Design a Swiss Army Knife
A number of moons ago, I was approached by the CEO of a well known ML-driven company. I run a tiny design subscription service for B2B Software companies, and we were asked to help simplify their internal tool. Their engineers built a piece of software that was being used by scientists to train a ML model. The tool did its job, but the scientists were wasting time fiddling around with switches, buttons, and hard to reach controls.
We started reworking the product with a focus on ease of use. With the redesign, the product turned into a more natural extension of the user to get a specific job done. The scientists got to work more efficiently, helping the company save time and build their data models faster.
Being an engineer & designer myself, I strongly believe in the approach of building something first without much help from designers. Then, after you have something functional, use design thinking to carve away friction for users by obsessively focussing on simplifying the UI and UX.
Design is not about adding nice graphics or making it look good. These are merely organic by-products. Product Design, at its core, is about removing friction. It’s about helping the user get to their desired state as efficiently as possible.
“Google has the functionality of a really complicated Swiss Army knife, but the home page is our way of approaching it closed. It’s simple, it’s elegant, you can slip it in your pocket, but it’s got the great doodad when you need it. A lot of our competitors are like a Swiss Army knife open — and that can be intimidating and occasionally harmful.”
— Marissa Mayer
Google got this right by accident. When Marissa Mayer, former usability leader at Google, asked Sergey Brin how Google had settled on the clean and simple white design for its home page, he replied: “We didn’t have a webmaster and I don’t do HTML”.
Eventually, Google won the search engine war by building a better product that gave better results. But had they not made their technology approachable and easy to use, the tech would most likely not have been enough.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. It takes a lot of hard work to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions. […] It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. […] You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential “
— Steve Jobs.
In a time where ‘smart’ phones had plastic keyboards and software that was designed to work on desktops, squeezed on a tiny display, Apple introduced the iPhone. Apple was not the first company to design a smartphone, nor was it the most powerful device on the market. Yet, the iPhone defined the market and made everybody else follow in line. The biggest reason was their focus on simple to use software and hardware. The home button was their closed swiss army knife. Whenever a user would get lost, they could hit that ripcord and get sent back to their home screen safely.
The balance of powerful tech with ease of use is what Apple strives for in their products. It’s what allows them to charge a premium and be the world’s most valuable company.
Design your product like a swiss army knife and give it to your customers, closed.
How do you go about crafting user-friendly products? Products that help grow your company faster and delight more people. Here’s a short list of questions that can help you get started:
- Which functionalities can you combine?
- Which elements can you remove and still have a usable product?
- What is the one thing a user wants to achieve here?
- How can we put that one thing more in focus?
- What if this page could only do one thing and nothing else, what would that be?
- If a user gets totally confused, where’s that cord that pulls open their parachute?
View some of our work on fairpixels.pro