Notes on Erik K’s Designing Complex Products

(Erik posted this article on on 4/13/16, link here.)

Complexity in product design has two sources:

  • The complexity of managing people and opinions
  • The complexity of designing the product itself

It’s our duty as designers to make sure we educate our business partners on how to successfully design products

Erik suggests presenting your design process to stakeholders at a project’s kickoff and then following up at key points throughout the dev process

At the kickoff:

  • Walk everyone through every major stage and show sample deliverables so folks know what to expect
  • Talk about the importance of feedback, when you expect it and what types you expect
  • Explain why and how feedback is essential
  • Make it clear it’s the responsibility of both sides to produce a successful design
  • Take plenty of notes that capture the sentiment and voice of what’s being said–use these later to make and defend design decisions
  • (My addition) Take a few minutes at the end of the meeting to make sure everyone’s aligned on the meeting’s major takeaways—Jared Spool has a great technique I’ve summarized here

During discovery, focus on empathy as being a key outcome:

  • Gather stakeholders and create empathy maps for 2-3 personas already created during discovery
  • Often, stakeholders have not all gotten together and discussed customers before, so this is a great way for them to gain a common empathy while also establishing design as the authority for understanding customers’ needs

When redesigning complex products, establish frequency of use as a benchmark for feature prioritization

  • Do an 80/20 exercise—print out the major screens of your app and have stakeholders circle what they use 80% of the time and cross out everything else —personally this seems a little risky to me, stakeholders probably don’t use the app as customers do and this could cement their personal bias into product expectations
  • I would try using a persona’s perspective to complete this exercise

Establish the complexity of the ecosystem lives in

  • Onsite ethnographic exploration would be great here
  • At a minimum, use personas to think about the totality of users’ experience with your product—they’re also texting with their kid, watching the clock for an upcoming meeting, they’ve got Microsoft Office open at the same time etc
  • Your customer’s focus and attention are definitely going to be shared as described above—how can you explicitly design for that context?

Prioritize discoverability and learnability

  • The core interaction should be most prominent. Less important tasks can be discovered and learned—keep the value proposition clear by stripping away non-essential tasks from the product’s launch screen. (Amy Jo Kim is great on how gaming focuses on the core loop)

Keep it clean

  • Use progressive revelation to show just the information that’s needed just in time
  • Better to have less information presented on more screens/popups to keep the customer journey simple and obvious


  • Some products demand complicated dense information presentations, like financial dashboards
  • The more dense the information presented, the more important the UI is consistent, simple and well-labeled

Animate key interactions

  • Use these animation to focus user attention while also making the interaction more memorable
  • Use these interactions wisely to establish the voice of the product—focus on simplicity and consistency. Many products jam in too many types of animations which leads to a confusing experience
  • If users are strongly aware of the interactions, they are probably too overwhelming—animations should underline a task, not define it

Your job as a designer is to think of unorthodox, innovative solutions

  • Bringing them to the table, along with well-considered expected solutions, can open stakeholders’ eyes to new ideas and possibilities
  • Be sure to present any data possible to back up the innovative solutions’ efficacy

About Erik K, from his post: I design digital products that make people’s lives easier. Co-Founder/Creative Director at Truth Labs in Chicago.



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