Product Design for the Web, by Randy Hunt of Etsy, was published earlier this year and is the first book I’ll “review” in what will hopefully become a series of book reviews.

Product Design for the Web

“Principles of Designing & Releasing Web Products” is the subtitle of the book and I think fairly describes what makes this book unique compared to other web design books you may have read. Rather than focusing on any particular programming language or industry, Hunt provides an interesting framework for thinking that will help you make better web products no matter the vertical or CMS you are working with.

Let’s get the standard book review out of the way: This book is a quick read and written in a refreshing and straighforward manner. The physical quality is great and could easily make it a coffee table book or book to have around the office. The drawings in the book are quirky and bring the content to life. Now let’s get to the more interesting stuff…

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First, let’s talk about what Hunt means by “Web Product”. These are web products: Most apps for your phone, Etsy, eBay, Facebook, WordPress (if you are using it to write a site instead of just viewing a site), Skype, etc. These are not web products: This website (for you, the reader), your standard restaurant website, most websites that you just read.

I think the easiest distinction is that a website “typically passes content (text, photos, video, or audio) in only one direction- from site to visitor- a Web product will both deliever and receive content. In other words, a website is often a consumption-only experience, whereas a Web product is a creative or participative experience.”

Lots of Web Products have these, too:

  • Presence of user accounts
  • High frequency of use
  • Participation rather than navigation
  • Specified flows through the website

Now that we agree on what a “web product” is in this context, let’s move right along.

Hunt shared some interesting ideas in the book that really struck me. Here they are:

The World > Your Product

You have to understand your user before you can design a product that works for them. What is the user doing when they use your product? If you are google maps, there is a good chance the user is driving. If you are Strava (an app that tracks your runs), there is a good chance your user is sweaty and tired and has their iphone on their arm. If you are Facebook then you know about 70% of your users are on their mobile device seeing what their friends are up to. If you are youtube, your user is more likely to be relaxed and willing to stick around a bit longer for their content. (Imagine if you had to watch a 30 second commercial like on Youtube to get directions on Google Maps!).

The point of all of this is that your product fits somewhere into people’s lives. You should have a crystal clear understanding of what your users are doing when they are using your product. This will help you design better to their needs.

Remember the invisible features

A product has dozens of invisible features that are often overlooked because they don’t show up in mockups or prototypes, yet these invisible features have an emotional effect on the user. What are some invisible features?

Performance: Your product needs to work well, have few errors, and generally be problem-free.

Speed: Your product needs to feel fast and responsive to the user. This can be tricky on mobile devices that might lose connectivity. Find ways to make the product feel responsive.

Community: Just that. Have a community of people using the product that can help or at least show social proof that the product is beneficial.

Support: Your support team should be spot on.

Effective over Clever

Focus on being effective over being clever. Most people don’t want to think in order to use your product. Make sure things are clearly labelled with the most common terminology. As much as you may want to make your website memorable, never do so at the expense of utility.

(I’d like to interject here that I think quirkiness is very effective in web design. But most important when you are using quirkiness… do it in a way that enhances and delights the user without confusing them.)

Minimize Choices

Let’s offer less choices. Minimize the options for your users to either 1)The best next step in the page flow or 2)If they aren’t in a flow yet, curate your list of options to just the best stuff. Be like a host to a party for your users and show them a good time.

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