How to build products that shine

Have you ever looked at clouds with a friend and seen patterns, shapes, and animals that they just can’t make out? The images appear so obviously to you but no matter how hard you try to show them, your friend sees an entirely different shape, or perhaps nothing at all. 

Building product features can be a similar exercise in frustration. As designers and builders, sometimes we see our own “cloud shapes” in the product. We’re so laser focussed on building features, polishing workflows, thinking about edge cases, and maximizing value that we forget to consider how users will experience what we’ve created.

Every individual user brings a different pair of eyes and frame of mind to the product. They may not see what we see or experience what we experience on the development side at all. To return to the cloud metaphor one more time: when we see an elephant shape in the sky, we will continue to see it over and over again, clear as day. It is very hard to unlearn that experience. And the same goes for building a product. When you dog food your feature and test it hundreds of times you will continue to find the user journey easy by following the prompts, subconsciously understanding the choices available, intuitively clicking on the right menu items and generally assuming that the user will also do the same. 

Then, when features do not have the desired success or user adoption, we wonder why. Sometimes, we  assume adoption can be solved with user training. After all, if the feature is good enough it should be easy to coach them into seeing “the elephant” or the use case that we see so clearly. And they might.. Or they might pretend to.

The thing is, it’s not easy to forget what you already know or unlearn something. It takes practice to remove yourself from the equation and look at the broader picture that is being presented on any product page. At ThoughtSpot, we pride ourselves on building enterprise-grade analytics tools that shine like consumer apps. That means we build features and functionalities that are intuitive for the average user to learn without much hand-holding. Here are a few of the principles we try to follow in order to get it right. 

Ask for feedback early

When building a new product or feature, it can be tempting to keep your work to yourself. On one hand you don’t want to spoil the big reveal, but on the other you may be denying yourself a golden opportunity to get early feedback and make important adjustments. Fresh perspectives are immeasurably valuable. Especially when they’re from your target user. If you see a user struggling or taking an undesired path, you can immediately course correct and save yourself the heartache of launching a confusing feature that’s hard to adopt.

Map the user journey end-to-end

Another key to building intuitive products is to define the beginning and end of every user journey. Both are important for creating a seamless product experience. Instead of thinking about your feature in a vacuum, take time to observe how your feature fits within the entire application or user flow. Your user shouldn’t feel lost or have to figure out the next step when a feature ends. It should be obvious. As the application owner, you have the power and the responsibility to make their journey feel effortless. Guideposts should be logical, intuitive, and most importantly clear to whoever is in the product, whether they’re just starting out or a certified power user. Intentional experiences are delightful experiences.

Speak to the user in their own language

Just like it’s important to understand the complete user journey, it’s also important to understand who your user is and how they think about the world. In analytics, asking a user to create a star schema may sound okay to a data engineer, but a business user whose day job is marketing or finance will probably get stuck. For your own application, make sure you’re speaking to users in language they’ll easily understand. Technical audiences might be fine with jargon, but non-technical ones might need you to provide a bit more direction or label features more plainly. Providing clear details and helpful hints in complex scenarios is an easy way to demonstrate user empathy and build trust.  And if you encounter a situation where you can either explain the obvious or let most users figure it out for themselves, erring on the side of explanation can be helpful. 

How do you build intuitive products?

Finding ways to make your product more intuitive and user-friendly is a huge area of opportunity for product developers and designers. There’s so much more to unpack on the subject but hopefully these principles are enough to get you started. Happy unlearning and cheers to sharing many more creative shapes in the sky!