Ask the Experts: What is Great Design?

firas_twitter_400x400 by

In this conclusion of a three-part series, four user experience and product design experts weigh in on what makes great design.

This week, in conjunction with a workshop OpenView hosted on user experience process and product design, we’ve gathered a panel of industry experts who each know a thing or two about designing successful products.

So far, they have recommended best practices for designing products that customers will love and provided solutions for some of the most common user experience challenges expansion-stage companies face. In this third and final installment in the series, they turn their focus to the following question:

What separates a mediocre design from a great design?


Andrew Maier, Founder of UX Booth

A great design solves its users’ needs in a way that’s trustworthy, transparent, and aesthetically pleasing. While well-designed websites tend to be praised for their beauty, they are certainly more than this. They’re a marriage of form and function that’s greater than the sum of their parts. Great design is holistic. Everything from the first encounter to the last needs to be considered and contextually relevant to users to make it an enduring artifact.

Jeff Sutherland, CEO of Scrum Inc.

I think everyone would agree that Apple does some of the best design in the world right now. How they do it, and how I’ve done it at companies I’ve run, is concurrent engineering. They will complete a dozen fully baked prototypes of every device and every feature and then have a shootout. And these aren’t just quick mockups, they are full implementations of different design choices. Then they decide which one is best.

When I was at Patient Keeper, we were designing hand-held applications for physicians. Before we wrote one line of code, we needed a fully implemented iPhone app that had to be tested by six different doctors, and they all had to say it was great, or we didn’t build it.

The key is to get your users involved in creating your product. I can’t tell you how many times we would build something that a doctor would look at and say “It sucks, I’ll never use it,” and throw it in a desk drawer. By getting that feedback early, we could save ourselves enormous amounts of effort. And the important thing is that from the users’ point of view, they were fully functional, we hadn’t fully done the backend or anything, but they had a product they could feel, touch, and play with.

Part of the key was for the developers to build a framework for development. Eventually we could create a prototype in the morning, and the marketing guys could do a visual mockup that would look exactly like the finished product because they had the design tools to do it.

Basically, the reason so much design sucks is that people don’t do set-based, lean engineering. They don’t do fully functioning product testing against a user before they build it. People say it’s too hard and too expensive. I say, “Apple seems to have made a lot of money doing it.” They say, “We aren’t Apple.” I say, “Well, then your competitor who doesn’t think as small as you are is going to eat your lunch.

Kyrie Robinson, Partner – User Experience, Silicon Valley Product Group

A great design is one that attacks user experience from all fronts. It gets the interaction design correct, including an intuitive navigation and easy-to-learn patterns. The visual design not only makes the interactions easy to figure out, but also conveys a sense of the brand. It uses animations and moving transitions to delight the user and clarify what is happening. And, most of all, it’s fast.

Speed isn’t just screen load times. It’s about making it easy to scan a page to see what to do. It’s requiring the fewest clicks to do a task on a page, or to get from point A to point B in the interface. It’s making bigger buttons, which make quicker targets. It’s making things memorable so users don’t have to think. It’s making things discoverable so users don’t have to hunt. It’s working with engineering to make key parts of the screen load first, so that users can get started on their task. Remember, users always equate fast user experience with easy.

Chris Kaufman, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer of UpTo


Susan Weinschenk, Behavioral Psychologist and Author of 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People and Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click?

A mediocre design occurs for one or more of the following reasons: You let technical considerations overpower human ones; you don’t start your user experience work early enough in the design process, you don’t iterate enough; you don’t conduct enough user research before you design; or you fail to do enough user testing during design.

Want to learn more? Check out our panel’s previous discussion topics: Best practices in product design and solutions for the biggest UX challenges facing startup and expansion-stage companies.

Photo by: luri Kothe

  • Hmm. I wonder if it’s possible to be too user-centric. I mean, the best product designs don’t necessarily satisfy what users say they need, but anticipate desires they don’t yet know they have.

    After all, Apple products impose fewer, not greater, options on the user — in direct contradiction to what “experts” would have said users want. Yet their very simplicity speaks to a less obvious need for aesthetic satisfaction. After using Mac laptops for the last five years, I can’t even look at a Window’s based design w/out gagging.

    • Hey Jonathan… valid concern. There’s a not-so-subtle fine line between hoping that users will tell you what they need/want (which rarely results in innovation)… and giving users the opportunity to react to your innovative designs before you actually code them.  Ultimately, innovative designs start with the designers, not the users. And secondly, a great user experience is experienced by the user, not the designer.

      Ditto on the Windows gag factor. I feel so sad for people that still use it.