Grindelwald winding road

No Smooth Path to Good Design

The path to good design is bumpy, as we will demonstrate with four teapots. (Yes, teapots. Teapots are a staple of computer science and philosophy.)

The path to good design matters, because if you are trying to build a design capability, the journey will be smoother if you understand that the path is bumpy.

Leaders who appreciate the bumpy path can facilitate far greater value creation and support a more engaged group of workers.

What is design?

Design is an activity, but also a result: the specification for a product (service), which determines how it is made or delivered.

Performance is a measure of how a product actually functions, for a given task in a given context. Performance in the broadest sense includes emotional responses, static and dynamic physical characteristics, service characteristics, etc. For simplicity, let’s measure performance in monetary terms; eg. lifetime economic value.

Design is important as an activity and a result, because it is the prime determinant of performance that is within your control.

The smooth path

Teapot by Norman
Teapot by Norman[1]
Consider the distinctive teapot from the cover of Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things, where the handle – instead of opposing – is aligned with the spout.

We know a thing or two about teapots, so we assume this design has very poor performance!

However, we also assume that a traditional design with handle opposed to the spout produces the best performance.

We can plot our smooth model of how performance varies as a function of the angle between spout and handle.

Performance of teapot design variants
Performance of teapot design variants

And it’s pretty clear how to find the best design. The more opposing the handle and spout, the better the performance, the more value created, and hence the better the design.

The first bump in the path

Yokode Kyusu
Yokode Kyusu [1]
However, this model is broken. We can’t interpolate smoothly (linearly) between design points, as demonstrated by the Japanese yokode kyusu, which features a handle at right angles to its spout, to extract every last drop of tea.

With this new insight, and a further assumption that handles in between the points we’ve plotted (eg, 45 degrees) are much worse due to awkward twisting motions when pouring, we can draw a new model, which is already much less smooth.

Teapot performance with new information
Teapot performance with new information

What’s interesting about this landscape is that most design variants perform pretty poorly, and you must be close to a good design to find it. If you didn’t have the insight into teapot performance that we have assumed – if you had only tested performance at the awkward angles, and you had assumed smooth behaviour in between – you would likely miss the best designs and leave significant value on the table. (Note that the scale of this diagram should be greatly exaggerated to demonstrate the true size of value creation opportunities.)

Value created by discovery
Value created by exploration

So, this is the first lesson of the bumpy path to good design. We need to explore the performance of multiple design variants, and understand that small changes in design can have enormous impacts on performance, to be confident we are approaching our potential to create value.

Teapot with handle on top
Teapot with handle on top [3]
So far, we have only explored the impact of one design variable, but for any product we have effectively infinitely many design variables (if we can just conceive them). For instance, the handle of a teapot could also be on top, but we could also consider the shape, material, fixtures, etc. Then we could move beyond the handle to the design of the rest of the teapot!

Now consider the design and delivery of digital products and services. Constraints do exist, but infinite design variants still exist within those constraints. Further, like the rolled up dimensions of string theory, there are extra dimensions of design that are easy to miss, but once discovered can be expanded and explored to create ever more value.

The first lesson

How do leaders get this wrong? By failing to encourage the exploration of a sufficient number of design variants, and by failing to encourage the exploration of minor changes that have outsize impact.

As a leader, you must be prepared to carve out time and space, embrace uncertainty and ambiguity, and bring creativity, compassion and patience to the exploration process. As important as this is to creating value, it is also key to maintaining the engagement of teams involved in or interacting with design.

I’m often told that exploration feels inefficient. Or, rather, felt inefficient. The distinction is importation. Hindsight bias distorts the reality that before starting an exploration into a sufficiently bumpy landscape, we simply cannot know what we will find. So how do we measure efficiency of exploration? Certainly not by how quickly we arrive at a design, or by how many designs are discarded. Should we even measure efficiency of exploration? That is a better question. We should focus on net value creation, and do enough exploration to mitigate the risk that we are leaving significant value on the table.

This design sensibility, however, may not be apparent to the whole team. Designers will be frustrated being managed to a smooth path, while others who perceive the challenge to be simple may become frustrated when the bumpiness is allowed to surface. The team’s various activities may have different cadences that sometimes align, and sometimes don’t. This can create friction and dissatisfaction in teams. Some functional conflict is healthy in this regard, but as a leader, you must support and enable a team to focus on what it takes to create value.

The second bump in the path

I have used word “assume” liberally and deliberately above. I have assumed a large number of things about the tasks that users of the teapots are seeking to achieve, and the broader contexts of use. I have further assumed that my readers share a traditional western notion of teapots and their use. I have done this to keep simple – I hope – the explanation of the first bump.

But “assume” is at the root of the second bump. During product development, we can’t assume performance, we must test designs with users engaged a task in a context. We may take shortcuts by prototyping, simulating, etc, but we must test as objectively as possible, for a meaningful prediction of a product’s performance, and potential to create value.

In a bumpy design landscape, poor predictions of actual performance carry significant opportunity cost.

Value created by testing
Value created by testing

(Note also that during the development of a typical digital product/service, we are typically iteratively discovering the task and the context in parallel.)

We assumed, with our teapots above, that a spout aligned with the handle would lead to poor performance, but we didn’t test it (with a minor tweak in a hidden dimension). If we’d tested this traditional oriental design (as UX Designer Mike Eng did), we would have discovered that, for the task of serving oneself, in a solitary context, the aligned handle actually produces superior performance.

Aligned handle teapot
Aligned handle teapot [4]
I was surprised to find this teapot design existed when I stumbled upon the post from above. I suspect this teapot design has a specific name or an interesting story behind it, but I haven’t been able to track it down. However, it serves as an excellent demonstration that the best design paths are bumpy.

The second lesson

The second lesson is that assumptions about performance, task and context hide the inherent bumpiness in design. As a leader, you must recognise and challenge assumptions, encourage the testing of designs under the correct conditions, and appreciate that our understanding of task and context may evolve with testing.

There are many resources that discuss lightweight and effective approaches to UX research and testing; you could do worse than to start here.


We have discussed two major value creation activities in design:

  • Exploration and consequent discovery of performant designs
  • Testing and consequent selection of more performant designs

But these activities are overlooked or de-prioritised with a smooth mindset. While there is uncertainty, ambiguity and friction along the path, and sometimes progress is difficult to discern, as a leader, you must embrace the bumps because – if you are in the business of creating value – there is no smooth path to good design.

Image credits
  4. Ebay listing from seller

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