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Product Design for the Web: No Dead Ends

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Every experience that people have with digital products involves interactions over time, choices between multiple actions, user feedback, presentation of information, requirements for input, and demands on attention. Etsy creative director Randy J. Hunt explains that it’s important for us to consider exactly what we are creating when we design a digital product: how it is experienced, how it is constructed, how it works, and the connection between those three factors.
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From the earliest days of the Internet, we saw everything presented there as a “page.” Of course, that terminology springs from the printed page that everyone knew so well. The problem with applying this familiar concept to Web product design is that digital products aren’t experienced in a single linear sequence, one static rectangle at a time.

Even today, without realizing it, we often accept an ill-fitting framework for Web products. If we pin our design to an out-of-date model, we’re unlikely to create an experience that feels consistent with the medium for which we’re designing.

Every experience that people have with digital products involves interactions over time, choices between multiple actions, user feedback, presentation of information, requirements for input, and demands on attention. It’s important for us to consider exactly what we are creating when we design a digital product: how it is experienced, how it is constructed, how it works, and the connection between those three factors.

Go With the Flow

Let’s accept a new model for our thinking: instead of a page, we design a flow, a word that implies a looseness of movement and, perhaps, an unpredictable pathway. Think of how water moves in a stream. It may run to the right or to the left of a rock. It may move faster in narrow areas or slower in wide areas. In some locations it may move so slowly that you can’t perceive its movement. Eventually, it reaches a natural destination, its inevitable home, at the bottom of the hill.


Flow as a model also implies the passage of time. Movement doesn’t happen in a single moment. As we learned in our story framework in Chapter 3, an experience has a beginning, a middle, and an end. People don’t experience a digital product in a single instant. People pass in and out of the flow, with each interaction leading to a new part of the experience. If the creator has done his job correctly, flow should ideally go on and on and on, offering more and different experiences over time.

The elements that can appear or occur within a flow aren’t limited to its presence on a specific medium, device, or screen. A person may interact with the flow through an app or online shopping site, but she is also interacting when she tells her friend about her experience or sees a printed ad in a favorite magazine. Each interaction helps that person understand what the product looks and feels like, how to use it, and whom it is for. Each of those moments is part of a larger flow that easily moves from online interaction to offline activity and back. A flow has the potential to go in a variety of directions, change its pacing, and be subject to manipulation and multiple interpretations. Knowing this, a designer can thoughtfully and creatively craft an experience that never reaches a dead end. A dead end is a missed opportunity.

Create New Opportunities

Finding moments to extend flows demands broader thinking. In fact, it demands that you embrace uncertainty and accept that you will not really know where your flow should go next. Often, the next possible destination for a flow will reveal itself only as you’re actually developing the product from your design.

Take a simple sign-up flow that has reached its natural resting place: a completed user sign-up. Where you take that user will depend on what part of the experience you want him to engage with immediately after signing up. You might offer multiple possibilities. You might prefer that he perform Action A if he arrived at the sign-up from Source A, or that he have a choice of Actions B or C if he arrived from Source B.

When you are refining a part of a product experience design, you must always be looking for opportunities to extend its flow. A user should never experience steps one, two, and three successfully, and then get to step four and discover that the flow ends with “Have a nice day; see you later.”

For example, a customer at a shopping site has just placed an order. The natural product flow would seem to be complete and concluded. What was expected was fulfilled. Now what? Ideally, that flow should have the opportunity to continue. But how might that work? Your product could present other items that this person might be interested in. It could display links to articles about the item the customer just purchased. It could direct the customer to a community of like-minded people. The possibilities are as wide as your mind is open.

When you’re dealing with an unpredictable flow, the key to finding new opportunities is simply to open up to the entire world of possibilities. You could present information, ask for input, or prompt interaction. What kind of interaction? You could solicit feedback by asking a person to share her experience, or you could offer the customer a choice of several possible next steps. By presenting those possibilities, you can encourage the customer’s next action in any number of ways.

Once you start to see the breadth of potential options, you can take the design of your product in almost any direction.

Connect One Experience to Another

We know that focus and continuity of outcome are important to the design of a strong product experience. But if you have limitless possibilities for the direction of any one flow, how do you generate focus by choosing a subset of those “limitless possibilities”? The previous checkout-to-recommendation scenario is a good example. If you’re looking to turn a dead end into a not-dead notend, consider connecting it to other key flows—those essential flows that make up the core of your product and already exist in the experience.

Think about filling a glass to the very top with water. Just at the point when the glass will overflow, you put another glass below it to catch the water, then fill that glass, and then fill another and another. That’s what your flow should be like. How can you continually extend the experience so that it remains beneficial for you and the customer?

Some digital experiences do have logical ends. After you sign up for a new service by creating a personal account, that job is done. When you buy an item online and check out, that transaction is finished. Water has finished flowing into the glass. Its path has reached its natural conclusion.

However, you should start to look at these natural conclusions simply as touch points in the ongoing flow. Grab another glass, and start a new flow to pour into the next natural conclusion.

What if the glass has water in it but isn’t completely filled? As mentioned above, you could direct someone who just made a purchase to other products or information. Ask what else you could offer at that point to fill and overflow the glass. How could connecting one experience to another enhance the experience, making it more valuable by combining experiences? You could offer to send a mobile update when the customer’s order ships, or provide a discount for a future purchase, or send tips on how to better use the purchased item.

All of these options extend the flow. The flow’s timeline has been extended by connecting multiple experiences. In so doing, you keep that person in the flow even when she is not actively involved with your product. It adds value for the user and value to your product.

Flows Can Be Long

If we understand that a flow is a set of experiences that people have over time while interacting with your product, we should recognize that “over time” can mean a very long time, indeed. The length, breadth, and depth of an experience are also variables that we can design for. Typically, we tend to think of digital products enabling “fast” or “instant” results, and it is all too common to wrap things up quickly. But what if the experience was slow? What if you could not only design the “now” part of the experience, but also shape future experiences that the person will have while using your product?

If you are creating a shopping experience, for example, the flow may begin with a very quick checkout. But that person now has a relationship with your product, along with an opinion about it. You could come back to him after a week, a month, or a year to get additional feedback. Was the product he purchased durable? How is he using it? You can capture a lot of valuable information over time.

Also consider that you are working on a product that lets people start an experience now that might conclude in the future. Those events could happen now or a decade from now. The user experience can become very long. You have to think differently about how you would create that flow so you don’t accidently create a dead end later.

For instance, I might choose very different tools if I’m planning on accommodating an experience that can unfold over a long period of time. I might choose a very simple technology that seems to be stable and has been around for a long time, rather than take a risk with the newest, unproven technology. I might set up the product with a proven technology for its infrastructure, giving it a better chance of being serviceable and able to easily evolve many years from now.

The important thing is to open up your thinking for everything that might happen between now and the end of what could be a very long experience.

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