All Posts in Product Design

October 28, 2016 - No Comments!

Expanding on Apple’s New Touch Bar

What if, and why not? Apple’s Macbook Pro shakeup, one day later.

During the introduction of the new MacBook Pro, I couldn't help but wonder: what if you could use the technology behind the Touch Bar to separate content from controls in desktop software interfaces? Imagine how simple our affordances and UI language could be if your content and controls were completely separate.

Let’s talk about this.

Here’s all of our interaction points on today’s laptops (stick with me here):

  1. Our screens show us our content.
  2. Our content is in windows that float on top of and around one another.
  3. We use our keyboards for typing text.
  4. We use our mouse or trackpad to move a cursor on our screen to manipulate the objects we see on it.
  5. We also use special key combinations on our keyboards to manipulate the controls on the screen faster than we could with the mouse/trackpad + cursor.

With iOS, Apple generally kept #1 and #3.

Instead of mouse/trackpad + cursor to manipulate on-screen controls (#4), we directly touch them on the touchscreen. This also meant that we don’t need keyboard shortcuts (#5) as much, since we don’t need to overcome the inefficiency of the mouse/trackpad + cursor (though some keyboard shortcuts have started to pop up on the iPad).

Apple dropped the windows (#2), allowing each app to take over the entire screen. This allowed us to drammatically simplify affordances in the UI: we no longer need to differentiate between so many different visual elements to show what is content versus controls in a UI, or which controls are active as part of the active window. This simplification has been so refreshing and focusing on iOS that Mac OS adopted full-screen as well, even though it doesn’t have the benefits of direct manipulation.

But people asked, “what if it did?” The simple answer has always been that it can’t: a touch screen on a laptop would lead to fatigue.

The Touch Bar, introduced yesterday, muddies the lines a little bit. Your screen shows your content and controls. Your Touch Bar shows the most prominent controls to control the focused application (plus, it looks like, some system state information at times like a current phone call). Your keyboard is for typing text, plus controlling the application. Your mouse/trackpad is for controlling the application by moving the cursor around the interface.

This immediately struck me as muddy. You now have 3 very different ways to control apps and their UIs. For what it does, Touch Bar is clearly the best of them. It is the clearest, provides the most feedback, and has more degrees of interaction. Plus, it’s direct manipulation — a first on the Mac.

But that doesn’t change the fact that you can control your application by:

  • Controls on the Touch Bar that can be tapped, scrolled, slid
  • Keyboard shortcuts
  • Moving a cursor on screen (using a mouse/trackpad) to click or click and drag on-screen interface elements

Because the Touch Bar is the best of them, and because it solves the problem the trackpad solves far better, I wondered if:

A) The trackpad and the Touch Bar could be merged, and

B) The Touch Bar could be expanded.

Why expand it?

What if your screen was strictly used to display content, and your expanded Touch Bar was strictly used to control content?

Not even iOS has this kind of simplification and clarity.

Imagine how simple our affordances and UI language could be if your content and controls were completely separate; if you didn’t move a cursor around a big field containing both content and controls to manipulate that content, often not knowing what’s a control and what isn’t?

Now by “strictly,” I don’t mean all-or-nothing all the time — that wouldn’t be immediately possible. But with some graceful fallbacks, could we get the ultimate in interaction design for creators on a laptop?

Let’s check it out:

Imagine a ginormous trackpad that spans the width of the laptop. Let’s call it the Magic Touchpad.


You’ll still use the sides as palm rests and the center as the trackpad field. It’d support force-touch, and it would be solid state, making clicks feel authentic with the haptic engine (much like the iPhone 7’s new home button).

But when you go full screen with an application — allowing that app to take over your screen (simplifying its UI as it doesn’t need to compete with other windows) — it also takes over your Touchpad.

On your screen, it only shows your content. On your Touchpad, it only shows your controls. The controls are in the center of the Touchpad — where you were controlling your cursor before.


But here’s the graceful fallback, should there need to be one. If you start moving your finger, starting in the middle of the Touchpad, where there is a “graceful fallback gap,” the controls slide to the two sides, giving you a full-sized trackpad again. It could dismiss automatically after a delay, or on a button tap on the Touchpad.


Now this is a simple example of how the Touchpad might work in Photos, but what about something more intensive? How would it look to put the controls for a more complex application on the Touchpad?

In Final Cut Pro, a professional creator’s application, the entire Touchpad could be used when the application goes full screen:


Check out the screen: there’s nothing but your content on it! It’s just the video you’re manipulating.

The Touchpad allows you to scrub around the timeline, directly touch elements, drag in transitions from a slide-in pane on the right, etc.

This really cleans up affordances in the app, and allows your content to shine on screen. This new interaction paradigm separates content from controls. The possibilities for interaction are limitless, and can be far more intuitive, with far better feedback, using only direct manipulation — on a desktop OS, with full-powered applications.

Back to graceful fallbacks:

Imagine you’re browsing the web. You need a normal trackpad in the middle, and your wrists are on either side.


Imagine your “favorites” are on the left, under your wrist. If you lift your wrist, your favorites fade in. Tapping any one allows instant navigation.


Lifting your right wrist could show your open tabs, with live previews, allowing you to pop over to another one.



As cool as it is, there are some obvious downsides to this approach, which probably highlight why this isn’t the product that was launched yesterday.

I’ve written before on the ergonomics of software, something often ignored but terribly important.

It gets you looking way down at the bottom of your field of vision. You never have to look that low right now. Apple was probably comfortable with the Touchbar where it is because it’s only slightly lower than the screen, and while users may have letter locations memorized, many are probably already looking at the function keys when using some of them. Having to look down where your trackpad is currently is not ideal. Looking back and forth between the two screens could be jarring — I’d be curious to try it. Plus, the best view of the Touchpad is when you hunch over the laptop. While that’s probably my most common position already, it’s terrible for your neck and back.

Also, in your most likely resting position for your hands, while using the Touchpad — even if the controls are in the very center — you’ll likely cover up far more of them than you do with your iPhone or iPad. Try it: leave your wrists where they usually are, and then use your trackpad. Now imagine if there were app-specific controls lit up under there. You wouldn’t be able to see them that well.

Cool ideas I’d be curious to see expanded on. Want to play with it? Download this PSD, and you’ll be able to edit the screen and Touchpad.

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September 20, 2016 - No Comments!

Learn Killer Product Design: My 3 Favorite Sources of Inspiration

1. Psychology

I highly recommend the book Flow to all product designers. I loved it — and since reading it, I’ve been exploring a number of topics in psychology that entirely capture my fascination. It gives me insight into the human mind, with which I endlessly draw parallels to product design. I’ve found that understanding how the human mind works is vitally important for me as a product designer. It allows me to create exactly what the user needs; something that can most successfully “click” with them, often in ways they don’t consciously identify. I think understanding psychology is the difference between a designer who says “trust me, it’s better this way” and a designer who can back up a design decision with an intentional motivation stemming from a psychological principle that they are curious to test in their own products. Though — to be clear, I’m not saying I’ll always be right on the first go, but I am saying I’ll always be intentional.

Learn more in my most recommended article: 7 Rules Driving the Psychology Behind Great Product Design »

2. Experience Design Agencies

(or “Digital Experience Agencies”). These agencies build products and experiences for companies to strengthen their brands with consumers. They are solely focused on delighting the consumer. I try to find ways of bringing elements of delight even in to the kinds of apps — productivity tools and utilities — that I really enjoy designing. If a car company can use a college game day app to strengthen their brand, how much more should an app company be able to use their own apps to strengthen their own brand? I love checking out work coming from Chiat/DayCritical MassHornbill AndersonVaynerMedia, and plenty more.

Learn more in this resource-packed article: How To Delight Your Users »

3. Conversations About Problems

One of the things I most enjoy in social gatherings is discussing problems. Macro problems, or personal problems. I enjoy hearing people’s suggested solutions, ideal solutions, and assumptions about what makes those solutions impossible. I love asking people what their biggest problem is, or what the barrier is between them and the thing they most want to achieve. I love asking what someone’s most unnecessary time drain is, or most unnecessarily expensive expense is. As a product designer, boiled down, I’m a problem solver. I feed off of problems to solve. When I identify a common problem among a number of people, I enjoy brainstorming on potential solutions. This is where products and features are born for me; after lots of conversations solely about the issue at hand, not about proposed solutions — or at least, not yet. Iterating on potential solutions is equally as important, but it only follows after finding real, valuable problems that remain unsolved.

Learn more in one of my first articles: How To Innovate: The Dummy’s Guide »

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August 25, 2016 - No Comments!

How To Delight Your Users

Here's a potentially surprising source of inspiration for product design that’ll put you in a league above the rest.

Quick intro if you missed last week’s articlecognitive science shows us that a well-designed product will cause a user to perceive the product to be of higher quality and value (“Aesthetic-Usability effect”), “feel more predisposed to try new things,” overlook negatives about the product, and “generate favorable inferences” about things that are missing from the product. Most interestingly, a product design that increases affect is one of the “biggest drivers of repeat business.” Last week, we got a lesson on all this from product design’s greats (see section 4 for more).

But how do you design your product with high aesthetics? How do you bake in just the right touches to induce positive emotion?

An important way to do this is purely functional: by creating smarter software that removes frustrations instead of creating them, our users can get into a state of flow — or optimal experience.

But another big way, as mentioned by the legends of product design in their amicus curiae to the Supreme Court is aesthetic appeal.

This brings me to what might be a more surprising source of product design inspiration I draw upon, given that I work primarily on productivity and utility apps.

Ever heard of a “digital experience agency”? Or an “interactive design agency,” “brand experience agency,” or “experience design agency”? There are a handful of firms that do some incredible work in this field for the top brands on the planet.

These agencies build products and experiences for companies to strengthen their brands with consumers. They are solely focused on delighting the consumer.

Here’s an example of work done by the (phenomenal) agency Critical Mass for Nissan:


Watch the video here first to get an idea for how the app works, and what its purpose is (you can also read their case study here).

The app is designed to provide a delightful experience to improve brand image with the sponsoring company. With this project, Nissan is leveraging the increased affect felt toward a product and its brand with an app that — to be clear — has virtually nothing to do with their product.

If a car company can use a college game day app with a delightful experience to strengthen their brand with their customers, how much more should an app company use their own apps to strengthen their own brand?

This is why I love exploring the work coming from these agencies: much of this work is meant entirely to strengthen a brand. That’s the goal. Some of the products don’t even have a purpose beyond that. Delight is the #1 — and sometimes the only — goal. And these firms really hit delight out of the park.

This kind of work serves as a great source of inspiration to find little ways to delight our users in our apps. Even if you think you’re ‘just building a utility app,’ increasing aesthetic appeal and delight can be a big driver of repeat business, among other things, so it’s important to get this piece right.

First, I’ll share with you a few examples of products that have adopted little ways of delighting their users. Then, I’ll share with you a handful of sources of inspiration for you to take away from this article and what agencies to watch yourself.

Delight in products

Here’s an example sent in by one of my newsletter readers, Max. (Thanks, Max!)

The app’s goal is essentially just to track how much work you get done. It’s meant to help you be more productive. Heard of the Seinfeld method? Yes, its from Jerry himself.

Essentially, every day he completed his task of writing, he would put a big red “X” in a calendar on that day. Then, he would try to not break the chain — to get some writing done every day. “Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.” It builds momentum as you build any habit: you become more likely to do what you need to do every day (writing, designing, whatever it might be) because you’re on a streak of 5, 36, 104 days, and you don’t want to break the chain.

Forest takes a different approach in its app (it’s not based on a chain of days — for that, see apps like Commit), but it boils down to a similar premise.

It could have easily been a stark app that tracks how much you work every day. Imagine an app that does only that — even if this was helpful, you probably wouldn’t even download it, let alone use it. There’s nothing terribly appealing about that, and it’s hard to imagine that would help you be more productive.

But check out what the product designers of Forest did:



For every session of work, you plant a tree. If you don’t get through a lot, your tree withers and dies. If you get a lot done, the tree grows. Do this enough times, and you’ll be building a forest. See the illustration on the left above? Imagine the impact this user experience could have on your momentum as you see your forest get lusher and expand as you get more done towards your goals.

They found a creative and unique way to delight their users, which makes what could have been an incredibly dull utility app into one that further promotes the goal of the app: getting more done in focused periods of work. Users want to use it, because they want to see and experience a forest that is a reflection of their dedication, presence, and work.

Project management for teams had — for some time — been a thing no software could help with. Asana is one of the solutions out there that can be a game changer for collaborative teams. Here’s the product’s newest promo video:

The video didn’t show the product once, but you still want to use it, don’t you? I know I do.

The video was all delight. But Asana brings these visual elements of delight into the app itself. Here’s one example:


Notice how even the background color animates when you complete a task. They call it a “pop of energy.” It’s gratifying for the user when they’ve just completed a task. Small ways of increasing delight.

Here’s one from my own work. In Throttle, when we discovered that users were stepping through their reading list one-by-one until they had seen all their new messages (having to remember the last thing they saw), we built a “What’s New” tab on mobile that showed a card stack of only new messages that users could literally swipe through.

Surely you’ve seen this interaction in other apps, but look how stark this interaction could have been (right) if it was just a matter of swiping, versus a physical card that seems to rotate off the screen or snap back (left):



Top: The real version has fluid, physical interactions that make it feel more natural. Bottom: A version with the exact same interaction for the user, but that lacks the fluidity.

Drawing Your Own Inspiration

First, I’ll share some examples of interesting digital experience work, then I’ll share the agencies whose portfolios I like to keep an eye on that you might enjoy too.

Jameson 1780 by Evolution Bureau

Evolution Bureau made a Facebook game for Jameson where you had to solve a mystery — figure out who stole the missing barrel of whisky. The catch? The culprit was one of your Facebook friends, and you had to figure it out based on clues taken from the profile.

Speaking of Evolution Bureau, I’m obsessed with these guys. They were the ones responsible for the Elf Yourself craze, and even though so many of their projects show immense levels of creativity, this one encapsulates it all quite nicely:

Is that relevant to this article? Not really. But I just saw it for the first time yesterday and had to share it. Genius.

Word Cloud Portrait by Sparks for The New York Times

It’s incredibly simple — it’s just a fun user experience — but it engaged their audience so much that they saw far better numbers than usual.

LA24 Web Experience by Active Theory


Interact with this site. Slowly move your mouse towards the navigation on the left. Check out the “map” section. The entire thing is packed with elements of delight that increase engagement and average time on the site. Seriously, take a minute, click the link, and just check it out.

A few more examples from Active Theory:

How I fight and Racer — a mobile web game for Google.

Agencies to Watch

Some of my favorite agencies are listed below — just check out their portfolios, usually under “work,” whenever you need some inspiration on how you might delight your users. Believe me — these folks are the best in the business at delighting people.

  • TBWA\CHIAT\DAY — TBWA\CHIAT\DAY develops strategies, advertising and creative content for some of the world's most iconic brands…
  • EVB — We are your brand's best kept secret.
    We use creativity and our grasp of culture to make brands meaningful, profitable and
  • Critical Mass — Experience design agency
  • Hornall Anderson — Brand Experience Design Agency
    Global Design and Branding expertise for more than 30 years, with offices in Seattle, London, Hull, and Leeds. We use…
  • VaynerMedia — At VaynerMedia, you'll learn to be the best storyteller there is, by getting exposure to everything from content…
  • Active Theory — Active Theory is a creative digital production studio based in Venice, California. We make bold things for the big guys…

Finding little ways of delighting your users, leveraging aesthetic appeal — in conjunction with an empathetic and innovative interface — can help your product’s users grow an emotional connection to the brand that you’re building. That’s why the little details matter.

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August 22, 2016 - No Comments!

The Intersection of Product Design and Business

Prepared by product design greats for the Supreme Court, this is the definitive guide to using product design to build a brand, market, and sell great products, backed up with design history and cognitive science.

We’re about to get schooled by the product design greats.

Here’s the quick backstory, with all the curious information you might need to know. IDSA — the Industrial Designers Society of America — submitted an amicus curiae — an unsolicited brief submitted to a court by an uninvolved third-party to assist with a case — to the United States Supreme Court for the ongoing legal battle between Apple and Samsung.

It was signed by 113 design greats including the infamous Dieter Rams, and the heads of design at Microsoft, Bentley, Nissan, Lego, Louis Vuitton, Motorola, Calvin Klein, Herman Miller, and professors of design at Savannah College of Art and Design, and Harvard, among others (as a Hokie, I’m also proud that two Virginia Tech professors are among the 113 signatories).

This crash course in design theory for the justices distilled from modern product design a few fundamental rules, drawing on cognitive science, design history, marketing theory, and consumer technology.

Can it get cooler than this?

Here’s the cliffnotes on what was submitted:

1. Design drives sales of products

In the early days of American invention, we manufactured products strictly out of functional necessity, as we tamed the American wilderness.

By the early 1900s, the United States became the top country for sales of manufactured goods, but “an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and even embarrassment was emerging about the lack of genuine aesthetic quality in American manufactures.” As mass-produced print advertising was becoming popular, people started to realize that products needed to look good too.

Products in these early days started to see designs that helped them sell.

For an example, look no further than the auto industry: initial American cars looked like carriages missing their horses. Ford’s black Model T, though successful, was stark and mechanic, lacking design. General Motors put together an Art & Colours department to “study the question of art and color combinations” in their vehicles. It led GM to surpass Ford in annual sales. Ford has never caught up since.


Left: Ford’s Model T. Right: The first vehicle to be designed by GM’s Art & Colours Department, the 1926 Chevrolet.

Without changing the underlying technology, engineering or functionality, car manufacturers discovered that they could create many different makes and models simply by changing the automobile’s shape, style and appearance.

Dozens of different GM models were built on the same three body shells. Yet each model looked unique due to the addition of aesthetic features like fenders, headlights, taillights, and trim.

This led GM to come up with the yearly redesigns on car models that we are now familiar with. By changing the design of the vehicles, car manufacturers saw sales soar. Industrial design in the U.S. auto industry led to huge economic growth.

2. A product’s design is the product itself

Put most simply:

“It is the design of a successful product that embodies the consumer’s understanding of and desire to own and interact with it.”

Think about a Coke. Really envision it in your mind’s eye.

What did you just picture? If you’re like most Americans, you probably just pictured a countour-shaped bottle with Coke in it. But think about it — the bottle is not the product, the drink inside is. Yet the bottle itself is what we envision as the product.

Coca-cola was first only available in fountains, but two Chattanooga lawyers bought the license to bottle the popular drink. Sales soared, as did imitators. The bottle design was simple, so imitation was easy. (As a soon-to-be Chattanoogan, I’m proud that Chattanooga gets the claim to fame for being the first place a Coca-cola was bottled).

They held a design contest for a new bottle to make Coca-cola bottles uniquely distinguished, even if only felt in the dark, or seen after being broken. The winning designers used the shape of a cocoa pod as inspiration for the contoured, symbolic bottle. The design killed off imitators and was “the catalyst that [helped] Coca-Cola become the most widely distributed product on earth.”


Left: The original Coke bottle. Middle: The contest-winning design based on the cocoa pod. Right: the design of the bottle was so iconic it was printed on cans of coke.

“In 1949, a study showed that more than 99% of Americans could identify a bottle of Coke by shape alone.”

“The impact of the contour bottle’s design on the company’s profits — and American culture — is difficult to overstate.”

But the contour bottle represents more than just marketing for the brand — it has become synonymous with the beverage itself. Customers routinely report that Coca-Cola tastes better when consumed from the contour bottle, though there is no difference in the formula.

Just like the car, where people were interested in buying new designs regardless of what was under the hood, the Coca-cola bottle design proved that a product’s design is the product itself in the eyes and minds of the consumer.

3. Design is a successful tech companies’ differentiator

Design delivers tangible business results. This explains the rise of the Chief Design Officer, and the fundamental three positions found in many of today’s startups: the business person, the engineer, and the designer.

America’s top fifteen “design conscious companies” outperform their peer group by 228% on a market asset value basis

4. Design is the bridge between complex technology and the consumer

Put most simply:

“Cognitive science explains why visual design is so important to complex technology.”

Sounds simple, but there’s a lot to it. This is the longest point made in the amicus curiae. Let’s dive in:

Design is particularly important for consumer products with complex technology. Cognitive science proves that a product’s visual design has powerful effects on the human mind and decision making processes, and eventually comes to signify to the consumer the underlying function, origin, and overall user experience of that product.

Sight is our strongest sense, making up 90% of information transmitted to the brain. This has fascinating consequences, which I broke down into 10 points:

1. First, we process visuals more quickly than words. It’s intuitive enough: text describing a product’s functionality “must be processed sequentially” while “cognitive processing of visual design occurs all at once.” It “can be so quick that we may not be aware of its effects.”

2. Second, since visuals designs are processed more quickly, “the connection between an image and its meaning is more direct than the connection between a word and its meaning.”

3. Third, the brain even retains memories attached to images — pictures, shapes, colors, products — for far longer than those attached to text.

This is the reason we can identify a product we have used before based on its visual appearance alone, but may not remember information we read about the product (such as technical specifications or instructions about product use). The powerful effect of visual design, which has been attributed to the mind’s “higher degree of discrimination of pictures compared with words,” is simply stronger and longer lasting than information gleaned from text.

Immediately upon seeing a product, the mind forms “beliefs about product attributes and performance.”

4. Fourth, research shows that “attractive products are perceived to be of higher quality and easier to use” and that “attractive things make people feel good.

In scientific terms, cognitive processing of images has “been found to be associated with increased affect,” as “high aesthetics activates the reward center of the brain.”

5. “Customers experiencing positive emotions may feel more predisposed to try new things and may perceive them as having higher value.”

6. Most interestingly, since more attractive products lead to higher emotion, this means that repeat business is heavily driven by design:

Thus, emotional responses and connections to products and brands are “among the biggest drivers of repeat business.”

7. Good design can even overcome other negatives about a product, and induces the consumer to make positive assumptions about what they don’t know about the product:

Consumer psychology has shown that, “a beautiful product can completely overpower negative functionality information.” Thus, when researchers presented subjects with reviews depicting a computer as poor in functionality, but then later showed an image of a very attractive computer, the subjects’ evaluations of the computer were just as favorable as those of subjects who had been shown favorable functionality reviews. Visual attractiveness can even exceed what is known about the product, “generating particularly rich and favorable inferences about missing product attributes.”

8. Because our brains to do not separate the physical appearance of a product from its functions, when we see, interact with, or even think about a product again, that experience is “cognitively mapped onto the product’s visual design such that the look of the product comes to represent the features, functions, and total user experience of the product itself.”

Thus, when a consumer encounters a known product (or an infringing copy), the consumer identifies the look of the product with the underlying functional features. Design “subsumes all the other factors.

“Judgments are often made on the elegance, functionality and social significance of products based largely on visual information.”

9. Today when we see products we might buy — in print, TV, social media, websites — it’s the visual design (not text) that dominates the ad. When we see someone else using the product — “a powerful factor in purchase decisions” — it’s only the visual design we have to go off of.

Thus, when a consumer encounters a product, the consumer identifies the look of the product with the underlying functional features and the visual design comes to represent the features, functions, and total user experience of the product. In this way, “[c]onsumer preferences and motivation are far less influenced by the functional attributes of products and services than the subconscious sensory and emotional elements” that are encompassed by the design and “derived by the total experience.”

“The symbolic meaning associated with products often has the potential to dominate the aesthetic and semantic aspects of cognitive response.”

Consider how well-regarded Beats headphones are socially held, when audiophiles have publicly lamented the poor audio quality of the product.

10. What’s most interesting is how important this is for complex technological products:

As products have become vastly more complex, consumers have limited under- standing of every underlying function and feature. Instead, they rely on the visual design of the product to define its category membership and underlying functionality. Thus, counterintuitively, when a single product performs many complex functions, and when functionality is generally equivalent across manufacturers, design becomes more important, not less.

As the home computer became more technologically complex, and as makers were putting out functionally similar options, it was the iMac G3 that propelled Apple into its current era of prosperity:


It was all in the design for the iMac G3

Cognitive scientists have established that “as product quality parity has become the norm,” design is a key method for manufacturers to “differentiate their goods.” In other words, when consumers are cognitively overloaded with multiple functions and choices, and particularly where those functions are perceived as undifferentiated across products, “aesthetics is weighted more heavily in the choice decision,” and consumers are “more likely to select the better looking option, even when there is a price premium.”

Again, I’ll point to Beats: premium price, all for the design.

Finally, the amicus curiae leads into its final argument against the copying of seemingly “obiovus” designs by identifying the severity of the issue (emphasis mine):

By stealing designs, therefore, manufacturers steal not only the visual design of the product, but also the underlying attributes attached to the design of the product and embodied in the mind of the consumer by the product’s visual appearance. When a manufacturer copies the design of a successful product, it captures the consumer’s understanding of what the product does and what the product means.

Moreover, copying of a design also allows the copier to enter the marketplace on the back of the brand attributes built by the patent holder — who has expended vast sums and effort in design, development, quality standards, marketing, sales and product promotion. Immensely successful companies use visual design to build their brands, expending time and resources to implement “systematic planning of a consistent aesthetic style that is carried through in everything the company does.” Strong design can “enhance emotional contact with customers” and “create positive overall customer impressions that depict the multifaceted personality of the company or brand.” Consumers come to associate particular designs with specific attributes of companies and products. Design patent infringement therefore steals much more than the design itself — it robs innovative companies of the entire positive mental model that consumers have created for their brand.

The entire letter is a fascinating read from the minds of product design’s greats. It gives us a good insight into the intersection between product design and business; explaining the importance of product design for competing and selling in the competitive marketplace.

Summed up nicely:

Whether the relevant article of manufacture is an iconic soda bottle or an automobile, history teaches that visual design is the way to package, market and sell technological innovation, manufacturing knowhow, product reliability and performance expectations. Appearance becomes identified with the un- derlying functional features and with a particular level of product quality and safety.

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July 28, 2016 - No Comments!

7 Rules Driving the Psychology Behind Great Product Design

Imagine you are running. Maybe it’s your morning jog, or maybe you’re preparing for a marathon.


You can feel the ground beneath your shoes with every step. You can feel the air as you breathe. You might be in pain, but you don’t notice it. You are no longer motivated by arriving at some destination or goal — the end of the trail, or completing 5 miles — rather, the activity itself has become its own motivation. The worries and frustrations of every day life seem to slip away. You don’t notice how much time passes. You’re incredibly happy or peaceful during this experience, but you don’t even notice that. It’s just you, the path, and finding your limits. You’re “in the zone”.

We’ve all experienced being “in the zone,” and maybe it wasn’t while you were running, maybe it was a work on something you really enjoy. You were 10x happier, and 10x more productive than normal. You didn’t even notice that hours passed.

The Psychology of Flow

While researching happiness and productivity, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi stumbled on this phenomon of being “in the zone” which he calls being in a state of flow.

He figured out that to enter a state of flow, you had to be doing something that you’re good at, but that was a little bit of a stretch; that offered a little challenge. By having the challenge match your skill — pushing you a little further each time — you could enter a state of flow, or optimal experience. It is here that people are most happy, and most productive.


In this state, you lose track of time, and you lose track of external goals. You are doing the task for the sheer pleasure of doing it. It is an autotelic experience. It is intrinsically motivating. The task itself is the motivation; not the result of it. In this state, you can do 10x more. You are more productive and happy. This is optimal experience.


You get “in the zone”.

That’s what they’re referring to in The Social Network when Justin Timberlake (playing Sean Parker) almost interrupts a developer and is stopped, because they’re “wired in”.

You may be wondering: what does this have to do with product design?

It has everything to do with product design. And not for you the designer, but for your users.

The Importance of Getting Software Design Right

First, why should we care? Why should we go so deep into figuring out how to design software that promotes optimal experience for our users? They’re just “apps”, aren’t they?

Software is the means through which we achieve often monumental accomplishments. Whether we’re writing a book, building a company, or anything else, our greatness is achieved with various software applications often as the medium.


It may just be text on a screen, but often what it means to you is much more significant. It’s your conversations with those you love, those you work with, those you admire, and those you mentor. Sometimes, it’s three little dots that tell you your loved one is safe. It’s often the medium through which you learn to do what you do better. It’s often the medium through which you create your life’s work, and through which you publicize it to the world. It contains the content of our lives.

Through software, we create and interact with the content of our lives. The better the software, the more enriched experience we can have with this content. This is actually what attracted me to software design in the first place.

Ergonomics of Software

As software designers and developers, we have to remember that we’re designing things for humans to use.


Just like a car is built around a human — with a comfortable seat, and controls that were designed around the human body, our software should be equally ergonomic.

Like a pen with a soft grip, or an ergonomic desk chair with adjustable lumbar support, our software should be built around the human.

Further, the tools we use should not interrupt our work. If pens were like most software, they’d run out of ink or overflow on a daily basis. Your ergonomic chair would randomly change your lumbar support setting. You’d be convinced that the makers of the awful pen and the awful chair went to more effort just to make these things frustrating to use. One day, rotating the lumbar knob clockwise would do one thing, then the next day, the knob would just be gone, and the manufacturer would have a blog post boasting an “innovative new interface” that “assumes the best setting for you”. Better, you’d have to dismiss the announcement before you could even sit down.

Our goal has been to make software like the pen: unobtrusive, understandable, predictable. It capitalizes on what you already know about using writing instruments, but can improve the experience in different ways for different people.


One of the most important ways we have to design around the human is by designing around the human’s mind. This takes into account a healthy dose of psychology, which is what makes the principles and conditions of the psychology of flow so important for product design. Our software should enable us to enter a state of flow when interacting with the content of our lives.

Software plays a key role in the psychology of flow, because it represents the interface through which we interact with so much of today’s work. So we have to understand the conditions needed to enter a state of flow — or optimal experience — in order to design products that allow our users to have an optimal experience.

Using Flow to Direct UI Design

Our software interface should promote the conditions needed to enter a state of flow for our users so that they can most freely interact with the contents of their lives, through our software, without being inhibited by its interface. Therefor, we use the conditions needed to enter a state of flow to direct our product design.

Remember that flow requires a challenge, so it’s important to note that it shouldn’t be challenging to use software — we all know what that’s like, and it definitely doesn’t lead to flow. What we’re working on should be challenging, not the tools themselves.

Software should allow us to engage in challenging work using our skills without interrupting us. It’s challenging to write a book, but it shouldn’t be challenging to use text editing software. The content of our lives is what provides the challenge. The software tools we use should get out of our way to allow us to take that challenge head-on. To do this, it has to maximize on our existing skills, just like the pen, so that it feels invisible; we forget it’s there. The user brings the challenge, the software should intuitively allow us to engage the challenge.

Note: this is different for games, where the game itself does have to provide the challenge.

The 7 Rules

You thought we’d never get here, did you? Oh, you just scrolled right down to here? Got it. Carry on, then. (But there is some pretty good stuff above, too — check it out after you read a few of the rules below and realize you’d like a little more background.)

By the way — if you’re enjoying this article, be sure to hop on my weekly newsletter!

1. Match the User’s Semantics

Reducing the semantic gap between the user and the interface decreases the cognitive burden placed on the user.

To help a user get into a state of flow — or optimal experience, we must decrease the cognitive burden placed on a user when using our software.

We did this with the original concept behind Mail Pilot: we wanted to bring the interface closer to the user’s own semantics, reducing the cognitive or semantic gap, and further away from how IMAP actually works.

Think of it like using a CRM instead of an excel spreadsheet. That CRM has a database on the back-end which would be most easily represented as a simple spreadsheet, but there’s a lot of glue code in between its database and its interface to make it more intuitive for your use case.


Imagine a spectrum with the person (and how they think) on the far left, and the database or protocol (how the computer thinks) on the far right. Most email clients sit far on the right, exposing the basic functionality from the underlying protocol.


With Mail Pilot, we wanted to move the interface much further to the left; more closely matching how people think about and want to use their email. This does mean there needs to be a lot of glue code in between the interface and how its underlying protocol actually works, but it also means that we dramatically reduce the semantic gap between the user’s psychology and how the interface looks and works.

So we strived to allow users to see and interact with their data the way they think about it. That’s why unread / read became incomplete / complete, and why we brought reminders to the inbox back in 2012.

By decreasing the cognitive burden placed on the user, we end up with a happier user, spending less time, using more powerful tools, more easily.

Consider This

Can your product more closely match how your user thinks about and wants to interact with the information in it? Hint: the answer is yes. The trick is to first empathetically understand your user’s psychology. How do they think about the information contained in your product? How do they naturally want to interact with it? If you get a lot of one-off feature requests for strange things that you don’t think fit in the intended workflow,
ask users why they are requesting those features. You’ll probably find a gap between how they want to interact with their information and how your product works.

2. Require as Few Interactions as Possible

Infer a lot, otherwise tasks become mundane

An easy way to lose flow is to be bored or apathetic. When a user has to do a lot of work to get a small result, the work at hand becomes mundane and redundant. They no longer face the challenge of their work, they’re stuck doing data entry.

Figure out as much as possible from as few interactions as possible.

For example, in Mail Pilot, we had a feature where you could set a reminder for an email to come back in the future. On an ordinary interface, this could take 5 taps: open the message, hit a button to set a reminder, select the month, select the day, hit okay. With our mobile app, we needed to require fewer interactions, otherwise people wouldn’t use it while trying to quickly triage their inbox.

We managed to get it down to one interaction. You would simply slide a message further to the right to set a reminder in an increasing number of days (releasing on the number you wanted). See here:


It became one of our user’s most loved and most used features.

Before, users would almost never set a reminder on the mobile — it was too cumbersome — so they would wait until they were on the desktop. What a pain! Once we shipped this “scrubbing” interface, setting a reminder was the second-most used organization on the mobile (after completing a message).

This is also the foundation of what makes Throttle so successful. The basic premise sounds cumbersome: every time you sign up for something new online, Throttle generates a unique, random email address for you to use. This way you can control who sends you email in an airtight way, find out who tries to sell or steal your address, and stop giving out your address online. But it sounds like an intensely cumbersome system to use, even if you do get the stuff out of your inbox that you want to receive but that doesn’t belong there.


Here’s the kicker though — the genius of it is how you interact with the system. The Throttle browser extension puts a button in all email form fields. To generate an address, all you do is click the button, which is already right in place where you need it — it’s even faster than what you used to do (type your real email address). To read messages you’ve received, Throttle sends a single daily digest email to your inbox at the time you deem most productive. It effectively puts this intense system of hundreds of email addresses all managed for you, right at your fingertips in just two touch points, where you’re already going to be anyway (the form online & your inbox). That’s what makes it work so well. Users don’t have to think about it, remember to check it it, or manage it.

Consider This
How could your app do more for the user with less input? How could the key interactions with your app be closer to where the user already is when they need it?

3. Design a Predictable, Self-documenting Interface

To enter a state of flow, you need to know what to do & how to do it

This is intuitive if you consider that procrastination, when not caused by a fear of failure, is usually caused by not knowing how to get started.

So, we need a predictable, self-documenting interface. How? Here are two examples from our email client:


First, the bar below each message featured all the buttons you could use to organize your message. But each button also had its keyboard shortcut on it. This was a minor UI tweak — it required no new functinoality — but it was a fan-favorite feature when we launched it in beta. It made the efficiency of keyboard shortcuts — previously reserved only for the most die-hard power users — accessible to everyone.

People that had never been keyboard shortcut people before were whizzing through their inboxes.


If you’ve ever been stuck on a reply-all chain, you’ll appreciate this. Nowhere in Mail Pilot did the words “Reply All” appear. Instead the buttons said “Reply to [Name]” and “Reply to Everyone” so you knew exactly what you were doing.

We cannot stay in a state of flow if we are dealing with interruptions. Interruptions can be things like unnecessary notifications, sluggishness, or bugs, but they can also happen when users are simply unable to do the one thing they’re trying to do. If they can’t find the one button, all they want to do is bold some text and get on with their work, but they can’t figure out how — that is a massive interruption.

Consider This
Where does your product’s interface need to be better self-documented and more predictable? How could you enable most users to leverage features you think of as being only for power users? Where are mistakes made in your app often, and how could the interface more clearly communicate to avoid these mistakes or confusions?

4. Provide Clear, Reachable Goals

In order to enter and stay in a state of flow, the user has to have an attainable goal, and always know their progress towards that goal.

If you don’t feel like there’s a chance you can reach a goal, you won’t engage in it.

We encounter this regularly in the inbox:


There’s not a chance you’re reaching this goal — reading 13,000 unread emails. So you simply won’t engage in it.

Instead, in Mail Pilot, we never showed a “total unread” number. Instead, we showed how many emails you received that day, and we grouped the inbox by day. This way, you had a clear and reachable goal: read the 7 messages you’ve received today. And maybe once you’re done with that, you might do the 10 you received yesterday.


Much more achievable.

Consider This
Are you giving your users an unclear or unattainable goal? How could you break it up? Do your users always know their progress toward their goals? How could their progress be better communicated?

5. Reduce Clutter

Users need freedom from distractions and interruptions

A necessary ingredient for staying in a state of flow is freedom from distractions. Interruptions break us out of flow. So in our interfaces, we strive to reduce any clutter around the content of our users’ lives so that our users can focus on the task at hand.


Here’s what we did in Mail Pilot. Notice on the left a regular inbox. A bunch of emails from companies, newsletters, notifications, and so on. But there is one email from a person — Aashish — continuing a conversation about Google OAuth. Mail Pilot figures out which emails were sent by computers, versus those sent by an actual human opening up a compose window and typing a message. It then collapses & deemphasizes the former (as seen on the right).

This brought a totally new level of focus to the inbox. It was a little-known feature that was off by default, but it was a game-changer for those that chose to use it.

This made our next product all the more compelling. Throttle keeps these kinds of messages from hitting your inbox at all. So instead of having to look through the highlighted emails, scrolling past those that were de-emphasized, you never received the latter at all. Not in your inbox, anyway — you could read them in your reading list online, or set up a single daily digest email with all of them in it, keeping things focused. Throttle brought this great feature to everyone — regardless of what email client they use.

It then gives you a reading list that generates full previews of all messages received — making those mass mailing emails rich with images far easier to scan when you’re looking to see if anything is of interest:


This effectively turned yesterday’s clutter into a far better experience, and more importantly, outside the inbox and away from the important conversations you have in it.

Consider This
How can you reduce the clutter in your application? What disrupts your user’s workflow? What does your user most care about? Can they easily scan for it?

6. Give Immediate Feedback

Waiting is the death of software

Ever clicked something and wondered if the app your were using notice or cared? Immediate feedback is necessary for entering and maintaining a state of flow.

Here’s a slick way we gave clear and immediate feedback in our app:

When you set a reminder, instead of a button that says “Okay” or “Set Reminder” to confirm, the text of the button changes depending on what you have selected to say “Remind Tomorrow” or “Remind in 1 week”.


You know exactly what you’re doing, you know that the app knows what you want, and you know what’s going to happen when you click the button.

Same with lists — if you typed a list that exists, the button says “Move to List”. But if you type something that isn’t a list yet, it says “Create New List & Move”.

Consider This
Does your app fail to give immediate feedback anywhere? Could it give feedback before any actions to improve clarity and confidence?

7. Design an Intentional and Empathetic Navigation Structure

You have to know where to go to flow.

Knowing where you’re going and how to get there is necessary to enter a state of flow or optimal experience.

This is why you enter autopilot when driving home, lost in your own thoughts (flow — because you know where to go), but when you’re driving somewhere new you have to turn the radio down as you look for your destination (distinctly not flow).

The navigation structure — especially on mobile — is the foundation of any app. If this isn’t right, nothing will be. It’s the very first thing we design when we design a new app.

Let me give you a deep dive to show you what I mean, with our email app.

It’s important to know that before designing anything, we had to learn a ton about how to bring our web app to the mobile. Just because we figured out how email should work better didn’t mean we knew how people could best interact with that concept on the mobile.

We learned that people triage on the mobile: they live almost entirely in the inbox, working to clear out the junk as it comes in. They do their heavy lifting on the desktop (organizing, writing long replies, etc.). They would only organize on the mobile with interactions that required 2 or fewer gestures.

On the off occasion they left the inbox to reference something, they always wanted to quickly get back to the inbox.

All of this is completely backwards to how the traditional mobile email client navigation system was designed — it was a quick remapping of how email worked on the desktop, brought to the mobile. A designer solely after aesthetic appeal would simply take this basic navigation system without giving it any research or thought, and make it look nicer.

As we embarked on bringing our popular email client to the mobile, we looked at this traditional navigation structure found in the stock iOS email app:


So you’ve got a list of accounts, leading to an inbox. But when you launch the app, you want to start in the inbox. Which means when you launch the app you already have a back button even though you haven’t gone forward yet. Things are starting to break down a little.

Now let’s say you’re in a message, maybe you’re going to reply, but you need to check something in a message in another folder. You hit 3 back buttons to get to your list of accounts, then 4 to drill down to a message inside a folder. Now all you want is to go back to the inbox, that’s another 5 taps.

12 total interactions on your round-trip. “Can’t this be smarter?” we thought. We know that the user lives in the inbox on mobile, and just wants to triage.

I sketched out a ton of options. How could we design an intuitive navigation system that quickly gets you back into the inbox from anywhere? And how could we design it around the fact that you start in the inbox, but need to go a hierarchy level up or down at different times?

1*Fs6Ohdfpg9PaYHqjKS5MzQ 1*kCy5CM9YdxiHj8u9b5c0Cw 1*LHSya0YDYXToHq4gtZ-tzw 1*vSNiOENShrJUFVADfzBJUA

After much deliberation, it was clear we needed to dust off the old z-axis. We needed to break this strictly linear notion from the traditional navigation structure so that (maybe counter-intuitively) we could make it simpler, faster to navigate, and more honest.

I landed on the idea of having a “backscreen” behind the inbox, and having opened folders slide up as windows above the inbox. Dismissing them just meant sliding them back off of the screen, taking you back to the inbox.


Here you can see it in action:


Now getting back to the inbox is a breeze. It does take a little onboarding, but there are little cues in the UI to get you up to speed even if you skip the onboarding. The use case people had on the mobile was now much easier — you could get back to the inbox in one gesture from anywhere. Plus, you didn’t launch the app and see a back button.

This also extends to individual components of apps too. Here’s a great example:

In Throttle, we discovered that people were opening their reading lists, opening the first message, and hitting “next” until they had viewed all of the messages that were new (stopping when they recognized one they had already read before). We assumed they were scrolling through their reading lists, but they really just wanted to slide through each new message, and be done.

So for the mobile we designed a “What’s New?” tab:


It played right into the use case our users had in their reading lists most often. It allowed them to swipe through each new message, and it only showed new messages. You reach the bottom of the stack when you’ve seen all of the new messages, so you wouldn’t have to remember the last message you saw on your last visit to the reading list. This made the interaction they wanted to have much more natural.

A way to think about a great navigation system is to see if it answers these three questions at all screens:

  • Where am I?
  • Where can I go from here?
  • What will I find when I get there?

Consider This
Did you intentionally design your navigation system? Do you understand how your user’s use case may be different on mobile versus desktop? Could your navigation system be less cumbersome — even if less conventional — given what you know about your users’ goals in your app?

Actionable Insights

  • How do you inhibit or incubate optimal experience for the people that use your product?
  • Do you help or burden the people who use your product to or from entering a flow state?

Sweating all of these details is one of the key pieces for your app’s success. Want to learn how to design products people will love? Hop on my newsletter — I send articles with actionable insights on product ideation and design, every Thursday morning. Just click here.

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July 13, 2016 - No Comments!

Little Big Details: Breaking Down One Piece of a Product Redesign

Yesterday, we launched UX3, the third version of Throttle’s web app interface. Here are the three versions so far:


To show the intentionality behind and impact of seemingly tiny product design decisions, I want to break just down the most important piece of the interface: the message box.

Throttle receives all of the emails you want to keep but that don’t belong in your inbox. It’s important that these messages are easily scannable, so you can see what you want to open and read, versus what you don’t care about.


Let’s look at the redesign closer up. You can see a number of strictly aesthetic changes here, but I’ll hit a few of the functionally intentional choices made.


Just like in the inbox, people scan their reading list to see which things are interesting enough to open. Long ago while redesigning the inbox, we discovered that people scan each message in this order:

  1. Sender. If they’re uninterested in that sender, they move on to the next message.
  2. Subject. If they’re uninterested by the subject, they move on.
  3. Message preview. If the first text-only line of the message isn’t interesting, they move on.
  4. Then they open the message.

For most, it goes in this order. At any step, users might move on if they decide that piece is uninteresting. What’s most important to note here is that we found people check the sender first, and often move on from there. That’s their primary and first piece of information to test whether they care about a message.

This is where most mess up. Designers solely after aesthetic appeal will design an inbox with mocked up messages that are all important — messages from senders their fictional user would intimately know. These kinds of messages are great for screenshots, but terrible for UI design. Why? Because then the #1 item — the sender’s name — isn’t as important. If every message was from someone important, you would read every subject. That’s why many uninformed inbox designs put a bigger emphasis on the subject, where the sender is in a smaller or lighter font. But most people’s inboxes have 3 emails from unimportant senders for every 1 from an important sender.


See how much more natural it is to scan when the interface understands your prioritization. If you’ve been a big fan of Josh Pigford’s newsletter so far, you don’t really care about the subject, you want to see that he sent a message, and you want to open it. If you haven’t been a fan, you want to see that he sent it, so you can quickly move on to something else.

The sender name is the first thing people scan for. Realizing this is important to help us design the most usable, scannable reading list. That’s why the sender name is larger and heavier than the subject. People scan the sender name, and only on the ones they’re interested in do they keep reading.

Now let’s talk about #2 and #3 — a message’s subject and preview. People use Throttle to sign up for their online accounts and newsletters. These services tend to send out rich HTML messages, packed with images. Way too often, the text-based previews of these kinds of messages are useless in the inbox, and the subject lines are often crafted solely to get a reader to open the message, not to represent the actual content of it.


The text-based preview is often useless for the kinds of messages you get in Throttle instead of your inbox (so we show a rendered thumbnail of the message instead).

Because of these facts, in the Throttle reading list, we’ve de-emphasized the subject. We ditched the text-only preview of the first line of the email all together. Instead, we generate a thumbnail screenshot of the rich HTML message, so you can immediately see what’s actually in the message. Since almost all of these messages are image-rich instead of plain text emails, these generated thumbnails are a much better representation of what to expect in the email for the kinds of messages you receive in Throttle instead of your regular inbox. This took some serious engineering work, but the impact has been huge for our users.

Honesty & Communication

Now let’s look at what the interface communicates. In the old design, you see a favicon, a sender name, and a subject. In it, to categorize the subscription, you would drag the favicon onto a category. Why? Because the favicon is associated with the subscription, where everything else was only associated with this one message or its sender. We wanted to help communicate that you were categorizing this entire authorization, including all of its past and future messages, like an RSS reader.

And yet — people were still confused. How do I categorize just this message? That isn’t a thing in Throttle. We realized quickly how dishonest it was to put the favicon of the subscription next to the sender of the one message. How does that make sense? It’s even weirder when Throttle should be most useful: when you get an email you aren’t expecting because a service sends spammy messages (looking at you, New York Times).

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 10.21.04 AM2

Besides being honest with where each piece of information is from, it performs better in the biggest use case Throttle excels at: when someone you signed up with sends you spam. Here, you can now clearly understand that you’re receiving this spammy message from when you authorized The New York Times to send you their email newsletter.

So, a major part of the redesign was to communicate exactly what’s going on. Everything in the box is about this one message you’ve received. Outside the box, below each message, is information on the entire authorization — its favicon, hostname, and category. This communicates the truth.

Containment & Spacing

It is fiercely important to design out not just one item, but the context it lives in: a grid of dozens of items. Why? Because it’s easy to design a single beautiful item that bombs once it’s around others. I did this in one of my original designs.

Here was the design for the individual element:


Looks great, no? Now let’s put some messages around it:


This is where it dies. Especially once the grid gets bigger, the text below one row runs too freely with the text above the next; its separation isn’t clear enough to pass the blur test. It puts an unnecessary cognitive burden on the user to understand the intended separation. Plus, speaking of honesty, it’s not visually obvious that the sender name (and potentially subject) are associated only with the message shown in the thumbnail, and that the information below it has a different, more general association with it.

A solution to poor containment is to play with spacing each item further apart, but this led to far fewer items displayed at once than we’d prefer.

So I designed a box that entirely contained anything to do with this one message, so no important text was floating free anymore. The authorization information sits outside of this box. Now it’s much more scannable, even where there are a dozen items on screen at once:


Product Design

All of this is to say: It’s important to have someone on your team that’s focused on getting product design right, iteratively. Every detail should be intentional. If you’re thinking about, launching, or maintaining your own digital products, I’d love to help you learn product design and ideation. Hop on my weekly product design newsletter here, and I’ll shoot you a message to start chatting. Just be sure to reply!

And if you haven’t checked out Throttle yet, now is a great time to do so.

Learn to make world-class products that sell themselves.

Get actionable insights on product design and product ideation each Thursday morning, so you can become a pro at creating products people will love.

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April 4, 2016 - No Comments!

Where Dropbox & Evernote Went Wrong

For IDG Connect, Dan Swinhoe interviewed me on Mindsense’s progress over the last few years. One of his questions was particularly interesting, so I’m reposting it here. Be sure to read the full interview if you wish.

Dan’s question: Dropbox and Evernote — both well-known productivity apps — are seen to be struggling and have been retiring certain products. Are there lessons Mindsense can take to avoid being seen as “a feature and not a product” as these have in the past?

These have been phenomenal examples to watch. All three of us — Evernote, Dropbox, and Mindsense — are in consumer-level productivity software. As is the case in technology, things are moving quickly. But this is exponentially real in consumer-level software. Why? Software is cheap and easy to build, and consumers (vs businesses) incur minimal switching costs, so they adopt new stuff really quickly.

What we’re seeing with Dropbox and Evernote is a huge call to action for Mindsense. What makes us most valuable today is not a product like Mail Pilot or Throttle. It’s a human-centered design-thinking mindset that focuses us on discovering unsolved problems and coming up with stellar, innovative solutions for these problems. With Mail Pilot, we saw people having a hard time getting their inbox clean. With Throttle, we saw people having a hard time keeping stuff out of their inboxes that didn’t belong there in the first place.

The call to action for us is this: don’t fall in love with the product, fall in love with the process. We need to keep innovating, keep solving problems, keep applying our process to continually turn out great new products that improve people’s lives by solving tough problems.

For a really dramatic example, look at 3M: They started as a mining company in 1902, but as that proved to be of little value, they looked at solving new problems. Today, they’re one of the world’s strongest companies, they have 55,000 different products, and most amazingly, more than a third of their revenue comes from products that were created in the last five years [source]. That’s innovation. That’s love of a process over a product.

At Evernote and Dropbox, you instead see folks trying to morph the wording they use to describe a solution to a problem that existed a decade ago to make it sound like it’s still timely and relevant.

But those great products were born out of a process, and I think that process needs to be dusted off and revisited. It’s clear they have the “secret sauce” in there somewhere, but they need to be willing to let go of everything that’s gotten them to where they are today — one single result of their process — and embrace new results of the process. New ideas and new solutions to new problems that plague their core customers in 2016.

At Mindsense, we need to do the same. That’s why, even though Mail Pilot got us to where we are today, we’re focusing so hard on Throttle. And when that problem is solved, we’ll focus hard on scaling up something else.

We live and die on innovation. Innovation can kill our companies, and innovation can propel our companies forward. But it’s up to us to figure out how to wield it.

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January 22, 2016 - 1 comment.

The Toilet Method for Product & UX Design

Here’s my secret trick to product ideation. It applies equally well if you have a technically superior system that needs a bit of “UI/UX magic”.

For any problem we want to solve, I ask:

  • What would the simplest solution look like, for the user?
  • What would the best solution look like, technically?

Then we marry the two: the user should experience the simplest solution in the interface and interactions, and under the hood, it should be implemented as the best solution, with the “glue” in between as necessary for the simplest solution’s interface to power the best solution’s engine.

Think of the toilet. The easiest solution for the user is a simple button to flush. The best solution, technically, would avoid the need for pumps and power, instead using a siphon. The glue is everything in between: when you push a lever, it pulls a chain that lifts a stopper filled with air, so that it then floats on top of the water until the tank drains, causing the bowl to fill, triggering the siphon like a Pythagorean cup, flushing the toilet without pumps or power. All from the push of a lever. The toilet is actually a genius piece of work.

This is how we think of everything we’ve made at Mindsense: Mail Pilot, Throttle, and a few forthcoming projects. Here’s an example.

With Throttle, we were trying to figure out how to identify newsletters or mass-mailings in your inbox. We do this in Mail Pilot, but it has always bothered me that it’s not air-tight. Even the best algorithm can’t be. So we brainstormed, and went down two threads.

The simplest solution.
First, I said it would be ideal, for me as the user, to just click a button next to all newsletter signup fields that could pop up part of an app that would allow me to tell it that what I’m signing up for is a newsletter. Sort of like an authorize button you might use on websites to sign in with Twitter or authorize a 3rd party website to have access to your Facebook or GitHub data. Just a dead-simple, drop-in authorize button. Technically, however, we knew that wasn’t possible. That’s just not how email works. Once you give someone your email address, anyone can send to it, not just that domain. So it still wasn’t air-tight. Not a win.

The best solution. 
And then it hit us — the best technical solution would be if you gave every sender a different email address. This way, you could segment out their emails from your inbox and collapse them into a daily digest, you could shut down any specific sender’s access to your inbox as needed by turning off their unique email address, and you could see if someone stole or sold your email address. In terms of UX, however, generating a new email every time they want to sign up for something isn’t feasible.

The former is the simplest solution, the latter is the best solution. Neither are winning solutions, because the former isn’t technically possible and the latter would be unusable for people.


The Magic.
How do you marry the two? It hit us pretty quickly. All we had to do was put an authorize button in all email fields that would generate a random email address and fill it into the email field. This is the glue. You get the UX of the simplest solution — just click an authorize button in the form. And you get the best solution under the hood — every sender has a different email address, so you get all of those benefits.

Would we have to contact all publishers? Would we have to get MailChimp on board, etc.? Nope: we could just build a browser extension to detect those fields and add a button to them.

The marriage of the two is a winning solution, and we knew it when we were sitting on it. We just didn’t know how much. When we talked about it with others we quickly found out just how much this solution would mean to people. So we zeroed in on the idea, and worked it from idea to launch in a matter of months. It’s actually such a winning solution that since originally writing this article, it has become one of the top launches on Product Hunt of all time.

Here’s why this process works: it ensures that you end up with a technically superior system, as measured by whatever metrics matter most for that product. It’s cross-compatible, or it’s air-tight, or it’s not a resource hog, etc. You end up with a technically superior system given what is technically important.

Second, it ensures you also end up with the easiest solution for the user to get on board with; one that is not bogged down by major technical complications, and that’s not dragged away from being ideal by either a compromised solution or a solution that ignores the user entirely.

This method isn’t easy, because you have to have the creativity to come up with “the magic” or the “glue code” that binds together the interface of the simplest solution with the technical underpinnings of the best solution. With Mail Pilot, that involved figuring out how to get our advanced functionality to work on a standard, old IMAP server. With Throttle, that involved the browser extension, generating lots of unique email addresses, and building our own email server.

If you use this method to come up with anything, I would absolutely love to hear about it. If for nothing else, I’d love to cite it as an example, or at least just find out how it’s doing for you.

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January 1, 2016 - No Comments!

Behind the Navigation Structure in Mail Pilot 2

One of the first major differences you’ll notice in Mail Pilot 2 is the navigation structure. The navigation structure is one of the first things we designed. On a mobile application, we feel that the navigation structure is the foundation of any app, and if it’s not right, nothing else will be. When we’re using software, it is important that we know where we are, where to go, and how to get there.

In a navigation structure for a typical app, you get something like a decision tree.


The inbox is what we want to see when we launch the app, but that means that when we launch the app, there is already a back button, even though we haven’t gone forward at all yet.


More problems appear when you navigate to any other folder. It requires more levels of hierarchy than the mobile can handle, more than are represented here, so we end up tapping around way too much just to get back to the inbox.

Navigation is cumbersome, and communication from the interface breaks down. On the mobile, we live in the inbox. We primarily triage. So when I launch the app, I want to start in the inbox. But we need a back button to the list of accounts; we’re launching into the middle of a navigation stack. So when we first open it, we already have a back button, even though we haven’t gone forward at all.

Then, once you navigate to another folder, you usually just want to go back to the inbox. But in this navigation structure, that’s not easy. It requires far too many interactions just to go back to the inbox.

In Mail Pilot, we create a z-axis for the navigation structure. Instead of having to navigate something akin to a decision tree, you can simply slide the inbox to the bottom of the screen to access anything else. And when you slide anything else to close it, you’re right back at the inbox.


In Mail Pilot 2, the navigation structure uses the z-axis to allow you to simply slide the inbox down to open anything else, and to slide anything else off the screen revealing the inbox.

A typical mail app could take 9 taps to get from the inbox to an archived message and back. (Inbox > Back to accounts list > Open an account > Open a folder > Open a thread > Open a specific message > Back to thread > Back to folder > Back to accounts list > Open unified inbox)

In Mail Pilot, it takes 4. Or rather, it takes 2 taps and two swipes. (Slide to backscreen > Select category > Open message > Slide inbox back up).

This is the perfect design for the mobile because we spend most of our email time on the mobile in triage: we’re in our inbox most of the time, but when we’re not, we usually just want to go back to it. So in Mail Pilot, it takes one swipe to get to everything that’s not in the inbox, and one swipe to get back to the inbox, no matter where you are.

In the message lists, there is a friendly down arrow to remind you that to close the folder, you can slide it down, but you can actually use this gesture no matter where you are — another folder, a message, the compose window, etc. In fact, in compose, you use this gesture to instantly save a draft of the message you’re typing and close the window, returning to the inbox.

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November 18, 2015 - No Comments!

How To Innovate: The Dummy’s Guide

Pitch after pitch, it’s clear a lot of people get this wrong from the start. We take a hard stance on our process for coming up with new products, ideas, features, or services — essentially, how we innovate. The human element of innovation is too often lost.

First and foremost, we talk to people about their problems.
I enjoy talking to people about their problems. Very often, I like to ask these three questions:

  1. What is your biggest problem? Why?
  2. What is your biggest time drain? Why?
  3. What is unnecessarily expensive? Why?

We don’t go in swinging with ideas, solutions, and a pitch; we go in swinging with questions. We seek to understand people deeply, understand their problems and their motivations. We ask “why?” a lot.

The myth of the lonely visionary
There’s this idea that the lone genius in a sterile room will, by just sitting there and thinking for long enough, happen upon the brilliant idea of a lifetime. And that’s the process that most pitches I hear went through. They are entirely disconnected from real problems.

This lonely visionary concept is a myth. You have to understand people and their problems to be able to create a valuable solution for them.

Henry Ford’s ill-cited quote
A famous Henry Ford quote:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

I love this quote. But many think it proves the lonely visionary — Henry didn’t talk to people, so why should I?

Here, however, Henry should have asked a simple question: “why?” For example:


Here’s the difference: Henry already knew the problem. His quote is not a license to take people out of the equation. It’s proof that you need to know the problem, not the request.

Find the fundamental, underlying problem
Understanding the fundamental, underlying problem is the key to building the right thing. How? Use the 5 Whys.

There’s an urban legend, probably untrue, that goes like this:

A proposal was submitted to move the city airport to a new location. It would cost $500 million. While reviewing the proposal, someone asked,
“Why does the airport need to be moved?”

“Because its current location has a huge bird population that is becoming a serious risk to the increasing traffic of airplanes taking off.”

“Why are there so many birds?”

Unsure of the answer, the team looked into it. After some time, they discovered the answer. “Because there is a large population of spiders in the area that the birds eat.”


After looking into it again, “because there is a large population of large insects at dusk that the spiders eat.”

“Because the bright lights on the local monuments attract them at dusk.”

“Why are the lights so bright?”

“So people can see the monuments. Though they don’t need to be so bright.”

Knowing this, the team first tried dimming the lights to 50% brightness, and ultimately the problem went away. Instead of spending $500 million, they actually ended up saving a few bucks each year.

Using the 5 whys helps you to get down to the fundamental, underlying problem. Solve that problem.

Good product design starts with empathy.

Then, start to solve the problem.
Once you have a problem that resonates, then attempt to solve it. This is the step that takes creativity, imagination, research, thinking alone, thinking out loud, and brainstorming.

Propose solutions to people, and find one that resonates.

Iterate and refine.
As you propose solutions, write down all of the questions people ask. Make those pieces clearer for the next person you share the solution with. Their qualitative remarks can be invaluable.

With their feedback, you can iterate not just the concept, but also the language that surrounds it. For example, when I was first telling people about the idea that would eventually become Mail Pilot, I suggested a feature I called “review by date” where an email that you don’t need to deal with until friday could be marked for review on Friday, leaving the inbox until then, and popping back up at the time it was needed. People loved the idea, but it took a little bit of time for people to get it. One person said, “Oh, like a reminder!” To which I thought, “duh, yes, that’s a way better name.” For everyone else, I called it a reminder and it clicked instantly.

Share, listen, iterate, repeat.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: iteration is key. Execution trumps ideas. Iterating with feedback is how to nail the execution.

Connect your ideas with reality.
With both Mail Pilot and Throttle, we were coming up with ideas that aren’t supported by today’s protocols. The last step is to figure out how to get reminders to work in today’s IMAP protocol or how to detect someone sold your email address with today’s SMTP protocol.

Without connecting our ideas to the reality of today’s context, today’s technology, we’d ship software entirely useless for people’s current setups, and our software could die before ever being adopted. Even Google couldn’t pull that off, sadly.

This quote is the cornerstone of our existence:

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

Consider what would kill your product.
Every month, we like to ask ourselves, “What would kill Mail Pilot?” Or better yet, “What would kill email?”

We’ve had a few answers, and those answers are slowly becoming products and features. While yes, that means some of our products will cannibalize our existing top-sellers, if we don’t, someone else will.

It’s dead simple. There are three simple steps to take when trying to ideate a product to bring to market.

  1. Find a problem that resonates with people
  2. Find a solution to that problem that resonates with people
  3. Connect your ideas to reality

If you leave this post with one thought, let it be this: don’t forget the human element of innovation.

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