How to actually make an impact as a product designer

(I wrote this for the OfferZen Blog – because the issue had been bugging me after some conversations with designer friends. It contains ideas I’ve learned at OfferZen, I guess – an organisation where people really get things done.)

Digital product designers often tell me they chose their career because they want to make a positive impact on real people’s lives. But they often seem to look a bit disappointed. It seems that because of the approaches designers take to their work, they often don’t achieve that impact at all.

I’ve been there. And I’ve got some hard-won tips to help overcome the problem.

But first let’s examine why it happens…

Your designer-brain: Blessing and curse

I’m not a formal expert on thinking styles or personality, but I’ve hired, trained and worked with great designers for the last twenty years. And I think there’s a fighting chance that you have:

  • An opposable mind. Strategist and design thinker Roger Martin wrote a book about it. Powerful design thinkers, he argues, can hold an idea and its opposite in their heads at the same time, without getting freaked out. “What if this were true? Or what if that were true?” Or any of the other options in the middle. That skill is what lets you explore many alternatives to find the best one.
  • A tendency towards perfectionism: Poor service, inconsistencies, doors that you pull when they look like you should push them – they all drive you crazy. But it’s your sensitivity to those details that makes you the right person to design something better.
  • An N in the middle of your Myers Briggs type indicator (rather than an S). N stands for iNtuition. And if you do lean that way, you “tend to trust information that is less dependent upon the senses, that can be associated with other information.” About 2/3rds of people are NOT like you. They are more “likely to trust information that is in the present, tangible, and concrete”. But if you only thought about things you can see and touch today, you wouldn’t be so good at imagining the UX of tomorrow.

Feel special? You should.

But remember that every superpower has a dark side. Here’s yours: Your broad range of ideas, your imagination and your perfectionism can stop you from getting anything finished. Before you know it, years can go by without you actually achieving anything you really wanted.

Three rules to make the most of your talent

So below are three rules I’ve been learning and relearning for my whole life. They can help you use your design brain better, and make that proverbial “dent in the universe”:

Read the whole post on the OfferZen blog >>

Continue reading “How to actually make an impact as a product designer”

Multiplying the value of product teams with design

Good UX design is essential for digital products to win, most of the time. But often teams don’t know how to work with their designers effectively, to get the competitive edge they expected from Design.

Design activities can feel alien to engineering teams and designers can feel isolated, since they’re often in a minority. Designers with limited experience can struggle to influence team practice, or take the lead at the key moments when they should.

I did this talk with Dean Broadley to offer some viewpoints and practical ideas about how agile teams can use design and designers more effectively.

Dean and me, doing the talk. We’ve known each other for years, so that helped!

A few highlights of what we covered…

Continue reading “Multiplying the value of product teams with design”

How to make digital teams work better together

Effective team culture and communication is a key ingredient for delivering great products. Developers, designers and product people have really different priorities and styles, and getting them to gel together as a team needs attention and skill.

I moderated a panel about ways that tech teams can work better at the Merge conference in Johannesburg in December 2019. It was part of the “Tech team playbooks” track.

Topics included:

  • How to encourage constructive and honest communication without hurting people’s feelings
  • Making mistakes, and dealing with them constructively
  • Knowing whether you’re making good decisions when each outcome is too small and lag time is too big

Plus amusing detours into Gmail in North Carolina, Tastee Wheat, measuring whiskey consumption and the effects of sleep deprivation on junior designers.

The remarkable panel members: Ashi Krishnan, Warren Foxley, Ridhwana Khan, and Dean Broadley.

Here’s the video, if you’re in the mood. There’s also a transcript. Or, get the podcast version..

A few tips on landing your first job in UX

I was invited to join in a session run by Bakery for people wanting to move into a career in UX.

I touched on a few favourite topics including:

  • How many UX designers it takes to change a lightbulb, and why we should be proud of that. (The answer is “does it have to be a lightbulb?”)
  • Outcome over ego: Great designers work in service of the design, and the user and the outcome, not their own artistic vision.
  • You can still build up a UX portfolio even when you don’t work in UX. The trick is just to do some UX things in your current role: Interview user, map journeys, identify points of pain, conceptualise solutions. There’s always something you can do. (One attendee told me, afterwards, that he’s admissions officer for an educational institution – but that he was mapping and improving the admissions user experience).
  • There are couple of tips for how to handle a UX interview and a UX assignment/critique session. Jump to slides 42 and 43 for those.
  • And how to get paid more as a UX designer: Learn how to talk about the financial value of what you do.

Here are the slides from the talk.

“Everything” I think about UX – and why

I was interviewed  Anne Gonschorek, from Offer Zen. She wrote a great article about UX, that made more sense than most of the things I write.

In it, I ramble on about…

  • How designers think
  • How to do human centred design
  • What design thinking is (sort of)
  • Designers working with developers
  • Lean UX

It also contains a surprising number of pictures of spice racks. Like this one.

Thanks, Anne and Offer Zen, for all that generous effort. I hope everyone gets something out of it.  I certainly did.

Here’s the article…

A whopper of a usability issue – and the product lesson it teaches us

It was a big fat usability issue. I haven’t seen one like it for years: a broad, bamboozling beauty that ate 3 hours of my time.

I thought I’d capture it here for you as a special treat. Donald Norman fans will love the mental models aspect. And for product teams everywhere it’s a grim reminder that you need a robust product delivery process, rather than just assuming “it’ll obviously work for customer.”

Let’s set up parental controls, kids!

The kids were turning into housebound zombies so I bought a new router with parental controls. An TP-Link Archer D7. It had an app so you could control and configure it from your iPhone.

I sat down at my computer to Continue reading “A whopper of a usability issue – and the product lesson it teaches us”

Design Thinking: How, why and why now?

The popularity of the term “Design Thinking” seems to be spiking at the moment. So I did a talk about it recently at Cape Town’s Western Cape Funding Fair.

The talk is at the bottom. First – some thoughts!


Design Thinking isn’t…

Design Thinking tends to inspire passion. I think the primary reason is that it’s a lot of fun, and it promises a solution to a pretty dreadful status quo. But sometimes people expect Design Thinking to be a universal approach for situations of all types – which it isn’t. In Digital, for example, Continue reading “Design Thinking: How, why and why now?”

Crossy road:  7 kinds of persuasive design techniques in a tiny package

The epic list of game mechanics at work in Crossy road, the hit iPad game, might inspire you to gamify whatever you’re working on.

Crossy road is a simple and wonderful game, based on the arcade classic Frogger. It swept the iOS world in November and December. And it’s still sweeping.

There’s nothing to it – just and infinite sequence of roads and rivers to cross until you die. Why is it so compelling? Here’s how they encourage you to keep playing…

Crossy road


You can tell the makers love gaming and loved making their game. It’s ingeniously stylish to look at, and has a great sense of humour. Those are key: if the game was ugly and joyless, the game mechanics alone wouldn’t stand a chance. But the first couple of persuasion/gaming principles are there:

  • Liking: The game is loveable and it’s easy to be friends with it. We all like hanging out with nice people in nice places.
  • The halo effect: it’s a lovely looking game – unconventional, stylish and “in”. So that must mean it’s worth spending time with, right?

Goals: Micro and macro

A good game needs a clear goal. It’s one of the key principles of Flow. There are several layers of goal in Crossy road, which will keep you motivated on the time scale of seconds all the way up to weeks.


  • seconds: get as far as you can in one game
  • minutes: collect enough coins to buy another avatar
  • hours: beat your personal best
  • days: beat your friends via game centre leaderboard (their scores are marked right on the game board so you can see them “in the flow” of the game).
  • weeks: collect all the avatars

Building your collection

Arguably the uber goal of the game is to build a complete collection of avatars. Collection is great because:

  • Endowment effect and ikea effect: You feel like you’re building something of your own
  • Closure: You’re working towards the complete set
  • Flow: Every time you get one more item you’re making visible progress towards your goal.

In addition, collections multiply the value of each individual gain. Adding one item to your collection makes the whole collection feel new, so you get the feeling of gaining something bigger: an improved collection.

This is the only place where the game attempts to monetise. The authors say that they wanted to take a different approach to monetisation: You can play quite happily without every paying a penny. But if you’re going to spend it on anything, they think you’ll spend it to complete your collection of avatars.

Your avatar collection


  • Competition: Yes that leaderboard is a social mechanism. Being best at Crossy road is an important skill and a way to clearly establish your superiority to all your friends. Right?
  • Social currency: For something awesome to share with your friends, you can record your game play and share it so that the world can witness your finest hour.

Variable rewards

After a pre-determined time (often 6 hours) you get a gift of a random amount of “cents”. You can spend the cents on a random avatar to add to your collection. So we’ve got…

  • Appointment/incentive to return: Knowing you’ll get another gift in a few hours creates a sort of “appointment” dynamic. Don’t forget to check the game in a few hours time to see if you’ve got a new reward.
  • Skinner box 1: The cents gift is a variable reward, which means it’s a skinner box. Variable reward is more compelling for longer, than a fixed and predictable reward is.
  • Skinner box 2: When you collect 100c (usually 1 gift’s worth), you can get a gift from the gift machine, containing a random avatar for your collection. Another skinner box!


Try for FREE, and get a FREE gift

After a few goes, the game gives you a choice of a few avatars that are not in your collection and you can try one for three turns. After 3 turns, you have to “give it back”, or choose to buy it for 69p and get an extra 250c thrown in for free. So we’ve got…

  • Endowment effect: it’s hard to give back something that you have “owned”. (The power of a free trial).
  • Power of Free: When you pay 69p you also get 250c for FREE. Dan Arielly fans will know all about the power of free stuff to make people do things they would normally not consider.

Tight game loop

You’re practising a (mostly pointless) skill and there’s that drive to “just try one more time because I was SO CLOSE”, that propelled Angry Birds to the top of the charts. The moment you die you can restart as fast as humanly possible, so that you can stay in the zone and master that skill. It’s that heady mix of dopamine and opiates that keeps us trawling Pinterest or Twitter, looking for info-gems.

In a funny way, each level is a skinner box: Play one more time and you might get lucky and set new personal best.

Packing this many persuasive design techniques into such a simple app is quite impressive. But I have a sneaking suspicion there may be more hiding in there. What have I missed?

Usability testing for agile software teams

I did a talk at Agile Africa last week.

A couple of key points:

  • The really valuable kind of user feedback often doesn’t just come to you. If you want good quality feedback, you have to go get it with usability testing.
  • It’s easy to forget to gather user feedback because Agile projects deliver incremental, gradual change… so you don’t notice how far your interface has come.