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If the product doesn’t work, its “user experience” doesn’t matter

I recently edited an article for UX Magazine (When You Startup with UX) in which I interviewed four startups on what User Experience means to them.

Of all the things that people said, the quote that stood out to me the most was from Mike Singleton, a developer at Foursquare:

“…when you only have three users, but the service doesn’t work, you should fix the service first. A coffee shop needs to serve good coffee before optimizing table layout.”

I remember when he said it. I was sitting across the table from him at Think Coffee, which for all intents and purposes is Foursquare’s cafeteria.

There I was trying to capture nuggets from big tech players to prove that all of their success rests on their user experience, and finally it hit me — it doesn’t.

* * *

Of all the products in my apartment (and there must be more than 500 not including media), there is one that I consider to be the single best product I’ve ever purchased: the Magic Eraser. It’s not even the Mr. Clean brand, it’s just the generic Duane Reade version.

Why is it the best product I’ve ever bought? Because it just works.

As I was cleaning the scratches off my walls just moments ago, I was reminded of what Mike said. If it doesn’t work, no amount of user experience is going to fix it. So then logic would tell us that the developer is more important than the user experience designer. There, I said it. We are NOT the center of the universe.

The Magic Eraser has almost no aesthetic to it. It’s just a squishy white block of melamine foam. It doesn’t have ergonomic indentations for your fingers, or the optimal wiping direction somehow indicated, or pretty flowers printed on it. You just pour some water on it, squeeze off the excess, and wipe. And it works! Every time.

When forcing myself to think about its user experience, I can only come up with the following:

  • It doesn’t flake off as you wipe
  • It doesn’t leave a residue on your hands
  • It dries quickly
  • It’s reusable

…None of which would matter if it didn’t remove stains as it promises!

If I were designing a product from scratch and had full control over its development, this is what I’d choose to do: 1) make it do what it’s supposed to do; 2) make it fun to use; 3) make it easy to use; 4) make it look good.

That means you need an engineer before you need a user experience designer, and you need a user experience designer before you need a visual designer.

That’s just what I was thinking about as I was cleaning my walls. I feel much better now that I got the dirt off.

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  • http://www.thisisaaronslife.com Aaron Irizarry

    Ha! Magic Eraser ftw… those things are life savers… especially since I have two very creative daughters.

    Nice post Whitney, and a simple point that we should remind ourselves of every so often.

  • http://jasonputorti.com Jason Putorti

    I’m going to buy a Magic Eraser now. :)

  • http://www.Traininguru.com John A. Fallone

    “If it doesn’t work, no amount of user experience is going to fix it.”

    Whitney…the elegant simplicity of that statement was enough to facilitate the revelation that user experience design is not at the center of the product development Universe in terms of customer acceptance.

    I applaud you for sharing this insight which I trust will not have any negative impact on any designer’s self-esteem.

    All other things being equal, improving usability of a product still represents a competitive advantage.

    Since everyone seems to agree that even a generic Magic Eraser works extremely well, it still might not be a bad idea for someone to enhance user experience by designing a more fun, aesthetically pleasing version.

    Interesting post!

  • Zack Mazinger

    Yeah but a rag and a bottle of cleaning solution works just as well, if not better. The key to those brick wipes IS the Experience. No fishing for a rag, no squirt from a leaky bottle, no wondering what to do with the old rag and empty bottle.

    The entire product is built on improving the experience of cleaning your wall not on creating a product that works better than current methods. It’s all about increased facility, simplicity and design. Design First, Engineering second. That should be very clear.

  • http://www.chancebliss.com Chance Bliss

    This reminds me of the “The 10 Golden Principles of Successful Web Apps”, a speech give by Fred Wilson (tech investor).

    The first principle is performance. Simply put, “If your application is slow, people won’t use it.”

    Here the link to the video and transcript:
    http://thinkvitamin.com/business/fred-wilsons-10-golden-principles-of-successful-web-apps/

  • http://twelvedesign.ca Twelve Design

    I like the “engineer > UX designer > visual designer”
    approach to building software and websites.

    Although it does place UX designers in the center (of the universe) :)

  • http://www.thisisgoingtobebig.com Charlie

    Look at how many people used del.icio.us early on… it literally took another person to handhold you and explain to you how to drag the bookmarket and what to do…. UX sucked, but it totally worked. If you nail product/market fit… there will at least be *some* initial userbase that will use it in spite of its clunkiness.

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  • Ganesh Salunke

    After reading this…first thing I saw my son’s creativity on all the walls:) and most imp line: Engineer>UX>VD…cool though!