Now and Later User Experience Design

As a child, I was baffled by my parents' reluctance to feed me candy at mealtime. Candy made me happy. Didn't they value my happiness?

Of course they did, but like most parents, they knew that to make their children truly happy in the long-term, they must forego the occasional, sugary, short-term happiness.

Like parenting, modern user experience design requires a delicate balance of careful short- and long-term considerations.

Now: Short Term User Experience

The process of designing for Now is obvious. In fact, many designers design exclusively for Now (unfortunately).

The question underlying Now design is: "How can I design this system to please the user?"

Excellent Now design poses challenges, but can often technically be accomplished in isolation from the product's engineering. Technical knowledge is a nice-to-have.

Later: Long Term User Experience

Designing for Later is less intuitive. It involves the recognition that maintaining adaptability to your users' needs is just as important as the users' current experience. Later design recognizes that you'll never know less about your users than you do right now, and keeps the future open to rapid evolution.

The driving question for Later design is: "How can I design this system in a fashion that will make it easier to please the user in the future?"

Later design can be extremely challenging because it is often inextricably tied to the product's engineering. Technical knowledge or close collaboration with the engineering team is a necessity.

Now or Later?

Finding an appropriate balance between these two forms of design thinking can be extremely challenging, but can be illustrated by example:

Which user has the best experience?

  1. The user browsing a slick single-page web app with a single useful feature (The Snickers App)
  2. The user on a regular page-reloading web app with two useful features (The Broccoli App)
  3. The user on a plain old web app with three useful features that are difficult to use (The Soylent App)

The Snickers app is the hot ticket. It will probably be lauded on HackerNews and Reddit. But when the sex appeal wears off, so too does the benefit of the Now design thinking that produced it. The complication of the single-page design inhibits its ability to evolve new features in response to user needs.

The Soylent app takes Later design thinking a step too far. Without a focus on the current experience, the app borders on repulsive. (It doesn't matter how nourishing food is if you can't keep it down.) If your product is unusable now, it probably doesn't have much of a future for which to design.

There's nothing sexy about the broccoli app, but it's perfect combo of Now and Later thinking: usable and simple. It took less time to develop, affording the team the ability to develop an additional feature in response to user feedback, ultimately providing the most fulfilling user experience.

Avoiding Snickers

The methodologies of Now design are well established. But how do we design for Later? By religiously adhering to one simple rule: favor simplicity.

System complexity is the diabetes of software; it's the single greatest obstacle to rapid evolution, and its invisible complications can grow to destroy your product from within. Sacrificing simplicity (either design or technical) is frequently a short-sighted mistake of designing only for Now.

Complexity is unavoidable (the world's problems are complex and demand complex solutions), but we can make smart decisions about how and when to add it.

  • How complex are the problems the application solves?
  • What technical resources are allocated to manage the complexity on an ongoing basis?
  • Does the competitive landscape demand riskier complexity plays to build or sustain marketshare?

Designers skilled in Later thinking ruthlessly ask themselves "What are the tangible benefits of this added complexity?" and "Do these benefits outweigh the cost of the debt the product is incurring as a result?" They take calculated risks based on the complexity carrying capacity of their applications.

Later design is no easy task (simplicity is hard), but by adopting a Now and Later design mentality, your team can begin realizing the true user experience potential of your application.

Lawson is a neuroscientist-turned-developer who works in our Boulder, CO, office. He builds sophisticated software for clients such as Discovery and Shure.

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