Users are such babies.
What a 10-month-old taught me about product design.
I’m a designer and a working mom, and my brain has been trying very hard to make sense of those things in the same sentence. While having a baby is an extraterrestrial, extraordinary experience (with life-changing sleep deprivation and wild sacrifice), my biggest “aha” moment has been realizing that parenting is just a more intense version of being a person in the world with other people. Processing all of life through my empathy organ for the past year has made me see how often in product design we look at the user with bewilderment, estrangement, or frustration. But, users! They’re just like us! And, guess what, so are babies. We have a lot to learn from both.
1. Feelings are real. Don’t ignore them.
Emotions fundamentally shift our perception, even if we don’t acknowledge we’re feeling them. That’s not news to anyone who’s gritted their teeth through a hangry episode. But emotions are the primary currency for a pre-verbal baby. The trick isn’t figuring out how they’re feeling, but rather what they’re feeling about.
Sometimes, my daughter will howl with desire for a strawberry when it’s sitting right in front of her. She’s so distracted by her hunger and her fear that there will never be another strawberry again, that she can’t process what’s there. It’s my job to help her see, and part of that is respecting her emotions as information. In this case, I had waited too long to start dinner and she was losing it, but if I wasn’t paying attention I might think she was totally over her favorite food.
User testing a new feature often means watching strangers get confused, annoyed, or even angry at the thing you just made. It’s tempting to think, “What a weirdo, it’s just a button.” or “Fine, I’ll make it bigger.” But pay attention to when and how the user’s feelings emerge, because those are the best clues to how the product has let them down.
It’s our job to set up users emotionally to make good decisions in our products. At Amino, that means creating a comfortable environment to choose a new doctor—pretty high stakes. But this lesson is just as important if we’re trying to get users to rate an app, or click on an article. Comfort in a product can mean anything from a legible font size, to a clear explanation of a hard concept, to a pleasing brand color. (That last one works for babies too; the color red makes my daughter happy.) The next time you watch a frustrated user run through a test, consider what those feelings are telling you about the product experience as a whole.
2. Want to understand? Watch them explore.
It’s surprising how much babies are already who they are. They have personalities, senses of humor, and interests. They’re not just blobs waiting to be molded. It may come as a surprise to some designers that users aren’t either.
I’ve heard Henry Ford’s infamous “faster horse” line used too many times as justification for a poorly-tested big feature release. Why ask users for their input when you imagine them as a hoard of slack-jawed Wall-Es waiting for the next brilliant app? But the spirit of that (possibly fake) quote is right, and much more nuanced: People may not be able to articulate what they want, but they know it when they see it.
My daughter will squirm in my lap, pointing at something I can’t figure out. “Do you want that ball? A bottle? A more intuitive mother?” But if I let her, she’ll immediately scramble over to what she wants. She may decide it’s not what she hoped for and move on, but it was so much easier to let her show me than to create the incomplete list of options myself.
I’m always tempted to shoot out a quick multiple choice survey to test a feature idea—and that can be good for some things. But more open-ended probing and observing shows us what we didn’t know we didn’t know. At Amino, we originally ran tests with very tight scripts to make sure users would see important features. They kept getting tripped up trying to give us what we wanted. But as soon as we let them do their own exploring — and just asked them to narrate that experience — we saw users touch parts of the product we’d written off as plumbing, like the “About” page and even our data science methodologies. Users read more, visited more pages, and were much more satisfied with the product. We got feedback on micro interactions, but also on the company mission, overall style, and feelings the product evoked.
Users know what they want, and when we trust them a little more, they can share that with us.
3. Patterns are comforting—and useful.
Watching a baby learn everything has made me realize how hard it is to be a person. But devices like consistency, cues, and expected behavior can help a chaotic world feel more manageable.
I recognize that this essay is structured as a list, and some people think that’s dumbing down content. But you know what? Our brains like lists because they make information easier to process. My priority for this essay in this medium is a quick and engaging read, so I’m using any tools I can to that end (hence the baby photos).
I strongly object to the idea that we need to force users or babies to eat their vegetables at every meal. We should always ask, what’s the goal? With my daughter right now, it’s to get calories into her body and teach her to enjoy mealtimes. So sometimes she eats more bagel than spinach. Later on, our priorities will change (see lesson #4) and so will our approach.
Working on an unsexy problem like health, it can be tempting to pile on the education because, honestly, we all need more information about health care choices. But at Amino, we continually try to refocus the product around our goal: connecting people to the best care for them. That’s an action, not information. In comp after comp, we remove explainer text, numbers, options, couching language until the design is clear and focused on action. The point isn’t to hide details; it’s to process as much as we can on our end so users don’t have to. We also rely on established cues like icons, arrows, and modals. Snapchat can afford to blow up interaction patterns because their goal is to transform communication behavior into entertainment. At Amino, we need those patterns to build trust with our users so we can help them accomplish hard and emotionally challenging tasks with ease.
New veggies go down much easier in a well-cooked and familiar dish. True for babies, true for users.
4. The right thing isn’t the right thing… FOREVER.
Every time my daughter hits a new milestone, I have to throw my routine out the window. Now she wakes up at 5am? Ok, I have to go to bed earlier. She’s crawling? Everything moves to a higher shelf! There’s always a few moments in that transition of mourning for how perfectly everything was working with the old system. But you can’t go back — and really, who would want to?
There’s a very similar feeling when you’re introducing something new in a product. If it’s a meaty feature, chances are you’ll have to kill a few darlings along the way. It’s tempting to hold onto an old design or approach because it worked so well for so long. (It’s in the “final” folder and everything!) But the internet doesn’t stand still, style doesn’t stay put, and tech giants keep releasing platforms with new specs and talents. It’s an illusion that any app or web design can stay fresh longer than a year.
When I worked at an agency, we were always lamenting how the client would screw up a design a month after launch. That perfectly-sized share button would inflate, and an elegant dropdown menu would bloat with options. But the moment I started working in-house on a product, I realized just how artificial—and frankly, limiting—a design handoff is. What works in Photoshop, may not work in code; what works on demo may not work with real users. The real challenge in design is making sure that you’re responding to user needs as quickly and empathetically as you can — putting ego aside and rebuilding whenever your assumptions are questioned.
As they say, a parent’s work is never done—and a design problem is never “solved.” Embrace change because it’s inevitable, and because it may be the most important part of your job description.
5. The right thing isn’t the right thing… FOR EVERYONE.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve Googled “best practices” for a shortcut on the way to figuring out a design problem. There’s a lot of great information out there, but I always came away unsatisfied, like, “Someone really needs to write the definitive guide to [enter design thing here]!” Now that I have a baby, I get it: There are no answers, only a collection of personal experiences. So the best I can do as a designer and mother is to rack up as many of those as I can, and listen really hard to other people when they’re sharing theirs.
A/B testing is handy, user testing is great, and bouncing ideas off other designers is essential. But just as important is being able to filter all the feedback through your own experience. That takes time, energy, confidence, and patience. For a while as a new parent I tried everything I’d heard about on sleep. I co-slept, I let her cry it out, I dream fed. But both my daughter and I were getting whiplash from the experimentation, and neither of us was any better rested. I stopped, took stock of our life, and figured out a routine that worked for us. That meant some crying, a solid bedtime routine, and a night wake for a little longer than I originally planned. (And now we sleep great! But see lesson #4!)
On the flip side, it’s crucial to look at more than one point of view. If not, you may end up raising a wolf pack or building a sexist tool of the patriarchy. It takes a village to do a lot of things — including raising a happy child and building a great product.
That’s all I know for now! Over the coming months and years, I look forward to learning many more ways parenting and designing are similar. But I’m also hoping more product designers become parents so their stories can help shape mine. With so much talk about empathy in design these days I have to say, there is a simple way to gain insight into your fellow humans: Try making one of your own.