3 Ways To Design Product For Humans

Earlier this year, an Amazon recruiter found me through LinkedIn and reached out about a Product Management opening on Amazon’s Alexa team. At the time I didn’t actually own an Alexa enabled product, but as a technologist ever observing ‘the normals’ in their native habitat, I’d duly noted that Alexa had found herself a prime real estate spot in kitchen of my family home back in Virginia.

What had caught my attention was how everyone in the family had taken to their new friend Alexa. My father would ask Alexa to play some classical in the morning while making breakfast and my niece would get a kick out of asking Alexa for a joke here and there.  Having spent a large amount of time thinking about technology, product and design over the years, I’m decently aware of how challenging it is to get this right in the consumer world. That is to design a product that is capable of delivering a valuable experience that can be equally consumed by people of any age while simultaneously masking the sophisticated engineering required to provide said value. Get this right, like my former employer Google has perfected, and you have a runaway success like Google Search.

If your product can increase the value that it provides folks over time, you’ve not only hit a homerun, you’re in the record books! For consumer product nerds like myself, achieving this magical mix of product, engineering & design, while delivering increasing value to the consumer in the process, is basically the holy grail. Amazon has been crushing it in the consumer space with Alexa and I was excited for the opportunity to talk to the talented folks working on it.

A few weeks later, the phone rang for my first interview and we got the conversation started. After a few softball questions, the interviewer dug right in with the first of many decently vague questions. It went something like … ‘How do you design a product?

What? I thought. At that moment I didn’t quite know exactly where this question was leading. Thoughts rushed to my head like ‘What product?’ and ‘What do you mean exactly by how do you design a product?’. While I’ve built a lot of products from scratch over the years, it had always seemed second nature to me. I’m not sure that I’d ever taken the time to articulate an answer for this particular question. Come on now I thought, obviously there is no one way to design a product, however I knew that a reply like that would end this call early.

As I quickly constructed a reply in my head, I continued to privately think how weird and seemingly incomplete the question was. It wasn’t till later, while reflecting on the experience, I realized this was just part of how Amazon runs their interview process.  They want their leaders, rightly so, to ask questions.

My ego didn’t want me to sound stupid, so I stepped right up to bat and took a swing. As I get back to blogging, I thought I’d share a few of the points I touched on and how I personally approach the process of product design.

1. Study And Mirror Human Behavior

As a technologist, I’ve long studied human behavior and how we relate to our technology. These days I tend to take particular note of this concept when creating new products. With my most recent entrepreneurial endeavor, Hang Local, I’ve often studied ways in which we naturally behave as humans when stripped of all the advancements of modern technology. Next I consider ways in which we may potentially project and mirror these patterns into and onto the technology we interact with.

For example, Hang Local is about making it easy to locate and invite your friends to hangout when you’re free. Before you notify any friend that you want to hang out, you’re presented with a Yes/No choice of whether you actually want to notify that particular friend. My choice to intentionally design the product this way is related to my belief of just how moody we all really can be. With the constant dynamics of the world at play, to me, who you want to invite at any given moment for any given activity is actually changing all the time. While technology can do its best guess to present logical options for friends you could invite, the app leaves it up to the person in charge to decide to send the notification depending on how they feel at that moment.

2. Feedback, Feedback, Feedback

While visiting my aunt last summer in Macon, GA, she asked me how I knew I was right with the app that I’d been investing all my time and energy building. This was a normal question as I didn’t have a wildly visible successful product.

I told her it was easy. I just went out on in to the world and sure enough, whether it be at a coffee shop or a bar, I’d quickly meet someone that would ask me what I did for a living. We love to ask each other this question. When I tell them I’m an entrepreneur building an app that help us hang out with each other more, they often are curious to learn more which usually leads to a demo and/or a conversation. I watch their response while mentally and sometimes visibly taking notes and asking questions. I take the learnings of this continuous feedback loop and work it into the design as these conversation often influences changes I make to the product I’m building.

I thought Brian Chesky, the founder of AirBnB, summed this up really well during Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale podcast interview.

“It’s really hard to get 10 people to love anything, but it’s not really hard if you spend a lot of time with them.”  - Brian Chesky

3. Live With It

Unless you know with 100% certainty the exact product you want and know that product will not change, one of the many reasons outsourcing does not work, is that what we think we want is not always what we want in reality. And again, because the world is always changing, also changing is how we think about the technology we live and interact with on a daily basis. That means ultimately your product is always changing too.

For me, product is a living document. It naturally should change as we change. I personally have to live with a product and see if what I thought I wanted was really actually what I wanted. If I can’t live with a particular part of the product on a daily basis, then i’ve got to change it as it often does not allow me to sleep until I do. To me this is the ‘development’ in product development. That is a product is actually developed over time and actually lives on a development continuum. That is why it’s called product development.

Anyway, in the end, I do stand by my belief that there is no one answer to how we  develop a product. Everyone goes about this differently. These are just a few of the ways I approach it. Drop me a note on Twitter @romerotron if ya wanna discuss!