Blog: Design Musings and Other Nonsense
We discuss design, business, web products and other miscellany.
The Four Big Questions
When I am working (usually with clients) on a design project of any kind, time and time again, I find that the same four basic questions drive the majority of the work. These are handy because they not only force a framework around a project, but they also help focus the project on its most powerful elements.
Design, to me anyway, is about solving problems. It does not really matter what you are designing, whether it is a website, and application, a product, or an entire company. At the end of the day, we design things because we want to build, and we want to build because we want to solve problems.
However, as anyone knows, building without a plan is a pretty sure route to calamity. But, just having a plan is not good enough. Sure, projects with even a poorly thought-out plan are probably apt to be more successful than projects without any plan, but the difference in performance with projects where the planning is done well can be astounding. The way I like to think about it is often the quality of your planning is a multiplier on your project. That is, plan poorly, and your project may very well be .5X to 2X as successful as it would have been (.5X meaning the project is only half as successful). Having a great plan, though, can magnify projects immensely. To put it another way, a poor plan can be a .5X magnifier for a project, and a great plan could be a 10X multiplier for the project. And since we are talking about, potentially, orders of magnitude difference in results, it behooves one to make their planning count.
Now, I am sure it goes without saying, that these four questions are not the only ones I ask, and they do not necessarily fit with every single project. However, I have found them to be useful enough to me to be my go-to questions about any design project. That is, I know if I have good, compelling answers to each of these questions, I know the project at least has potential. Plus, personally, I have found these four questions to be HUGELY helpful when it comes to content strategy. I know that if I can answer all of these questions, quickly, with the content on a site (ideally, at least briefly on the home page) we will be crafting a content experience that not only tells a complete story, but also makes sense. So, without any further preamble, here are my four big questions about any design project:
Question #1: What Is It?
It may sound simple, but this question can actually be sort of tough. Especially for people making things, being able to clearly and concisely define your creation can be challenging. That is, let’s say you have built an iPhone app and you want to create a site around it. That’s great, now, what is it? What does your app do? And, the faster, more compelling you can make the explanation the better. It is funny, I cannot believe how often I see this rule being violated, especially in software. So many companies are so obsessed with the beauty of their UI, or the depth of their features, that they completely gloss over what the thing actually does. For anyone looking at your product/service, this will be the first question they need answered. And, with the web, we cannot assume any sort of familiarity. We never know in what context someone will land on our website. Maybe they have been a customer for 10 years, maybe they landed there by mistake. Maybe they got emailed a link, or maybe they clicked on one of your ads. Who knows? The problem is, I cannot be interested in your product/service/company if I do not know what it does. And, as soon as I know what it does, that gives context to the rest of the experience. In building terms, it establishes a corner, something to build the rest of the structure of the experience off of that gives it a reference point, an anchor to build off of.
Question #2: Who’s It For?
In order to be clear, we have to be focused. Sure, we would love our product/service/company to be used by everyone, but that is not only unrealistic, it is maddeningly confusing. Plus, by not having a focus, you take the edge of of your message. That is, things that are for everyone are generic, commodities. They are not interesting. In order to be compelling you must establish context. I need to know whom it is for, as well as whom it isn’t for. To put it another way, if I am a visitor to your site, I need to know, pretty quickly, if this is for me or not. If it is, great, I may read more. If not, no hard feelings, I will just clickity-click over there instead. But the thing is, I need to know, and know quickly. And, some of this I will infer, from your color scheme, to your language, to the types of people in your stock photos, etc. You do me a favor, though, if you just tell me. Give me confirmation I am in the right place.
Or, if I am writing your content, or designing your site, I need to know whose appetites I am catering towards. I need to know, as clearly as possible, who is going to have the experience I am trying to craft. I need to know, or at least make an educated guess, what is important to them, what they find off-putting, and what they are probably generally disinterested in. The bottom line is I really cannot understand a project if I do not know whom it is for, and I cannot build anything good if I don’t understand it.
Question #3: Why Would Someone Care?
This one can be a hard one to face. That is, maybe you have great answers to the first two questions, but this one is a little shaky. The problem is, you ignore this question at your own peril. Of course you know why your product/service/company is interesting to you, but why would it be interesting to someone else (especially the group you identified in question number two)? Interest is the currency you trade people their attention for. And, it is very hard to manufacture interest, especially for small/start-up companies. In fact, even big companies are having a harder time manufacturing hype. People have gotten wise. There is just too much information out there to deceive people for any amount of time.
This question is a really big one to make sure gets answered before you start building anything. That is, if you don’t have a solid, authentic answer to this question, you are probably in for a rough ride. One of the most amazing things the Internet has done has been the democratization of exposure. Truly anyone can put out almost anything into the world. However, attention is a finite resource, and if you are putting something out there in the world you are competing for attention with an obscene amount of people, especially if you are new to the game. Having an authentically interesting story to tell will help ensure that what attention you do get you do not squander, and just maybe you can build from it too. We are all hyper-distracted, but we are also hyper-connected too. Make the investment of attention people make in you count and people will pass it on.
Question #4: Why You?
This is another one that can be tough to face, but it is critical. You set yourself up for success when you not only focus on building the best thing you can, but also building the best thing for you to build. That is, if you are designing a product in an industry you have no experience in, you are on shaky ground. Not that this is a death-sentence, but experience is the one resource you cannot replace if you don’t have it (and, it is often the difference between being successful or not). When designing something, it is critical to play to your strengths. This will not only yield better work, but it will also yield better engagement with what you build.
If I am Joe Customer, I want to know why I should listen to you over your competition. I want to know why this is not only the best of my options, but also why you are the best one to give it to me. That is telling a complete story. I want to know how the product means more to you than just the sum of its parts. I want to know what the idea of the product means to you. I want to know what skin you have in the game. Simply put, I want to know how, and why, you care. Often, this is why online shoppers look at the “About Us” page right before they buy. In their minds they have already “bought” the product”, now they need to buy you. And, businesses that do what they are uniquely qualified to do, those things that they are better at than anyone else at (and, usually they are better precisely because they have a gravitational attraction to their product/industry/etc.) are usually much more successful than the businesses that don’t.
To sum up, again, this list is definitely not meant to be a complete guide to designing, or evaluating, any product/service. These questions are, however, a handy tool, a yardstick which can be applied to practically any project to not only help you understand it, but also tell its story the right way.