Whether you’re buying something on Amazon, ordering dinner on Uber Eats, or looking for the perfect movie to watch on Netflix tonight, there’s a common thread that runs through every tap, click, and swipe we make: design.
Design is what makes the digital world accessible, useful, and fun. Great UX design is simple, and it puts us, the users, first. As product designer Frank Chimero said: “People ignore design that ignores people.”
On The Next Great Thing podcast, I spoke with Jenny Arden, Zillow’s first-ever Chief Design Officer and one of tech’s most accomplished design leaders. Jenny is a creative powerhouse, so it was a treat to have her share the design philosophy she’s honed after spending 20+ years in senior design roles at companies like Nike, Airbnb, Lyft, Google, and IDEO. She also got into how she and her team are creating the ‘housing super app’ that will revolutionize how we buy and sell homes. It’s a must-listen conversation for anyone who works in design or business strategy (spoiler alert: they're the same thing!).
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One “great thing” I learned: In design, quality is king. Perfection is the enemy. And user insights are the keys to the castle. This isn’t exactly new. But it’s so simple and true that I think it bears underscoring because, as product creators, we often sacrifice quality in service to quantity and speed. We throw a lot of spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks. We constantly iterate. Fail fast. Rinse and repeat. That’s great – and necessary! – but, as Jenny says, getting to quality UX design isn’t just about pushing out a bunch of iterations. It’s that and incorporating a ton of user insights – and I mean a ton, like actually getting off your computer and observing users in the wild. Quick feedback on a clickable prototype or 30 minutes of user testing is always a good idea, but, to truly fulfill your product vision and address users’ known (and unknown) needs, you’ve got to go way deeper than that.
Jenny’s team relies on ethnographic user research to peel back what’s truly going on in users’ lives. “We do these things called diary studies, where we actually shadow somebody from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed. And you learn a lot about things you can't see in a digital environment,” she explains. “We do all of this data logging. We look at what are they clicking? What are they doing? But what you can't tell is what note they wrote to themselves. How many other applications they had to jump to to solve that task.”
Through comprehensive research that reaches deep into users’ lives, we can uncover valuable insights that we’d otherwise miss. Then, we can use those insights to design seamless digital experiences that offer distinct user value – online as well as off. Jenny sums it up best: “In order to provide a great tech enabler, you have to know what you're trying to enable, what you're trying to actually have happen offline.”
Finally, a warning: don’t confuse quality with perfection. Perfection should never be our goal. In fact, it can often be our enemy, holding us back from unlocking true creativity and stifling progress. Jenny encourages her teams to embrace this mindset in order to push through the initial struggles and failures.
“If there's anything that design school actually teaches you is that perfection is the enemy and is the demon that you're trying to fight against,” she says. “I always tell my teams that the first five concepts are going to be terrible. Just expect it, just understand. Your job is to get through the terrible stuff as quickly as you can. That means rapidly prototyping, iterating over and over again, trying to get as much of the bad stuff out of your system so that you can actually get to the good stuff.”
What’s your best piece of advice for designing the next great user experience?