Designing the Whole

When you first launch a product, pretty much every feature you add is (or at least should be) key to achieving your larger vision. You add new modules, pages, sections, overlays and form fields to strengthen and shore up your initial MVP. And, by and large, most of those additions stick. Your users are happy that the beta product they were using is getting all core functionality you promised and you’re happy to see your baby start to grow up a little and walk on its own.

Then you decide to try out adding a feature that wasn’t on the initial roadmap. And, just like before, you give that feature its own page, its own section, its own overlay, its own form field. Your muscle memory from the last few months of frantically designing and building your product tells you that’s the easiest and simplest way to get something out the door and see if it works. You push the code to production and, hey, people are using that feature. Awesome!

Then you add another. With its own page, its own section, it own overlay. Then another. And another. And another.

A year later you have a navigational menu as long as your arm. Single-purpose pages. Multiple overlays on a single page. Five CTAs on a single screen. In short, you have a mess. Totally by accident.

As designers, it’s our job to recognize when our products are being built additively, to step back from that single feature we’re designing and ask how it fits into the overall vision and structure of the system. To design the whole instead of the part.

Every time we add a feature, we’re trading in attention and traffic from another feature. Every new screen or form field decreases focus and adds noise. Sometimes adding a little noise is the right thing to do. Other times we should make a trade-off, subtracting pieces from one part of the system in favor of the new. And still other times it’s our job to say no, that new feature or new copy or new form field just doesn’t make sense as part of the holistic user experience. It’s that intuition, empathy, and expertise that makes design valuable. And it’s only through that lens that the products we build can truly sing.


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