Design principle: avoid the need to ask the question

Yes, it’s another Steve Jobs tribute, but this is good, trust me. Steve Jobs believed in stripping away non-essential choices when making products easier to use and learn over time. Sounds obvious now, and it has become the opening chat up line for any discerning product designer and manager. Yet it’s how Jobs framed this thinking that makes it interesting.

In designing our products, we build up many choices, alternative routes and flows, ideas on how our product should behave and work.

Ken Kocienda, principal engineer at Apple during the development of the first iPad virtual keyboard, recounts how the engineering team came up with two keyboard layouts. Bas Ording, the designer behind inertial scrolling (the rubber band effect) had created a traditional keyboard layout, with keys that shared punctuation with letter keys, and a number row on top. He wanted to take advantage of the iPad’s large screen, which could accommodate these extra keys.

Kocienda wanted a simpler layout, with letters that took only one key each, letting the user toggle between punctuation and numbers keys. He mimicked the dimensions of the mac keyboard to create a larger, more comfortable typing area. Finally, for more flexibility, they made it so that the user could switch between keyboards depending on the user’s typing preference. But how to make this obvious? What was the best way to make this experience easy for the user to learn? Should they remember the last keyboard that was used?

Classic iPad keyboard on iOS 9

They demoed the concept to Jobs, who immediately saw how unintuitive switching between keyboard layouts was, and how it would negatively affect user experience. Right there on the spot, Jobs challenged Kocienda to decide which option to ship, a choice between two loved ones both had toiled over for months. He chose his simpler layout, and the rest is history.

As Jobs saw it, the best way to answer difficult design decisions is to avoid the need to ask them in the first place. If product designers find these questions difficult to answer, how are users going to answer them?

Be decisive in design decisions when selecting what we show the user and show them a clear path. Don’t hedge our bets and include the kitchen sink. Give people the one feature we think will work best and test it from there.

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