Total and Marginal Experience

Understanding Economics for Design
I have always been a strong proponent of the fact that designers need to constantly keep an eye on other disciplines of study. It contributes to the holistic learnings for the designer. So, it disappoints me when the students in a lot of design schools today do not read. I have made reading compulsory in the classes I am teaching this semester. One of the things I always enjoy reading about is Economics.

I recently have enrolled in this class on Public Policy, and Economics is one of the core courses in this. I have always been interested in Economics, and have often considered learning more about it. This became even more evident, when I found myself constantly referencing different aspects of Economics while discussing how human behaviour has changed over the years in India, since the liberalisation of the 1990s. Whether it be education, transport, healthcare, retail or entertainment, our lives in India was never the same after the then PV Narasimha Rao government open up the doors to more foreign investments in the country.

The more I read about the circumstances in which things happened and the decisions that were take to ‘save’ the country, the more intrigued I get about it. I get into a series of nostalgia, trying to recollect the India from my school days from 1991 onwards.

On Rational Behaviour and Design
At the core of economics is the notion of rationality and that all decisions made by the end beneficiary is based on perfectly sensical rational behaviour. One of the key notions we face, is how do we design for rational behaviour?

Policies are created to make people act with rational behaviour, which is the act that they do in their best personal self interest. This brings us to the notion of subjectivity, that we rely so much heavily on in design.

When we think of design, we want our users (customers) to go with this rational behaviour. We often mention that the users should feel completely natural in performing an action.

There are few fundamental aspects of economics that are important for designers to understand.

The concept of utility is amongst the most important of them all.

In economics, utility is a measure of preferences over some set of goods and services. The concept is an important underpinning of rational choice theory in economics and game theory, because it represents satisfaction experienced by the consumer of a good. A good is something that satisfies human wants.

This is further divided into two kinds. Total utility and Marginal Utility.

Total utility is the total satisfaction received from consuming a given total quantity of a good or service, while marginal utility is the satisfaction gained from consuming another quantity of a good or service. Sometimes, economists like to subdivide utility into individual units that they call utils.

Total and Marginal Utility
Fig courtesy :

As you can note, as we increase the consumption, the Total Utility (TU) increases and our Marginal Capacity decreases.

This understanding of utility can be an important thing when thinking about experiences as well. What is the just the amount of experience you could provide to the users could be termed as the total experiences. What if the user did that extra task that convinced them to do one thing more. This is the marginal experience that he/she has gained by doing that extra task.

When these extra tasks end up becoming higher in number, we lose out on the total experience gained in the first place and the marginal experience is not that substantial to add any value to the earlier felt experiences.

Many times in the desire to do more, we end up adding a lot of features to product interfaces. This is a classic example of us trying to give more to the user than he has an appetite for.

Do me a favor. Kill the term UI/UX!

As an advisor to many startups, I get to speak to a lot of entrepreneurs, product managers, developers and hiring managers. One thing that remains consistent is that they face a lot of challenges in getting the ‘right’ designer on board. This of course is after they have decided that they do need one and that the designer or the creative guy is also an integral part of the team and equally responsible for the success of the product.

Getting this ‘fit’, is challenging because the designer has to understand the product well and often be forced to think from the business perspective, and for the product manager it is challenging because with design being a subjective thing, the designers’ bias always come into the picture.

To make matters worse, product owners are often asking for something that is confusing. You cannot ask for UI/UX person and have the same expectations from them? They are two different breed of people and come with different skill sets.

Every time you use the term UI/UX, a pretty bird dies somewhere!

This is a serious problem, and one that is doing a lot of damage to the product and design industry both.  We have to understand why we got into using this term and where we messed it up. In my opinion, there are multiple factors to this. One is a clear case of a problem of supply and demand. With the dearth of good UX designers, people often have no choice but end up taking a UI person. If you have studied design, you would know that they are different. Second is the fact that you do not have a clear understanding of whether you need a UI or a UX person. Third is that a lot of the job descriptions for design positions are written by people who have no or little background in Design.

When you put up a requirement stating that you are seeking UI/UX guy, you are literally saying that you are okay with hiring either a UI person OR a UX person for the same set of requirements that you may have. This is NOT right. This is further not right because you have underestimated the potential of engaging a good UX person and more likely assumed that the designer (UI person) could come to make that interface of yours look beautiful.  I understand that you are in a crisis and need to hire the person soon, to get the designs out. But you should be aware on what to expect, when you hire a particular profile.

Expectations from a good UI designer ?
He ends up studying a lot of the design Trends, rules and theories behind good Interface design, become good at softwares and tools. Dribbble and Pinterest are perhaps his best friends.

Expectations from a good UX designer ?
He ends up studying a lot of design from different aspects. You get to understand market trends on innovation, data, business and the disruptions happening in the industry. He understands design process well. He speaks from the user’s point of view all the time.

It’s evident that these are clearly two different set of skills and profiles of people that we are dealing with.

If you still don’t believe me, take a look at the numerous job postings out there. Majority of them seek a ‘UI/UX’ person.

As a designer I get a clear understanding about the culture of the company or the people I will be interacting with, just by looking at this job posting. It reflects a lack of clarity in the product owner’s vision and engaging with people.

We need to bring a corrective measure to this. 

Let’s start by doing me a favour. Kill this term UIslashUX aka UI/UX. I cringe with frustration, every time someone uses that term. If you need a UI person, ask for one. If you need a UX person, be prepared to engage them in matters beyond the UI and give them that space, resources, time and budget to fulfil that need. As product owners, you need to have this clarity. It would ensure that your engagement with the designers would be a much better experience.

In my opinion, as product managers, your goal should be to get a UX guy. Someone who is proficient with the different things under the UX umbrella and is really rock solid good at either one or two disciplines within UX.

Be clear in your requirements and your expectations when you are hiring the designer. For many product owners the realisation that you need a designer on board comes early in the process and they engage the designer at the right time. It is often seen that for the ones that realise early, they are seeking the User Experience Designers . For the ones that realise late, they end up hiring more User Interface designers.

How do you know whether a person is a UI person or a UX Person? Here are some pointers. 

  • UI person talks in interfaces. UX person talks in experiences.
  • UI person talks more about the layout and trends on interfaces. UX person talks about the overall experience from product sales and marketing to product usage to customer support.
  • UI person will talk more about the tools. UX person will talk more about the processes and design rationales.
  • UI person is more screens and Visual Design driven. UX person is more system and strategy driven.

A word of advice to a lot of junior designers is to move up to being more of a UX Designer and not be limited to only a UI Designer. I started my career as a UI person. We were called User Interface Designers then. Except the once in a while call with the Business Analysts who would sit onsite and assume to know everything about a product, there was hardly any insight into the business side of the project. Even talking to the developers used to happen only once in a while. Over the years where I evolved into a User Experience person, I enjoy my conversations with the developers on a regular basis as well as the challenges that the business is facing. Often, I am discussing with the marketing team on how the USP of the product, which has a great UX needs to be highlighted and marketed well.

We are evolving into a product-driven industry, constantly trying to create amazing products. Design plays a substantial role in the creation of these products.  As companies adopt the Agile and the Lean way of working, the need for collaboration amongst the three, viz the Designer, Developer and the Product Owner (Manager) is the way forward. UX needs to be emphasised as a company culture element. Something that is fundamentally evident in everything you do.

Finding the right designer for your product is tough. Seek and you shall find. Just make sure you ask the right question.


This post was first published on Linked In.
This post is Chapter 2 of a series of posts on Product Management, UX and Design, from Make it Look Beautiful. A compilation of essays and tips from my years of Design Consulting practice and teaching at Design schools and Management schools.

Here is the Chapter 1.

The Designer’s Angst

We have built this product, and are looking for a UX designer who can ‘Make it Look Beautiful’.

This would be the content of I do not know how many mails I have received in the past from Product Owners, Entrepreneurs, Cool Startup Guys, Project (Product) Managers at large companies, etc. I have had no problems with that, except when it started getting repetitive and, as a result frustrating at times. More often than not, I would reply back with the question whether you are looking for a Visual designer or a UX Designer. The reply would always be UX Designer, but in reality, I knew that they wanted a purely Visual Designer. Needless to say, I would often end up refusing to work with that client because more often than not the UX suggestions would be discarded.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 18.50.10

Over the past few years, I ended up teaching at an Exec MBA program, mentoring students taking courses in design both online and offline, taking workshops at corporates and speaking about Design at various conferences and events. My interactions with lots of Product Leaders, Product Owners, Product Managers and people who want to start their own Product Companies gave some very interesting insights. From being clueless about UX to the classic misunderstanding that UX is UI, to not understanding the value of research, to being driven by beautiful things! I also attended numerous startup events, spoke to numerous investors, visited a couple of accelerators to understand where the problem is.

I come to the conclusion, that in India (and to some extent perhaps around the world), we face a huge supply-demand gap. There are few (good) designers, and the demand has suddenly risen; for design is cool and the buzz word in the industry today. The role of the designer in the industry itself has changed over the years. However, the notion of what constitutes a good UX is still missing widely.

It is for sure that almost every Product Leader now at least knows that design is ‘important’ and should not be ignored. But not everyone is sure about when to invest in it and how to go about it. These are perhaps the greatest challenge that a Product Leader faces.

For some this engagement with a designer comes from the inception, while some get them too late. How do these things impact the team? With the introduction of new processes that teams follows, how does the Designer with a penchant for the waterfall way of working adapt and fit into it.

With the plethora of resources available, picking up the skills and knowledge is not that difficult. So why does the UX designer still demand a high value?

Make it Look Beautiful! is a handbook for Product Leaders and Designers to collaborate better to create amazing products. Over the course of the different chapters in this book, I would write about my discussions on various aspects of design, product management, innovation and research.

Of redesigns and UX

I have been an active user of the website IBN Live . I still remember the days when I was in the US, the one site I used to open almost daily with this, to catch up on News about India. Just recently the site has undergone an overhaul with a new design. Being a UX critic, I found just so many User Experience flaws here, that I started to vent out my disappointment on Twitter. I do realise that there could have been some business decisions behind this, but in today’s age where good User Experience is the differentiator, it is so easy to lose customers if you have not paid sufficient attention to it.

I do often mention that Making things look Beautiful is not the entire UX. It is a part of UX. User Experience is something larger than simply assessing the Visual Design. It is also about going into the details of Usability, Navigation, Information Architecture, visual design, Content. On many of these fronts, I felt that the design does not do justice to its audience.

Let me highlight just some of the UX issues on this site, that should definitely be improved. (Note: These are in no particular order of highlighted issues)

Visual Design Issues :
Excessive usage of fonts : If you look closely, the website has used so many different fonts. This is problematic, as it distracts the user and does not set the impression in mind that a certain font of a certain type can be  used for a certain thing.

There seems to be this overdose of yellow and orange. To the extent that even the sections have yellow backgrounds. The entire Visual Design theme seems so old school now. It would have been worthwhile to check out the latest trends in Visual Design, when going for an overhaul.

Being a B2C website, it is important that the goals of the website are clearly defined. Current there is a lot going on and the result of this is the unsatisfied end user.

IBN live

There are sections with numbering, which is kind of difficult to understand.

Screenshot 2015-05-25 22.13.24


Floating buttons are not recommended as it tends to break the symmetry in the layouts, and add in lots of extra white spaces.

Then if you look at the Top Videos section, the thumbnails highlighted does not seem right. Even the right/left arrow for the scrolling looks weird. It to me looks like a work in progress.


Screenshot 2015-05-25 22.25.25


On the good side of things, I do like the way the information is being structured, but I figured it out after some time. Currently the website collates all news related to the popular topic of the day and presents it in one section. Now this is a change in the way information is presented in news sites.

The rise of Product Design(ers)

When I graduated from the Department of Design at IIT Guwahati, back in 2005, the graduates were given a Bachelors in Design degree with a specialisation in either Communication Design (CD) or Product Design (PD). At the end of the first semester, the students had to chose either one of them.

I graduated from Communication Design, as I had an interest towards Graphics, film, photography. It is an interesting story how I ended up choosing CD. My fascination for typography, and the dislike for Mechanics (a subject that Product Designers had to study), made the choice very clear.

When we graduated almost everyone in the batch had a job. But the interesting thing was that for many it was not in the discipline of design. A few of us had what was called User Interface Designer, Usability Engineer, or Some of my batchmates went on to study management, some into finance and some went on to take up positions and eventually a career track change to Software development. Design jobs were tough to find, and being a Product Designer, the one that made physical products were tougher.

Years have gone by and the term ‘Product Design’ and ‘Product Designer’ is something that I see appearing in resumes more frequently now. Our understanding of the product has evolved. From what was earlier seen only as physical objects, we now talk about products in relation to Software products. In the Tech industry, where I have had the most experience of working in, the term Product Design is used widely today. This could also be due to the rise of startups and entrepreneurs trying to build solutions.

Students in a workshop
Image from a recent workshop on User Experience @ Product Innovation Academy

As design educators, we also need to think about whether what we teach about Product design, have to be changed, or the fundamentals and philosophies of design will continue to remain and it is just a question of adapting your learning to what’s contemporary and the need of the industry.

When User Experience as a career choice became more popular you had people from varied backgrounds sign up. There were product designers, graphic designers, artists, content writers, philosophy majors, psychology majors, human factors specialists all vying for the position. The umbrella of User Experience was (is) so vast that it does end up taking a wide range of professionals.

In the days where Internet of things is going to become a more integral part of our lives, and omni-channel experience is what people are going to be looking for, the role of the product designer will be all the more critical. These augurs well for the discipline of User Experience.

We will eventually see it going one step ahead with not just thinking about products but also about the system in which the product is placed and delivers the experience.

The trends that are evident, point to the fact that the economy will be experience driven. The experiences will be provided through products. Product Designers will be higher in demand and will be expected to work closely with the Product managers and people from a wide range of capabilities and expertise, all in order to ensure he success of their products.

These are indeed exciting times in the field of UX.