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The oak table

Hannes D’Hulster

I want you to imagine a large massive oak table that has been passed on to you by your grandparents. It is robust and serves its purpose well: supporting food and enabling social contact.
It’s not only strong enough to survive several generations, staircases and wine accidents but because it is a centerpiece of life, it absorbs stories and becomes of greater value.

The oak table is a perfect metaphor for Durable Design.

Digital products are completely different from wooden tables in many ways. For starters, digital products shift all the time: because you can track how someone uses your product, you keep learning and you are able to keep improving the product.

A plant on the table

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The legs and the top of the digital product

There are some very interesting characteristics of the oak table that apply to good digital products:

It serves its goal: any product should be built as a solution to a perceived problem. By learning, you are able to improve on this solution or even change target audiences, but within any change, any release, you must keep solving the problem just as the table does. It should be strong enough to support your foot when you stand on it to change a lightbulb and sturdy enough to survive when somebody uses the top for making a very clear argument.

It is robust: a digital product should be well built, not only well designed. A robust product means that it is not only accessible and easy-to-use but also easy to adapt to the user context. A product is always hacked by a user to fit it in with all the other products and processes that were already in place. A digital product should allow that flexibility. Your table is used for eating, piling bags from the store, and a place to have important conversations.

It has a long term impact: a digital product is not a project — it has no end date. To make sure it stays relevant the organisation around the product is what Durable Design is all about. Create a company culture that focuses on understanding its users, their context and adapting the product to this knowledge. Just as the table survives generations, this culture must survive.

It keeps getting better: Like the table, a digital product should keep getting better while using it. This means that a designer should learn how a user adapts the product to its household context and make sure to improve accordingly. The edges become soft and everyone finds their place.

It is harder than you think

Building a durable product is harder than you might think. It is not only about craftsmanship or performing decent user research. Within any organisation, many forces pull you away from durability.

One of these forces is the moves competitors make. A better version of their product, a smart marketing move, a celebrity hire — all very good reasons to act and think about short term changes. It is like adding drawers to your table because closets have them. This pressure makes the team make tactical decisions instead of strategic changes, which is a bad idea in the long run.
Some people will leave your company for another job and new people (or consultants) will replace them, bringing in new knowledge and opinions. The ideas for that table could be lost, along with the experience of the first build. This shift may compromise existing vision and direction of the product, working against a durable solution.

Let’s be honest: If you check your mailbox and meeting agenda: there is always something more important going on. How can you avoid these pitfalls?

Maintaining a process for high quality products is hard, let alone changing your organization towards Durable Design. Don’t worry Smooth Sailing will support you in your journey.

A woodcrafter open his laptop

Photo by Ivan Samkov via Pexels

Five aspects of durable design

We’ll touch on them swiftly but no worries. We’ll dive into these subjects with more articles in the coming months.

  1. Get everyone involved: Not only your users but also your support crew, the sales people, the engineers and the C-level (they make the decisions). This does not mean that everyone should be a designer, but everyone should take up some responsibility. By sharing responsibility, you create ownership. If the product is owned by a lot of people, it can survive people leaving your organization.
  2. Document in hypotheses: Because users aka human beings are complex and their needs change over time. You are never sure if your digital products are the right solutions for the right problem definition. Maybe marble countertops are a good idea because people prepare food on a table (and not because it stains). By leaving uncertainty in your documentation you are reminded of the risk you take and what you should pay extra attention to.
  3. Think in patterns: creating reusable patterns, in your product, in your documentation, in your internal and external communication, makes things more simple for everyone involved. Reusing the same pattern to select a date of birth, for instance, is easier for a user to understand, an engineer to build and a help section (including support people) to explain.
  4. Have the right meetings: communication is key, you already know that. But you want some work done as well. You want to discuss the leg joints of the table with the carpenters before there was any wood removed. Having the right people, well prepared, talking to each other at the right moment in this process will get you that meet-create balance just right.
  5. Share your knowledge: having common ground on how and why your product works is essential in a durable organisation. Create feature passports to document what a feature entails but also why you build a feature. Sharing your plans and ideas with users and peers is also a good way of getting valuable feedback.

Durable Design is making your organizational culture about your users. Not only during the design process but in all decisions. Just as the oak table is about gathering the people around it.

If you need help with setting up the right design and product culture, or you have a complex problem that needs solving, Smooth Sailing will save your soul!

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