Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Product Design: What Can You Take Away?

I've been spending a lot of time blogging on my company's blog, and one of my most recent posts was on learning to design as a software engineer, aka someone with no design background.  One of the lessons I've learned is that a critical part of good design isn't what you add, it's what you take away.  When designing a product, the creator invariably wants to make sure the product includes All The Things to maximize the product's utility.  While some of The Things do enhance your product, others take away from it by making the product overly complex, sucking up development resources that could be better utilized on a different feature, etc.

Instead of "What should I add?", the better question to ask is "What can I take away?".

Figuring out what to remove is incredibly difficult, especially because at first glance everything seems critical.  In the game of elimination, it is important that no feature is safe.  Sometimes the thing that should be removed is the thing that's least obvious.

Let's consider my favorite real world example:

Have you ever noticed how at major airports, airplanes use trucks to push them when they need to go in reverse?  Commercial airplanes don't reverse.  At this point, major airports are aware of this and are set up to deal with it, but at first glance the ability for an airplane to reverse is not an obvious feature to remove.  Airplanes are motor vehicles - of course they can drive in reverse.  Cars reverse, boats reverse, go carts reverse, why wouldn't airplanes?  Not only is an airplane's ability to reverse an expected behavior, an airplane has to reverse as part of it's daily operation to back away from the gate, etc.  This makes the choice to remove this feature even less obvious.

With all these considerations in mind, certainly the airline industry has the resources to dedicate the time, effort, and man-power to building a airplane that is easy to reverse or capable of reversing.  The important question is: should they? Is the ability of an airplane to go in reverse something that is absolutely critical to the product, or can it be removed?

The answer, in this case, is that it can be removed.  (The internet informs me that while some airplanes are physically capable of reversing, it is usually not practical for them to do so.)  This, however, doesn't address the issue that airplanes do actually need to move in reverse, which brings me to my next point:

There's more than one way to solve a problem.

If airplanes need to move in reverse, and making airplanes that reverse easily is out, then what are the other solutions?  One solution would be to design airports in a way that airplanes never need to reverse (though I imagine you could potentially run into a Zoolander-style situation if something didn't go as planned).  Another solution is to use a different motor vehicle to move them backwards, like a reverse tow truck.  Ultimately, this is the solution that won.

In product development and design, asking what can be removed and looking for multiple solutions to a problem are key to building the best product possible.  When you break down expectations and allow yourself to really think outside the box, the least obvious and often best solutions arise.

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