Although counter-intuitive, the best way to understand the strengths of anything is to fight against them. In that spirit, one way you can take a big leap forward in designing better things, is to learn how to design worse things.
It may not be as easy as it sounds.
We spend our entire lives looking at the things we do well, or best, or better than before, or better than other people, because humans are awesome like that. We love ourselves, and we never miss an opportunity to focus on why we deserve it.
But at the end of the day, that’s why most people are average. If you already think you’re doing great, why try to do a lot better?
One of the best pieces of professional advice I have read is: “Design a strategy to fail completely, then do the opposite.”
The idea is that if you discover what failure looks like, and why it happens, you will also discover what success looks like in the process.
A few examples might help:
If you wanted to design a site that would look completely normal, but would flush your sales numbers down the toilet, how would you do it?
If you wanted to make a site that was easy to use, but would be as enjoyable as doing your taxes on your birthday, how would you do that?
If you wanted to design a form that would never, ever be completed by anyone, even under threat of torture or the public release of your sex tape, how would you do that?
This type of thinking may seem useless or unproductive to some, but I want to argue that it is a key piece of strategy missing from a lot of companies’ and designers’ toolboxes.
When you spend all day looking for reasons to agree with yourself you will not only find them, you will ignore thousands of reasons to disagree with yourself. But when you spend all day trying to prove that the opposite of your strategy is good, you will either find it difficult, or easier than you hoped. One of those is a red flag and your intuition is not going to like it.
I have seen a real campaign site from a famous brand that provided all the expected information about their products (jeans), but the company expected users to navigate to their “real” site and find the product again to make the purchase. In real life, less than 0.01% of their visitors actually bought something.
I have seen a “community” where you can post reviews of anything you want, and then your review disappears into the abyss, never to be heard from again. The number of visitors who posted again was almost zero (and there were millions of them).
I have seen an app with a pricing model that was more-or-less equal to their competitors — of which there were many — but they presented it as a huge yearly price without any trial period. As far as I know, they are struggling.
Now, if, in their infinite wisdom, these sites had briefly considered the destructive approach, they might have realized that it sounded a little too familiar. They might have realized that putting “Buy” buttons on the campaign site, or providing feedback via email, or displaying the price as a monthly fee with one month for free would be dramatically better solutions.
So go through your work and, for each decision, ask yourself: how would I destroy this completely, without anyone noticing? How close is my actual design to the worst case scenario? Is there anything in common between the two? If so… am I about to royally screw-the-pooch** with someone else’s money?
And don’t be afraid to make changes based on that thinking. What’s the worst that could happen?
** = industry jargon, meaning: do something dumb.