Deliver value, don’t just solve problems – design tips from Everett McKay, author, ‘Intuitive Design’

Deliver value, don’t just solve problems – design tips from Everett McKay, author, ‘Intuitive Design’

Tuesday January 15, 2019,

10 min Read

Good design is about much more than design thinking; it should be intuitive, practical, value-centric, and trustworthy, as this author explains.

Everett McKay is the author of Intuitive Design: Eight Steps to an Intuitive UI (see my book review here). He is Principal of UX Design Edge and has over 30 years’ experience in user interface design. His other book is UI is Communication; he was earlier at Microsoft and has an MS in computer science from MIT.

Software is eating the world (in the words of Marc Andreessen), and the world needs intuitive self-explanatory software more than ever before. Discoverability, affordance, comprehensibility, responsive feedback, predictability, efficiency, forgiveness, and explorability are key elements of interface design, as explained in the book.

Based on the level of intuitiveness, a UI can be graded as fully intuitive, sensible, learnable, guessable, trainable, and ‘beyond hope.’ Effective design comes from a combination of usability testing, expert evaluation, and application of core objective parameters of intuitive design.

Everett joins us for a chat on design education, design in startups, trustworthy UX (TUX), and even examples of non-intuitive design by Adobe and Apple.

Edited excerpts of the interview:

YourStory: What are the typical challenges entrepreneurs face as they scale up their company from startup to large enterprise? What design principles need to be in place?

Everett McKay: Entrepreneurship 101 suggests that the key to starting a successful business is to find a problem that you are passionate about, and then find a good solution. I believe this is wrong — this is what an unsuccessful startup looks like. To be successful today, you need more. Many founders are too focused on the technology and cranking out the code.

The focus instead should be on delivering value to their customers. Don’t just solve my problems — make me want to buy and use your solution! This is why UX design is so important for founders. It’s a mistake to assume that a good technological solution to a problem is enough.

Even Apple makes this mistake. They are still trying to figure out what Apple Watch is for. Nobody seems to know.

 YS: In the time since your book was published, what are some notable new examples you have come across of intuitive design – and non-intuitive design?

EM: Examples of both are everywhere. As you know, Intuitive Design is very example heavy. Every intuitive design heuristic I give in Chapter 3 is backed up by at least one real, modern UI example.

I’m still keeping extensive notes on intuitive design examples, hopefully for a second edition. I’m considering adding a chapter on intuitive design patterns, and having more examples helps identify these patterns. By the way, if you have any great examples, please let me know!

The biggest change for me personally since the book was published: I now have an Adobe CS license. One could write entire books on why Adobe products are unintuitive. In fact, many people have. They’re called “Adobe user manuals.”

 YS: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions you got?

 EM: The book reviews have been consistently strong and sales across the channels has been good. My goal, perhaps unrealistic, is to give Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things and Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think a run for their money. They are classic books and have played an important role, but after 20+ years for both I think it’s time to move on to something more modern, relevant, and practical. I consider Intuitive Design to be an excellent alternative that should be read first, and refer to the classics only if you want is historical perspective.

The biggest surprise is the audiobook, which has greatly exceeded my expectations. (Who wants an audiobook about design? Many people, apparently.) I feel the printed book and eBook have yet to be discovered.

 YS: What do you see as the role of academia in design? How can courses be effectively created for such fast-moving fields as digital design?

EM: Is digital design fast moving? Of course it is! But isn’t it ironic how much of what we do is influenced by 20+ year old resources?

I’m concerned that design degrees are overly focused on the elements of Design Thinking, such as research, sketching, prototyping, and usability testing. These skills are essential and make a great foundation, but they are very process, iteration, and collaboration-heavy and as a result very time-consuming. Nobody has time for the full Design Thinking process in the real world.

I’ve been an independent consultant for nine years now, and I can count the number of clients that do usability testing routinely on a single hand. For a design degree to mean anything, these academic programs need to make sure their graduates are effective in the real world. It’s not obvious that’s the case now.

When discussing Intuitive Design with experienced designers, I find that many assume that the material must be for beginners. Here’s a simple test to see if you should read my book: take an example design or feature, and convince someone that it is either intuitive or not, and do so with something other than personal opinion, vague assertions, or metaphors. Frankly, many designers fail this test. Many people say “Oh, just do a usability test”, which is a safe claim, but again few teams are actually doing that.

Given a basic understanding of the target users, experienced designers should know the answer or at the very least make a persuasive case. Design graduates should be able to do this with ease. In fact, I think this should be a routine design interview question. 

YS: How can industry and academia work together for better design practices and training?

EM: You know my feeling here already, but industry’s role is to keep academia honest by demanding course work that is practical in the real world. It’s great to know how to do extensive user research, for example, but it’s even better to know how to handle it when you can’t do that research for some reason. It’s also important to recognise when you are being misled by research. Confirmation bias is a thing, and it misleads many teams. 

YS: What is your current field of research in design?

EM: I’m not a researcher, so I don’t do research. A significant part of my background is in creating and compiling UX design principles and guidelines. I personally wrote the UX guidelines for a major software product.

While research data is a great foundation for design principles and guidelines, I also make heavy use of observation, especially of design mistakes. My best observation from guidelines work is that well-designed products communicate well — that a UI is essentially a form of human communication. This observation ultimately led to my UI is Communication book.

A related observation: most UIs communicate quite poorly, and as a result, users must figure out how they work through experimentation, documentation, and training. Many teams incorrectly assume that it has to be that way for complex products, but experience has consistently demonstrated that it does not. Most of what goes into training and documentation can be put directly in the UI. 

YS: How should designers strike that delicate balance between ‘Stick to your vision’ and ‘Adapt to a changed world’?

EM: A vision needs to adapt because it is wrong. But I don’t think the top cause for wrong visions is rapid external change, it’s having the wrong focus — typically due to technology- and feature-based design. (Sure, it’s possible the outside world really did change, but that’s far less likely than being overly focused on technology.) Guess what most teams do. Guess what agile/scrum fosters.

 YS: Is there such a thing as the ‘ideal age’ for a designer, or can the creative bug strike you at any time?

EM: It’s hard for me to say. I’m pretty old but I started young. Successful UX designers come from all backgrounds.

One factor stacked against younger designers now: it’s harder to break into the field. There wasn’t much competition when I started so just being interested was enough. Today, you actually need talent.

 YS: How should designers adopt practices that are increasingly in line with sentiments about privacy and security?

EM: Yes — great question! I call this TUX (short for Trustworthy UX for security and privacy). TUX is at the top of my list of critical design factors that deserve more attention. Given how common security is poorly designed and how often data breaches occur, I think TUX is critical now and will become more important moving forward. If I don’t trust your app, I’m not going to use it. Period!

Trust is something that must be earned. There are three wildly successful products that I have stopped using in the last year because I no longer trust them, and I don’t expect to ever use them again for this reason. Not earning or losing the user’s trust is a big deal!

That said, it’s very difficult to design a great TUX. Users don’t understand security and privacy well, and find most TUX to be annoying. Designing user experiences that do the right thing by default/automatically goes a long way. Your users shouldn’t have to make hard decisions.

 YS: What are the top three trends you see emerging in the field of design?

EM: I’m more of a trend avoider than a follower. I want my design advice to still be good five to ten years from now. Worrying about round versus square edges seems like a waste of time. Lukew (Luke Wroblewski) gave an interesting talk at the Igniters Conference last year where he showed the evolution of a variety of apps in detail. It’s surprising how much energy is wasted on superficial “moving pixels around”, as Lukew described it.

Voice-driven UI and IoT are two obvious trends. While voice-driven UI is amazingly good now, it doesn’t scale well. People want to do 10 things with their voice devices, not 10,000. It’s easy to stop caring at some point.

For my space, so many poorly designed UIs boil down to what I call “a SQL query and a shade of blue” — in other words, poorly designed data-driven UIs that just put the data structures directly on the screen. I’m thrilled when I help teams redesign such screens into something usable. Most UIs fail with the basics. My approach is to help my clients nail the usability basics and worry about trends much much later. 

YS: Who are some of the designers you admire the most today, and why?

EM: I mentioned Lukew previously. I really admire what he is doing. He communicates practical data-driven insights very concisely and enjoyably. 

YS: What is your next book going to be about?

EM: For me, the hardest part of writing a book is getting the free time, and I’m usually much too busy. I have about 12 book ideas on my ‘to do’ list. I haven’t decided which one is next, but likely subjects are user stories and design heuristics.

 YS: What is your parting message to the startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?

EM: There’s a reason why UX design is a thing now. As a customer, I can tell you with confidence that I don’t care about your technology and your feature list—they are merely a means to an end.

As a potential user of new products, my most precious resource isn’t money, it’s time. Most likely I can easily afford the cost, but I can’t afford to spend my time and effort. I have plenty of other things already demanding my attention, so I’m not in a hurry to add one more.

So, to rephrase: It’s not about solving problems anymore — it’s about delivering value. Make me want to use your product! If you can’t do that, take a step back and reevaluate what you are doing.

As an entrepreneur myself, I would be remiss without saying that you can hire me to help you design a great UX!