinking of work is what is so exciting right now. It is fair to say that the established, and overloaded, desktop work-processes and tools of the past 20 years are being disrupted by a new generation of tools. In addition to re-imagining how work can be done to avoid the problems of the past, these tools are built on a modern, mobile, cloud, and social infrastructure.

For example, Tom Preston-Werner, co-founder of GitHub, tells a great story about the motivations for GitHub that echoes my own personal experience. As software projects grew the communication of code changes/checkins generate an overwhelming blizzard of mail. Rather than just shut down these notifications and hope for the best, what was needed was a better tool so he invented one.

At AsanaDustin Moskovitz, tells of their goal to eliminate email for a whole set of tracking and task management efforts. We’ve all seen examples of the collaborative process playing out poorly by using email. There’s too much email and no ability to track and manage the overall work using the tool. Despite calls to ban the process, what is really needed is a new tool. So Asana is one of many companies working to build tools that are better suited to the work than one we currently all collectively seem to complain about.

Just because a tool is broadly deployed doesn’t mean it is the right or best way to work.

We’re seeing new tools that are designed from the ground up to enable new ways of working and these are based on the learning from the past two decades of tool abuse.

What are some warning signs for teams and managers?

It is easy to complain about a tool. Sometimes the complaints are about the work itself and the tool is just the scapegoat. There’s value in looking at tool usage or process creation from a team or management perspective. My own experience is that the clarion calls to ban a tool or process have some common warning signs that are worth keeping an eye out for as the team might avoid the jump to banning something, which we know won’t work.

  • Who is setting expectations for work product / process? If management is mandating the use of a tool the odds of a rebellion against it go up. As a general rule, the more management frames the outcome and the less the mechanism for the outcome the more tolerance there will be for the tool. Conversely, if the team comes up with a way of working that is hard for outsiders to follow or understand, it is likely to see pushback from partners or management. However, if it is working and the goal is properly framed then it seems harmless to keep using a tool. Teams should be allowed to use or abuse tools as they see fit so long as the work is getting done, no matter how things might look from outside.
  • Does the work product benefit the team doing the work or the person asking? A corollary to above is the tool or process that is mandated but seems to have no obvious benefit is usually a rebellion in-waiting. Document production is notorious for this. From status reports to slides to spreadsheets, the specification by management to create ever more elaborate “work products” for the benefit of management invariably lead to a distaste for the tool. It is always a good idea for management to reduce the need to create work, tools, and processes where the benefit accrues to management exclusively. Once again, the members of the team will likely start to feel like banning the use of the tool is the only way to ease the overload or tax.
  • Do people get evaluated (explicitly or implicitly) on the quality of the work product/process or the end-result? A sure-fire warning sign to the looming distaste of a tool or process is when a given work product becomes a goal or is itself measured. Are people measured by the completion of a report? Does someone look at how many email notifications get generated by someone? Does someone get kudos for completing a template about the group’s progress? All of these are tools that might be considered valuable in the course of achieving the actual goals of the team, but are themselves the path along the way. Are your status reports getting progressively more elaborate? Are people creating email rules to shunt email notifications to a folder? Are people starting to say “gosh I must have missed that”? All of those are warning signs that there is an impending pushback against the tool or process.
  • What doesn’t get done if you just stop? The ultimate indicator for a need to change a tool or process is to play out what would happen if you really did ban it. We all know that banning email is really impractical. There are simply too many exceptions and that is exactly the point. Many tools can have a role in the modern workplace. Banning a tool in isolation of the work never works. Taking a systematic look at the work required that uses a tool, those that use the tool, and those that benefit from the output is the best way to approach the desire to use the most appropriate toolset in the workplace.

What tools need to change in your organization? What work needs to change so that the team doesn’t need to rely on inappropriate or inefficient tools?

–Steven (@stevesi)

PS: As I finished writing this post, this Forrester report came across twitter: Reality Check: Enterprise Social Does Not Stem Email Overload.

Written by Steven Sinofsky

January 31, 2014 at 7:00 am

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