Design process: optimize for the scarcest resource

By Rian

In his thoughts on design process Kevin Anderson quotes a very interesting paragraph from Fred Brooks’s book The Design of Design:

The critical thing about the design process is to identify your scarcest resource. Despite what you may think, that very often is not money. For example, in a NASA moon shot, money is abundant but lightness is scarce; every ounce of weight requires tons of material below. On the design of a beach vacation home, the limitation may be your ocean-front footage. You have to make sure your whole team understands what scarce resource you’re optimizing.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of web design over the past couple of days. What is the scarcest resource in web design projects — assuming it’s not money? I’d say that in most cases, the user’s attention is the scarcest resource online. There are just so many distractions, interruptions, and other things vying for attention (I mean, there are goat videos to watch, after all). What does this mean for the design process? Here are some examples:

  • On e-commerce product pages users want to know if this is the product they’re looking for. The design process should optimise for information about the product, price, and availability (delivery details).
  • For registration and checkout flows users just want to get through the process with as little friction as possible. The design process should aim to minimise the number of form fields that has to be filled out, and to remove as much clutter as possible to eliminate distractions.
  • For content-heavy sites, users want to know if it’s worth spending time on a article. So the design process should focus on surfacing the right content to help them quickly make a decision to stay or click away. The Great Discontent does a great job at this — each interview engages readers immediately, and gives them a lot of summary information right at the beginning of the article.

The examples above are pretty obvious, but each design problem will have its own unique set of challenges, so I think this should be an important part of any process. When starting a new project, try to work with the team to agree on what the user’s scarcest resources are, and how you plan to optimize for that.

(link via @retinart)