Everyone’s a Contributor: Knowing What’s Possible in Product Design
Learning to code doesn’t come with the knowledge of what to code.
Coding is a tool, and a (possible) means to an end — just like design, prototyping, devops, data visualization, and all of the other skills that make up product development. Collectively, those skills describe how to build something. How informs what, sure, but the tools are only part of the story: Putting a car engine together is only tangentially related to cup holder requirements.
So, what are we getting at? Everyone and anyone can help define an application. Technical skills put agencies like ours in the orbit of what’s possible, but cataloging and weighing those possibilities isn’t limited to technical folks. Here’s a primer on how we tackle the cataloging part.
What’s a Contribution?
By “everyone can contribute,” we mean opinions and guidance on the project’s desired end state. Examples include:
- Feedback that two views are awkward to switch between. What about tabs or a split screen setup?
- Insight that some data entry will be the same 99% of the time. What if it’s pre-filled?
- Pointing out a feature that a competitor handles particularly well (or particularly poorly).
- Assessing whether or not key flows are power user-ready.
The project team — stakeholders and individual contributors included — has a diverse set of experience and expertise. Varied backgrounds and a medium where best practices change daily (or so it seems) opens the door for everyone to offer up input.
Whether you want to handle the first version of an application yourself, help with development, or just be better prepared to critique, let’s run through ways to feel contribution-ready.
Experience in User Experience
We’ll get the most difficult, time-consuming option out of the way first: You’ll get better with experience. As with any other expertise, picking out product design patterns is a muscle that’s developed with use — like shipping software and measuring results. Opportunity creates competence.
Hook Into Industry Chatter
Social media is exhausting, divisive, and problematic, but it’s still possible to curate a quality feed for industry news. As long as you can stomach the medium (or carve out a software-related bubble), it’s the quickest way to stay informed.
Personally, email newsletters are my preferred way to keep up. They’re passive, focused, easy to read in batches, and there are a ton out there worth a shot. Some favorites include:
- Sidebar, delivering five design links five days a week.
- Pointer, a twice-weekly software development newsletter.
- Lead Dev, featuring high-quality first-party articles.
- Data Is Plural, offering up a wealth of interesting datasets.
The “state of the art” is always in motion, and new ideas permeate pretty fast. One minute, pull-to-refresh is a neat idea. The next, every app has it. Interface patterns are one of the closest monoculture analogs we have these days, and we’re all tasked with staying current. Finding the right routine is key.
Give a Bunch of Tools a Chance
Modern applications are a mishmash of custom code, third-party tools, and paid services, and the build vs. buy question will stick around throughout development. Fortunately, getting to try a bunch of third-party stuff is informative in its own right. How does shadcn/ui handle a tooltip? What kind of embedded payment form does Stripe support? There’s a good chance that it’s a good example to follow.
Besides being a “shortcut” to a potentially difficult or sensitive feature, these tools also set customer expectations. They have an incentive and the resources (or contributors, in the case of open source) to stay out in front of the market. On one hand, they’re a wealth of patterns, polish, and opinions; on the other, we’ll need to weigh whether custom can ever measure up.
New third-party tools rise and fall all the time. It’s easy to pick up a hammer and stick with it, but it’s worth knowing about nail guns, screwdrivers, drills, and adhesive, too. Bootstrap is required reading as a front-end developer — as is Tailwind, styled-components, and so on. Being well-rounded means surveying the field.
Follow the Leader(s)?
Staying in the same lane as try out tools, let’s talk about competitive analysis.
If Amazon uses additive sidebar filters for ecommerce products, is that the best approach? Maybe. Whether it’s the ideal experience or not, though, it’s a mental model that users are familiar with. Comfort in a flawed interface is better than a confusingly clever take. It’s worth knowing what leaders in the space are doing, giving you the chance to either:
- Adopt or adapt familiar practices, or
- Decide to differentiate with a new pattern
There are caveats, of course. Saying “Apple did this” or “Google did that” isn’t an instant argument winner — both have committed a number of accessibility sins that shouldn’t be emulated. As this video from the Nielsen Norman Group points out, context is everything.
Draw Inspiration From Other Fields
Generally speaking, software is modeled after or supports industries that’ve been around a lot longer than the supercomputers in our pockets. And, as it turns out, they’ve given quite a bit of thought to their respective fields:
- Animation is still a new-ish ability on the web, but the principles behind good animation have been defined for decades (at least).
- As gamification points out right in its name, game design has been an important inspiration for user engagement.
- Instructional design lives and dies by the quality of educational content.
- Sports leagues and broadcasts everywhere prioritize the display and legibility of data above just about everything else.
Something like an ecommerce app needs a well-developed foundation, but users will also expect a dash of retail theory and gamification. Discounts, gift cards, and customer loyalty programs existed well before their present-day software counterparts.
Remove Contributor Silos
It’s easy for teams, contributors… heck, even whole features and products to become siloed as deadlines loom. Busy developers aren’t great at sharing the things they’ve learned, encountered and solved. Over time, that’s information lost. Someone’ll wind up staring at a design challenge, not knowing their teammate dealt with something similar months ago.
We’ve been using a weekly show ‘n’ tell to counter this, giving everyone space to share what they’ve been doing, what they’ve run up against, and any interesting industry news. Learning is collectively an investment in ourselves and the company.
Meetups Are Still Valuable
Continuing on with the topic of sharing, software has long supported and been propped up by a meetup culture. And they’re still great, even if it’s taken a while (anecdotally) to recover from 2020 and 2021. Events in the space offer:
- Perspectives on product, design, and development from outside sets of eyes
- Insights from different industries and contexts
- Connections for future mentorship or specialist needs
- A way to break up the remote work routine
Envy Labs has always been a fan — they’ve helped us hire, test product ideas, learn new tools, and create new partnerships. These days, we’re sponsors of Orlando Devs and members of the Orlando Tech Community, among others.
Trial a New Idea
Someone has to be first, whether it’s adding tabs to a browser or building an interface out of left and right swipes. Leave some space for your wildest ideas.
We give everyone a chunk of monthly time called “betterment” to learn and trial new things: anything from a special data visualization to a scheme for organizing component states. The name of the game is testing in a safe, controlled environment.
Get It Wrong
Speaking of new ideas and gaining experience — sometimes, you’re bound to miss the mark. It happens. I’ve been there plenty of times:
- Buttons that didn’t quite look clickable enough, bringing user testing to a stand-still.
- Round after round of iteration in battle with analysis paralysis.
- Animations too long and too elaborate to elevate an interface.
These are the lessons that’ll stick with you, even if they don’t feel great in the moment. Always be willing to course correct when presented with new information or data.
Product Input From Everyone
Still here? You’re well on your way to a career in product management.
Software is constantly trying to one-up itself, and staying current isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. That said, anyone is capable of contributing ideas and feedback. Just make sure someone’s around to stem the tide of ideas when perfect becomes the enemy of great.
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