Aug 31, 2010

The Elusive Great User Experience

More than 45 years after Douglas Engelbart prototyped the mouse, designing a truly great User Experience remains incredibly difficult. Yet that experience means the difference between hundreds and millions of users.

Last week I spoke with a former Apple executive who commented on what it takes:

  • Simplicity
  • Attention to detail
  • Fun / Sexy / Cool

Simple. As Oxford alum, ultra-smart product designer, and algorithms expert Ash Rust pointed out to me, the Add Minute button on any modern microwave is as simple yet useful as it gets.

The goal of every design should be to be elegant simplicity. You know you’ve achieved that when the feature or product is reduced to an interface that’s completely intuitive: no instructions are needed. That may not be possible in all cases, of course, but that’s the goal.

Attention to detail. The case in point during the discussion was the use of double-stitching in the interface of an app designed to look like a leather notebook. Sure, the developer could have skipped this, but it makes the app feel the part – useful yet high-end.

Needless to say, I didn’t ask about the recent antenna issues. But the point still stands – attention to detail is about the elements of design that make an app seamless, frictionless to use, and give a user the feel of a great experience.

Fun / Sexy / Cool. There’s a reason Apple uses Star Walk as a showcase app. While Star Walk doesn’t help me claim that my iPad is a business-critical board room device, it’s a wonder of fun and coolness. From the background music to the planetarium-like rotating effects, I’m by no means the first to say that it’s one cool app.

But coolness isn’t just for consumers. Business productivity apps can be cool too. It’s not just about functionality, although that’s important. It’s about including at least one feature that makes an app ultra-cool. For example, a built-in social globe that shows where all the users are of a particular app. Is that particularly relevant to a business productivity app? It may or may not be – but it’s cool. That draws attention, which draws more users, which draws more attention…

With those three points in mind, here are a few changes I’d make to some popular consumer Internet services:

Pandora. One click to buy. Menu and search free. You know the song I mean. The one that’s playing right now! (Perhaps this can’t be done due to integration issues, but…)

Gmail. I don’t just want – I need a new paradigm for e-mail.

eBay. One click to sell. When I want to buy something, I enter it in the search box. Why is listing an item for sale still complicated?

Many of the items I sell are standard – in the sense that they have a UPC code, serial number, or other clear identifying info. Yet eBay often can’t find the item no matter how I try to identify it. If I type in Cannon 970, or at least Canon SD970, you can be pretty sure I want to sell a used Canon SD970. If I were selling a whole bunch of new items, I’d probably be using the pro tools… plus I don’t have a history of selling lots of one item.

Use your best guess, choose the most likely category, and, based on analyzing the selling history for that item, give me the suggested pricing, duration, and other parameters that are likely to… you guessed it! Get me the highest total price.

Opentable and Yelp. Join forces. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to see the reviews in Yelp and one-click book the place in Opentable. (As an aside, I love these network effect, category dominating businesses:  OPEN is valued at a $1.2B with < $100M in revenue.)

Update: Proving yet again the rule that the best things are often right in front of us: Thank you Sam for pointing out that Yelp has already built this in!

Ash was right when he pointed out the Add Minute button. It’s the epitome of a great user experience. I’d like to write more about those network effect businesses. But I have to go. The popcorn’s ready.


  • I love it when users ask for features that are already shipping, You can make reservations on Yelp through OpenTable with a pretty seamless experience.

  • [...] Tech, Startups, Capital, Ideas. » The Illusive Great User Experience [...]

  • Simplicity is definitely something to strive for. It’s not necessarily making something barebones, but making it so simple users don’t even think twice before doing it. There was a quote Ben Huh (CEO of Cheezburger Network) said that has stuck with me: “Human nature has a tendency to admire complexity but reward simplicity”.

  • [...] Tech, Startups, Capital, Ideas. » The Illusive Great User Experience – [...]

Leave a comment