Learning from users and creating kick ass products

I recently realized that I don’t really make websites anymore (captain obvious!). I’ve been immersed in product design and startups for the last year of my life, and have been designing web products that have more requirements than designing a pure content site.

There’s lots of banter about “website vs app”, but one of the main differences between the two is that many web products collect data from users to customize the service over time, while content sites can have thousands of anonymous users and the experience doesn’t change. Now does a website become an app if they add a “like” button? I don’t know, I’ll leave that for people to continue bantering about.

Data collection can be in the form of “likes” or “preferences”. One of my favorites is the sign up process of fashion e-commerce site Lyst. It’s quick and engaging – honestly didn’t want to stop clicking. They get loads of data from me but it improves the recommendations and now I open (and drool over) every email newsletter. They win (but so do I). During the design process, startups like Lyst need to ask themselves what are the main characteristics of users that we need to identify right away when they sign up? The service is built around the core feature of the “stylefeed” so they simply ask users which designers they prefer. It’s so simple but considering they’ve already raised over $20 million from high-profile investors, it’s a powerful concept to give people exactly what they want.

I wonder how Modernist designers would have reacted to these new technologies. What would the Bauhaus have done with these mounds of data? One of the pillars of Modernist theory was “Form follows function”. In the web world, this translates as learning from users to determine the features of a web product. Safe to say, Bauhaus designers would have used customer data to improve their products.

When we customize a human-centered web product it improves the experience for users because, as in the case with Lyst, relevant content is being delivered with no obstruction or distraction. This requires businesses to really think about their offerings and determine priority of content. One of the questions I ask my clients is, “Of the laundry list of features that you’d like to include, what would be the greatest value to the user and most helpful to achieve business goals”. In the life of a developing startup, this is a really hard thing to do!

With fashion B2B startup Sundar I worked on creating a flow through curations and realtime data, to begin to move away from the idea of separate pages for content. We also moved (far) away from the dashboard concept, which is not user friendly for all devices. With a feed, everything is still there on the page but content is prioritized to provide a simplified, integrated experience.

The Internet trends report from KPCB’s Mary Meeker has a great section on the evolution of apps. She documents first the unbundling of apps, then their disappearance altogether to morph into a service layer. Matthew Panzarino of Techcrunch describes these new invisible apps: “They aren’t for idle browsing, They’re purpose built and informed by contextual signals like hardware sensors, location, history of use and predictive computation.” Examples of service layer apps include Foursquare Swarm and Runkeeper Breeze.

We are seeing these early stages of these trends more and more in real life, through human-centered improvements to everyday technologies. Facebook recently began unbundling their service to provide a focused experience for the many elements of the site – messaging, news feed, etc. One of the results being Paper, which I am completely obsessed with – the clean and engaging design, interactions, and gestures will hopefully set a precedent for others.

Meeker’s report also mentions AirBNB, Uber and Spotify among others as companies that have re-imagined the user interface for their respective activities (finding a place to stay, hailing a cab, and finding music). When we talk about improving UI what exactly are we talking about? We’re talking about better user experience. It’s better design because it centers entirely around people’s needs, and that’s a good direction to be going in – the Bauhaus would be proud.


Published by Elizabeth Pizzuti

Design, art, and cats mostly

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