Using Design Thinking To Distinguish Smart UX Design Decisions From Shiny Objects

Design Decisions & Shiny Objects

During the 1900s, a few of the most visionary businessmen in history used design thinking to grow a new drink into one of the biggest brands in history — and then almost lost everything.

Coca-Cola started as an accidental invention that exploded during the Prohibition Era as an alternative to alcohol. With the invention of TV and radio, Coke rode the advertising wave and became a mainstream staple of American life. By the 1980s, the company was netting over $600 million each year in profits, had billions of fans around the world and could do no wrong…until they did.

Coke created and dominated the soft drink industry for decades, but with increasing competition from companies like Pepsi, its market share was shrinking. They still had an edge due to their “classic” persona and strategy of purchasing pouring rights in many restaurants, concessions and sports venues. But when Coke noticed that many of its competitors were winning in taste tests because of sweetness, executives couldn’t resist the temptation to jump on the bandwagon.

 

Some trends may even fit in with your overall design and marketing strategy and be worth exploring. But others are like shiny objects in the rearview mirror, derailing your journey and distracting your attention from the destination ahead.

 

In April 1985, Coca-Cola launched a sweeter “New Coke,” marking the first formula change in almost 100 years. Sales initially increased due to buzz and curiosity over the product, but the excitement quickly faded. Within months, the company was receiving over 1,500 calls every day from people complaining about New Coke. Employees were receiving scathing letters, fans were protesting and groups were even writing songs honoring the old Coke. It was becoming painfully obvious that Coke’s shiny new idea was crashing and burning.

By July, the executives had received the message loud and clear. They removed New Coke from shelves and returned to the original formula. By getting back to basics and staying laser-focused on their strategy, Coke pulled their company back from the edge of disaster and continued growing it into the $30 billion+ giant it is today.

Suffering From Shiny Object Syndrome

Coke’s story proves that even the best brands get distracted by “shiny objects” (a.k.a hot trends or a big new idea) and fear of missing out. In the soft drink industry, they saw consumers gravitating toward sweeter drinks. In UX design, we see businesses gravitating toward the latest buzzwords, styles and animation trickery.

“I was just on Company X’s website, and I noticed it has a really cool type of scrolling. I think it’s called ‘parallax.’ Can we do that?”

“I like how Company Y is designing their graphics. Can our next one look just like that?”

It’s smart to study what’s new in the industry and keep a close eye on what your competitors are doing. Some trends may even fit in with your overall design and marketing strategy and be worth exploring. But others are like shiny objects in the rearview mirror, derailing your journey and distracting your attention from the destination ahead.

 

Even though it’s tempting to jump on board with the latest craze, long-lasting success stems from strategy and discipline.

 

Even though it’s tempting to jump on board with the latest craze, long-lasting success stems from strategy and discipline. Consider health and fitness. You can try the latest diet craze and lose a couple pounds quickly, but most likely, you’ll gain all the weight back and more. Or you could stick to a meal and exercise plan that works well for your body, lose the weight over time and improve your health over the long term.

There’s power in consistency — a power we find ourselves reminding our partners about all the time.

Starting with Strategy and Design Principles

Sometimes, it’s tough to know whether an idea is just a trend or a good addition to your UX design toolbox. There’s a key difference between the two:

Is the trend driving the action, or is the action driving the trend?

Think about the popular app feature of pulling down a screen to refresh it. Designers and developers used the design thinking process to empathize with user needs, define the problem, brainstorm potential solutions, prototype a few options and test them to identify the best option. Through this process, they probably noticed that users often pull the screen down to see the most recent activity at the top. They didn’t create the pull-down-to-refresh functionality because someone wanted to add a cool animation. User behavior drove innovation.

 

Is the trend driving the action, or is the action driving the trend?

 

When it comes to product design, staying focused on the underlying strategy and design principles becomes even more important. It’s common for teams to begin thinking of new features or tactics during development, but adding them to the scope often dilutes a perfectly good solution and impedes progress. We’ve had so many companies come to us with a list of features they want to add to their app, and it’s our job to help them focus on the user and the biggest pain point they can solve in a unique or innovative way. Then, we work with them to create an MVP (minimum viable product), get traction and let users guide future development.

Sometimes, it’s not an all-or-nothing decision; it’s about figuring out how the trend or new idea could fit in with the overall strategy. In fact, we’re always looking for ways to improve, as long as those improvements help make progress toward the goals of the user and the business. For example, at Drawbackwards, we’ve been working with GoDaddy to create GoDaddy Garage, an online community that helps small business owners and web pros find answers to questions about websites, domains, hosting, online marketing and WordPress.

 

Sometimes, it’s not an all-or-nothing decision; it’s about figuring out how the trend or new idea could fit in with the overall strategy.

 

Throughout the process, there have been lots of requests to expand the features and content on GoDaddy Garage, like adding advertising to the site. Ads will help meet business objectives, but in order for them to meet the user’s objectives, we couldn’t just serve any ads — they had to be relevant ads. With this strategy in mind, our team designed and developed an ad management system to serve ads that are relevant to the user’s needs (finding information about websites, domains, hosting, online marketing and WordPress) and their context (which page they’re on or which content they’re reading).

Telling the Difference Between Shiny Objects and Smart Design Decisions

On the Signal vs. Noise blog, David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of Ruby on Rails and a partner at 37signals (the company that created Basecamp) wrote:

“It’s so easy to say yes. Yes to yet another feature, yes to an overly optimistic deadline, yes a mediocre design, yes, yes, yes. We all want to be loved.

But the love won’t keep you warm for long when you’ve taken on yet another obligation that you don’t whole-heartedly believe in. You very quickly become trapped in a pit of guilt when the stack of things you’ve said yes to loom so high that you can’t even see the things you really should be doing…

…Use the power of no to get your priorities straight. Take the brief discomfort of confrontation up front and avoid the long regret down the line.”

 

Staying focused may not be as fun or exciting, but elegance and results trump tricks and gimmicks any day.

 

How can you tell whether an idea is a smart decision that will move you closer to your goal, or a shiny object that will distract you from your real priorities? Challenge yourself and your team to stop and discuss a few key questions:

  1. Why do we want to implement this new idea?
  2. Does this new idea align with our design principles and current strategy for meeting our business goals and user needs?
  3. Would this idea differentiate us from our competitors?
  4. Would it move us closer to reaching our goal?
  5. Is the effort worth the impact?

If you can confidently answer “yes” to all of these questions and establish a good reason why you’re interested in the idea, it may be worth exploring. If not, it’s time to use “the power of no” and reprioritize.

Elegance and Results > Tricks and Gimmicks

In today’s fast-changing environment, there’s constant pressure to keep up with the latest industry changes and stay competitive. Even brands like Coke, who learned their lesson with the New Coke disaster, still get distracted and develop trendy products like C2 and Coca-Cola life. With shiny objects waiting around every corner to sidetrack you, it’s more important than ever to stay focused and disciplined. It may not be as fun or exciting, but elegance and results trump tricks and gimmicks any day.

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Ward Andrews

Ward Andrews is Founder at Drawbackwards, a UX Design Firm. He's worked for clients like Sony, Intel, IBM, Sophos, Insominac Games, and the NBA Phoenix Suns. Projects have appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Wall Street Journal, and other publications and broadcasts. He's a part of the Honors Faculty at Arizona State University teaching Design Entrepreneurship.