In an era of buzzing notifications, continuously changing work environments, endless streams of social media posts, and new apps appearing daily, if not hourly, it is tough to distinguish one product from another or remember a specific product in a significant way.
Under these circumstances, how do you create a memorable product? How do you create a positive experience that helps users and doesn't provide them with more stress and headaches?
At the end of the day, it all comes back to purpose. Some companies, such as AirBnB, Slack, and Spotify, have been able to stay both relevant and continue to be big parts in many of our lives. Even if you aren't using them, you still know of them. And if you are using their products, there is a good chance you have formed a relationship of trust with them.
The Difference Between a Corkscrew and a Hammer
Let's say you had a bit of a rough day and as you come back home, you find yourself making dinner and remember you had a bottle of fine wine which you have been meaning to open. As you grab a wine glass and the bottle of wine, you go on the search for a corkscrew, only to notice you don't know where you put it. After a long search and your dinner getting cold, you go on wikihow to figure out how to open it without a corkscrew by using a hammer and a screw. It’s improvised, but at least now you can have some wine. (And yes, this did happen to me before and took longer than expected.)
Why am I mentioning this story? It illustrates the contrast between goal and purpose. The goal was to open a bottle of wine, in order to have a glass with my dinner. Virtually anything could be used to accomplish this goal, however, the main purpose of those objects was not to open a bottle of wine. I merely gave them that purpose in the heat of the moment, but they weren't designed for this task.
A corkscrew on the other hand is designed specifically to unscrew the cork from a bottle and would have effortlessly and without frustration accomplished my original goal.
Conveying Purpose Through Intuitive Design
The same principle applies to user experience and user interface design. On MacOS, it is easy to listen to a sound file by selecting the file and hitting the space bar. The goal of listening to the tune has thereby been accomplished, but it's not a pleasant experience as a whole to listen to an album in this way. It's not usable, it's not efficient, it's not free of frustration. The preview function has one purpose: To preview a file.
Spotify, on the other hand, allows me to be on the go without carrying my laptop. It's effortless, it's easy to use, and more importantly: It's captivating. I don't want to admit how many hours I have spent over the course of the last couple years ensuring I have a different playlist depending on occasion, mood, and even environment.
There are millions of tracks and episodes on Spotify. So whether you’re behind the wheel, working out, partying or relaxing, the right music or podcast is always at your fingertips. Choose what you want to listen to, or let Spotify surprise you.
Without having initially read their about page, the purposes of Spotify are clear as soon as someone begins using the app and maybe even before actually using it. The purposes they put forward are incorporated into their design by effectively and seamlessly fulfilling their intended function.
They, just as some of our other day-to-day apps, are highly complex under the hood, requiring the brain power and skill of highly talented and passionate individuals to build one product that looks and feels so simple that anyone can use it.
Putting this story aside, how can you give your product a purpose?
Defining Your Product’s Purposes
First and foremost, whether you have an existing product, are in the process of building one, or are still working on the concept, it is crucial to define the purposes you wish to fulfill. Begin by brainstorming a list of problems you are currently experiencing. Typically you will find more problems than you can possibly solve, but you can prioritize the most pressing ones and solve others over time.
The second step is to list a potential and pragmatic solution for each problem. Some technical knowledge may be required for this step, but keep it short.
Lastly, you want to establish the purpose. The purpose usually begins by summarizing the core value you want to optimize. It is non-technical, but instead user experience related.
For example, let's say you are building an app to keep track of nutritional intake. A brief list of problems, solutions and purposes may look like the following:
Problem: Currently I am keeping track of my intake via memory, which is not a reliable way of storing large quantities of data.
Solution: Establish a database of each entry to prevent the user from having to constantly think about nutrition.
Purpose: Store important information more efficiently. (Efficiency)
Problem: I get lazy and may forget when I ate that pumpkin pie.
Solution: Help the user by automatically keeping timestamps and allowing him to add the pumpkin pie later.
Purpose: Be helpful to the user, keep user error and behavior in mind. (Be Helpful, Be Mindful)
Problem: I am spending a lot of time entering information from the nutritional label. Some things don't even have nutritional labels and I don't know how many calories are in Almonds. (FYI, Almonds are delicious treats)
Solution: Keep a list or use a 3rd party service to retrieve nutritional values of products and produce that are easy to search for.
Purpose: Make it easy on the user, don't make your users do something your product could solve. (Ease of use)
As you go along, you will discover purposes to overlap, but not to be the same. Making it easier for the user may mean being helpful, but being helpful doesn't always mean easy. Helping a senior citizen with their groceries is easier for them and also helpful, while surgery for a broken bone is helpful, it is far from easy for the patient.
After brainstorming a list of problems, solutions, and purposes, figure out areas where the purposes are the same, but solve different problems. Capture those and look for any overlaps. At the end you want to have 3 to 5 purposes you can make your core purposes. These are the pillars upon which you build your product and establish the foundation for what is to come.
Lastly you can always involve the end-user and stakeholders in discovering problems and even get their take on possible solutions. We all can name more problems in our day-to-day lives than solutions, much less execute the solutions effectively at all times. Keep in mind that this is the product you are building and are thereby responsible for its purposes.
The moral of this story? Always have a corkscrew in the kitchen. It’s far easier than a hammer and a screw. Also turns out I forgot to buy one during my last trip to the store - Todoist saved me the next time.