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.

Interface is Everything

Emotiv's brain interface.

If you think the debate over iPhone vs. Android, or Windows vs. Mac is too vitriolic, prepare for the real battles to come. Touch interfaces have removed a psychological and functional barrier, and opened the way to an always-connected, computing in your hand world. This is a major step forward, but as early demonstrations of Google Glasses reveal, computing technology continues to strive for an ever greater and closer integration into our psyche.

That’s interface. And whether it’s touch, gestures, voice, augmented reality glasses, or eventually a direct brain connection, it is going to play a much greater role in our lives in the coming years. Our online data and activities are bound to leak in and eventually fully integrate with our everyday physical existence. Eventually, interface will not only shape how we “use apps” or “surf the web” – it will filter how we view the physical world around us, shape how we make sense of it, drive how we operate in it. Increasingly, the people who shape the interfaces we use shape our lives, and even shape us.

That’s why it’s important to realize that different interfaces are based on different assumptions about the world and the user. Embedded in Apple’s software interface, for example, is the assumption that your experience while using the tool is just as important as what the tool does. Dig deeper, and you’ll see a present-oriented approach. The idea that life is made of a string of “nows”, and that good experiences are therefore the most important thing in life. Embedded in Google’s designs is the idea that new technical capabilities must be available to users as soon as possible, and that over time the right experience will develop. Again, dig deeper and the assumption seems to be that your ability to get a certain result in the future is more important than your experience in the present. Google, in other words, views life as a string of past and future milestones. As long as you hit the right ones, what’s in between matters less.

When buying into a software platform, we should be aware that we are buying into a philosophy of life, and that that philosophy, whether conscious or not, will shape our lives in no small way. When thinking of particular app designs, the assumptions become more concrete. What is the most important thing for us to know in a given situation? What is the most important action we need to take? When and how should we take that action? When is it OK to interrupt us, and who gets to decides that? All of these are interface questions that already shape our lives today.

How much more influential will they become, when software becomes less and less separable from our own psyche?