The Process of Designing a Product

This week I read a post of Joel Spolsky, the CEO of Stack Overflow. This post talks about an approach of designing a software product that is “Activity Based Planning.” The main idea of this method is to figure out the activity that the user is doing and focus on making it easy to accomplish that activity. Some examples will show how to apply this approach in designing a product. First example, you’ve decided to make a web site that lets people create greeting cards. Using a somewhat naïve approach, you might come up with a list of features like this: Add text to card, Add picture to card, Get predesigned card from library, Send card (Using email or printing it out). This way of thinking would lead to a program that starts out with a blank card, with menu items for adding text, pictures, loading cards from a library, and sending cards. And then what the user is going to have to do is sit down and browse through the menus, trying to figure out all the commands available, and then do their own synthesis of how to put these atomic commands together to create a card. Now, with an approach of activity based planning, you need to come up with a list of activities that users might do. So, you talk to your potential users, and you come up with this “top three” list: Birthday Greeting, Party Invitation, and Anniversary Greeting. Now, instead of thinking about your program from programmer perspective (in terms of what features you need to have to make a card), you’re thinking about it like the user, in terms of, what activities is the user doing, specifically:

  1. Sending a birthday card
  2. Planning a party, and inviting people to it
  3. Sending an anniversary card

Suddenly, there are new ideas of designing. Instead of starting with a blank card, you might start with a menu like this:

What do you want to do?

  • Send a birthday card
  • Send an anniversary card
  • Send a party invitation
  • Start with a blank card

Suddenly users will find it much easier to get started with your program, without browsing around on the menus, since the program will virtually lead them through the steps to complete the activity. The three activities suggest some great features which you might want to add. For example, if you’re sending a birthday or anniversary card, you might want to be reminded next year to send a card to the same person, so you might add a checkbox that says “remind me next year”.

Activity based planning is even more important when you are working on version two of a product that people are already using. We should observe a sample of customers to see what they are using your program for and which activities they go with your program. We could add more activities to program or make existing activities more suitable to certain groups of customers. Therefore, activity based planning is helpful in the initial version of your application, where you have to make guesses about what people want to do, but it’s even more helpful when you’re planning the upgrade, because you understand what your customers are doing.

In conclusion, designing good software takes about six steps:

  1. Invent some users
  2. Figure out the important activities
  3. Figure out the user model— how the user will expect to accomplish those activities
  4. Sketch out the first draft of the design
  5. Iterate over your design again and again, making it easier and easier until it’s well within the capabilities of your imaginary users
  6. Watch real humans trying to use your software. Note the areas where people have trouble, which probably demonstrate areas where the program model isn’t matching the user model



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