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Designing for ‘why?’

To create effective user experiences we need to start with understanding the problem, before committing to a solution.

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

This famous quote from economist Theodore Levitt perfectly sums up a crucial concept. He’s addressing the distinction between a user’s need, and solution provided.

It may seem obvious, but the close link between needs and solutions means they often get muddled in our discourse.

Maintaining a distinction between ‘why’ and ‘what’ is really important for the work that we do. By keeping user needs separate from the end solution, we avoid losing sight of why people use our products in the first place.

After all, nobody ever fired up a website or downloaded an app without first having a reason to do so.

Understand the problem first

Our users are driven by motivating factors. Either there’s a problem they’re trying to solve, or a benefit they want to achieve. It’s our job to create the best possible solution. One that helps them reach that goal.

If we don’t understand the goal, how can we possibly design the best solution?

Levitt’s example is brilliant, because it perfectly highlights the gulf between the user’s desired outcome, and the solution on offer. A person needs a quarter-inch hole. Buying a drill is one way of getting there — but we should never confuse this with the user’s actual need.

Photo of a Drill
People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!

People tend to choose the most convenient, cost-effective and intuitive solution to their problem. Buying a drill may seem like an obvious way to create a hole, sure.  But what about other tools, like a laser cutter? In certain circumstances, an alternative might be more effective. 

Let’s think a little harder, though. When it comes to self-assembly furniture, why not supply parts that already have pre-drilled holes? That would eliminate the need for a tool entirely. This worked for Ikea. People herald the Swedish furniture company as game-changing innovators. They got there by finding clever new ways to solve age-old problems.

If we choose to dive straight into designing features, before considering what motivates our users and why, we limit our ability to produce the best solution.

Taking a step back to understand user needs helps us to explore new ways of doing things. We can come up with alternative ideas for features and interactions. Ones that may be more useful. All of this translates to better, more competitive products.

Don’t get stuck in a feature rut

It’s a common phenomenon that websites and apps seem less usable over time. 

Often, it’s a symptom of teams adding extra content and features over the course of a product’s lifespan. Interfaces begin to burst at the seams with information and interactivity. Complexity gets layered on top of assumptions that may not have been right in the first place. Even if user needs were considered when designing the original version, consumer expectations change quickly.

The urge to increase and expand overtakes that of stepping back, and thinking rationally about why things are the way they are. 

When something isn’t working, the temptation is to dive straight into adding new features. Or expanding existing ones. Instead of blindly charging down an existing path, it’s crucial to take a step back and think about the why.

Take a step back, and ask… ‘Why?’

To design better products, we sometimes need to remove ourselves from the existing way of doing things. To start our thought process with the user, understanding their pain-points and the opportunities these present.

It’s a bold thing to admit that when an existing solution isn’t right. But it’s this kind of humility that lets us create better user experiences in the long run.

Take a step back from features. Forget functionality and design solutions for a minute.  Instead, talk with your users, and your subject matter experts. Properly understand the needs that people have. Don’t get tangled up in what already exists, or how things have always been done. 

Great design starts with understanding

When starting work on a new project, set aside time for research and experimentation – before getting tied into a single solution. We usually run a discovery phase at the start of any major project. It’s a series of workshops and research activities, with the aim of getting to the bottom of who our users are, and what motivates them. 

This step is crucial to a user centred design process. Once we’ve understood the user’s needs, we can begin prototyping and testing different solution concepts. This exploration helps us find out sooner which solutions work, and which don’t. 

By first understanding why, we can design the most suitable what.

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