Motivation: Why Talented People Create Bad Products

In my time as product designer, I’ve worked with many startups as they struggled to design and build a brand new product. Some companies get it right early: they build a product that people love, and continue to iterate on it quickly as more and more users join and provide feedback. Others struggle, and throw good money after bad in one redesign after another in an attempt to gain traction, which never comes.

More often than not, the people at these struggling companies are very smart, talented, and well meaning. Yet over time, I began to notice a pattern of thinking, both in myself and in others, that seemed to reliably push teams in one direction or another. The issue turned out to be primarily one of motivation. What motivates a team now seems to me a more basic and more important determinant of their results than talent, experience, or resources.

Specifically, I see these three serious motivational issues professed openly everywhere:

  • Designers are motivated by the desire to improve people, instead of the desire to satisfy people . This is a subtle difference, but it will often lead in massively different directions in product design. The desire to improve people via product design is understandable, but it is also a very pernicious form of wishful thinking. In truth, as a product designer you must work with how people are, not how you think they should be. There is room for idealism, but it must always be in the form of “People should be able to do X,” not in the form of “People should do X more.”
  • Designers are motivated by the desire to employ specific technical capabilities, instead of the desire to answer real human needs. Technologies introduce limitations, capabilities, and context for the product designer to work with. But one of the most common mistakes is to allow those technical considerations to become part of your motivation, instead of just a means to an end. Technologies looking for a problem are abound, and some of them sound awfully enticing. (Think of sexy words like Augmented Reality or Social Discovery.) But in the end, products are about people. You must repeatedly return to human beings, their needs and desires. After all – it is much better to solve a big human problem with a very simple technology than to employ the most sophisticated and cool technology to solve a problem that no one has.
  • Designers care more about some external factor like executive approval, or peer perception, than the benefit and joy that users will derive from the product. Even honest product designers can sometime fall into the trap of designing under an external mandate that has nothing to do with what users want. Specifically, there is a tricky balance to hit between the product designer’s job of figuring out the truth of human pain and desire, and the ultimate product design that must eventually be produced in a complex political and business reality. A good analogy for this would be job searching or apartment hunting: it’s a good practice to figure out what you want before looking at what’s available, because it will help you navigate the numerous options much more effectively. If you start with what’s possible before formulating what you want, you will almost certainly settle for the first thing that “sort of works.” Worse, since in product design you are essentially looking for a job/apartment for someone else, there really is no way to start other than to get a very good clue about what people want.

 In the end, there is only one overriding motivation that can help you get it right: you must desire to remove friction from your customers lives. Which means that above all else you must desire to allow them to do more of what they already want to do, and less of what they already don’t want to do. It may not sound like much, but it’s what technology is all about.