On New Year’s day in 2010, I was at a competitive wood chopping event. On a table at the event there was a collection of antique axes. Dozens of axes of all shapes and sizes. Big axes and small axes. Single bladed and double. More types of axes than I knew existed.

So many variations of the same product! Why does the world need all those different axes? That’s when I realised what I was looking at.

I was looking at the design process.

Since the beginning of human history, people have been creating technology for each other. In fact, people have been making axes for over a million years. And behind each axe on that table was a conversation.

“I need an all round bushcraft axe that I can fit in this backpack.”
“I’m going to be cutting and shaping pine.”
“I want something for splitting firewood.”

The axe was made, and the customer left happy. But some of those customers came back, and they weren’t happy any more. Because something had gone wrong with their axe.

Perhaps it wasn’t strong enough. Or it was the wrong size. Or maybe they’d asked for the wrong thing in the first place. So the axe maker listened, and he made a better version. Maybe this happened a few times. But eventually the customer got the right axe, or the axe maker went out of business.

What’s significant about this process was the direct connection between the maker and the user. The feedback loop was perfect and one to one. This made it almost impossible to create the wrong thing without hearing about it later. The axe maker couldn’t get away with bad design.

The first great challenge to design

In the early parts of the 20th century, the industrial revolution caused the “natural” process of design to break down. Suddenly it was possible to put vast numbers of objects into the world and never meet the people who used them.

My microwave is a great example. Of the 9 virtually identical buttons on the control panel, I use precisely two (start and stop). I have no idea what the others do, and after a power cut I ignore its pleas to set the clock.

Meanwhile, the person who designed my microwave is in a studio somewhere in Japan. They’ve never seen me use it. As far as they’re concerned the design is perfect, because the feedback loop between maker and user has broken.

Good industrial designers have adapted to this by using various techniques to bring the user back into the picture: iterative prototyping, human factors, biomechanics. But when the digital medium arrived later in the same century, somehow we forgot everything we’d learned.

The design of virtual things

The Internet did a lot of things to the world, and one of them was to make it easy to create bad design. Today, it’s trivial to design a digital product in isolation and launch it to thousands of people whose stories you’ll never hear.

Don’t get me wrong, this Internet thing is great. And if you’re someone who’s making a digital product you’ve got a lot of advantages. Prototyping is easier than ever before. Incredible analytics are available if you want them. Personalisation means no two users need to see the same thing.

But here’s what you need to remember: the Internet is also fundamentally anti-design. By its very nature, it separates makers from users. And if you’re a maker, you’ve got to fight that. Especially because it’s easier not to.

User experience design

There are lots of definitions of “user experience” and they all manage to make it sound complicated. So let’s start with something simpler.

The user experience is what happens when someone uses a product.

The only reason we talk about the “user experience” these days is because it’s so rare that we actually see it happening. Our users are easier to ignore than to talk to. This was the exact opposite for the axe maker. His medium demanded good design.

You want to talk about the “user experience” of your product? You’ve got to earn that right by watching people use it. Because that’s the only time the user experience flickers into existence.

Yes you should look at stats. Yes you should read research reports. Yes these are all great inputs. But they’re also indirect. You need to be there when it happens. You need to be in the room.

Once you fix that feedback loop, you can worry about all the stuff on top. Responsive vs adaptive, skeuomorphic vs flat, iOS vs Android. All of that stuff only matters once you’ve answered the real challenge of your medium.