Obvious Product Manifesto

Our product manifesto: The principles we value, and the values that uphold them.

This is our product manifesto.

As an organisation, our mission is simple — make this complex world of ours, exceedingly obvious. While our mission might be simple, it’s certainly not easy. And though our mission isn’t easy, advancing towards it everyday is certainly very rewarding. Why you ask?

Take satellite communication, one of the most complex innovations of the last century for example. Today, it powers navigation services, on top of which are built everyday businesses like ride hailing, food delivery, courier services and more. A lot more. None of those businesses would have been conceived, if it weren’t for a dead obvious manifestation of navigation a.k.a maps, in the palms of billions of people.

For us, making complex things obvious is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. It has the power to drive systemic change which is otherwise impossible to realize. We’ve dedicated our lives to creating that change, and this document captures the values that help us deliver it, every single day.

What is obvious?

Before we dive into how we make the world more obvious, it’s important to understand what obvious means to us. For us, design is obvious when it is:

  • Useful: An obvious design, must always deliver a strong value to its users.
  • Time-honoured: An obvious design, must continue to deliver that value, despite the vagaries of technology, because it does not seek to be fashionable.
  • Clear: An obvious design, explicitly articulates its value and makes no attempt to mislead its users.
  • Unobtrusive: An obvious design, helps the user through humility, without enforcing the designer’s opinion.
  • Flexible: An obvious design, helps all its users find their balance, by supporting those who want to do more, without compromising the simplicity for those who need to do just enough.
  • Responsive: An obvious design, talks to its users.
  • Aesthetic: An obvious design, connects with the users, by attempting to add beauty to their lives.
  • Thorough: An obvious design, makes the user feel cared for, because it is meticulously crafted, down to the very last detail.
  • Dead Obvious: An obvious design, is devoid of anything that does not have an obvious reason to be there.

Because we attempt to be effective, not necessarily original, a majority of these principles are inspired from the master of good design, Dieter Rams. His time-honoured advice has had a positive influence on our work which is why our design principles draw deeply from his own.

How do we make design Obvious?

Making things obvious isn’t easy, because it isn’t an outcome that can be targeted directly. In fact, it can only happen as a byproduct of the values that a team practices everyday. For us, those values are the following:

  • Start with why
  • Build with, not for
  • Prototype prolifically
  • Measure what matters
  • Stand on the shoulders of giants
  • Create with care
  • Design as little as possible

Start with why

We believe that there are no silly questions. Even if there are, we don’t shy away from asking them, whether to our clients, our users, or ourselves. Solving complex problems requires a first principles mindset, where breaking every problem down to its basic building blocks helps us unlock all its facets. Sometimes that requires us to ask questions that make us look stupid, but we’re comfortable with that. Through humble inquiry, we get to the root of the problem, leaving for ambiguity, only as little room as possible.

Tips for success:

  • Question everything till you have all the answers
  • Break down the problem to its basic building blocks
  • Be comfortable with looking stupid; your solutions will be wiser

Build with, not for

If you’ve ever been in a situation, where you’ve been handed down a solution to your problem without the problem solver making an attempt to empathise with your situation, you probably understand how ineffective the approach is. Understanding the problem space deeply is necessary, but not sufficient. The assumption that we can solve whatever problem we encounter once we understand it really well, is not just naive, but also dangerous.

To solve a problem effectively, we involve the people we’re solving it for. Those suffering, have more information about the problem, and often have failure and success stories from their own attempts at finding a solution. Leveraging those learnings by co-creating solutions with them helps expedite the design process, which allows us to go above and beyond the solutions that exist. This helps us stay grounded and avoid the god complex a lot of designers suffer from. At the same time, it helps us leave things better than we found them.

Tips for success:

  • Touch base with your stakeholders and users regularly
  • Invite them in the creation process
  • Play the user as often as you can by putting yourself in their situation

Prototype prolifically

Co-creation helps gain empathy for the users, but there’s more that’s needed to create holistic solutions. The solutions need to be prototyped and tested in a realistic environment, so that the experience is as close an approximation of reality as possible. As the father of Interaction Design, the late Bill Moggridge used to say — “The only way to experience an experience is to experience it.”

To experience the experience, we prototype prolifically. This often involves creating numerous prototypes for solving the same set of problems, and testing what sticks. In addition, we also prototype the situation in which the solution is most likely to be used, which allows us to gain a comprehensive understanding of the overall experience.

By embracing the build to learn mindset over the more commonly used learn then build approach, we ensure that we move rapidly and learn from each prototype. Extensive prototyping keeps us rooted in reality, which allows us to weed out ideas that might fail early on, and shift our focus towards strengthening our winning ideas.

Tips for success:

  • Build to learn, not learn then build
  • Embrace early failure; avoiding costly mistakes is success in itself
  • Experience holistically

Measure what matters

Though the understanding of design has evolved significantly in the last few decades, it still shares the reputation of its parent, art — an obscure black box out of which emerge beautiful but abstract ideas. To change this view and make design more comprehensible, we ensure that everything we design has a measurable outcome.

Keeping the grand product vision in mind, we break down long term product goals into quantifiable short term success metrics, to which we align our research goals. By doing just enough research using a series of prototypes/beta releases, we measure the success or failure of our ideas at every stage of product development.

Tips for success:

  • Align learning outcomes to business goals
  • Quantify success metrics to gauge success/failure
  • Practice just enough research

Stand on the shoulders of giants

Resisting the temptation to be original can be hard. Don’t get us wrong. We do want to be original, but not at the cost of being effective. We believe that it’s far wiser to build on top of the great work that already exists, and then apply our thinking to make it as novel as possible without diluting the value of existing knowhow.

Existing knowhow can come from several places — documented prior art, subject matter experts, clients, users, and colleagues who have solved similar problems. Practices like pair design, seeking constant feedback from stakeholders and colleagues, learning from domain experts, are a few out of the many possible ways of ensuring that our work builds on top of valuable knowledge that’s easily available.

Tips for success:

  • Don’t drink your own kool-aid, seek regular feedback
  • Relevant know-how probably exists; learn from it and build on top
  • Be as novel as you can without compromising effectiveness, not more

Create with care

Our work goes out to millions of people. At that scale, there are no edge cases. Every missed detail affects tens of thousands of people. While the excitement that comes with designing for massive scale keeps us going, the responsibility that comes attached with that privilege is not to be taken lightly. The cost of getting it wrong is disproportionately large, but if done carefully, so is the reward associated with getting it right.

As creators, there’s nothing more rewarding than connecting with millions of people through our work, even though we don’t get the opportunity to interface with most of them directly. Being thorough and detail oriented demands the hard work involved in deep deliberate practice, but the effort pays off when the users feel cared for.

Tips for success:

  • Practice deep work; detail requires focus
  • Test everything as often as you can
  • Avoid analysis paralysis; balance bias for detail with bias for action

Design as little as possible

Complex problems are often a jumbled web of several interconnected smaller problems, each of which has its own set of possible solutions. Solving such problems isn’t trivial, because it requires converging those solutions into a single unified design. This convergence needs sifting through numerous possibilities and choosing the path of least resistance for the users, which is achieved only when the design has been simplified to a point where there’s nothing left to take away. Every detail has a purpose. Every detail is intentional. There’s nothing that is superfluous and can be done without. That’s when designs aren’t just simple, they are also beautiful.

As the scientist Richard Buckminster Fuller used to say — “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty, but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

Tips for success:

  • Simplify till you can, then simplify some more
  • Sometimes a bunch of good ideas don’t fit together; be comfortable with making trade-offs to find the path of least resistance for the user
  • Question every detail; remove everything that seems superfluous

Articulating Design Decisions