Objective Driven Design (ODD)

If you define design as “to devise for a specific function or end,” it’s hard to imagine designing with out intended outcome at the forefront of your mind. Yet at some point in our careers we have committed this sin. Whether it’s making decisions based on aesthetics, including “popular” website elements (I’m looking at you social media buttons) or focusing on what the stake-holders want over the users — we have made design decisions that fail to consider what the design hopes to achieve.

With so many things to focus on — style to structure and everything in between — I can’t blame anyone for having difficulty seeing the forest from the trees. But it’s no excuse. This is our profession, our trade, our craft. I don’t expect anyone to be perfect (and I certainly am not) but we should strive to create the best work possible.

But best is hard to quantify and even more difficult to qualify. How do you know if one design is better than another? Clearly tastes differ and chances are your aesthetic preference won’t match the users. At the risk of oversimplification, the answer is objectives. If you can define what the design is supposed to achieve in a measurable way you can (duh) measure its performance. This is the heart of objective drive design, let’s explore further.

Objective Driven Design Defined

Easy to understand yet hard to master, objective drive design is simply the act of consciously making design decisions based on the objectives of your stake holders and users. In short, what do the people paying you want to achieve? and what do the users want to achieve? This simple question (or more often, questions) should dictate every pixel placed on the screen.

Most design discussions I have been privy to explore objectives in one form or another, but alas exploration is not enough. ODD (objective driven design) isn’t that easy. Too often the answers to objective questions influence the end design but fail to dictate it — and there is an insurmountable difference. Let’s discuss what happens when take the former approach.

Objectives Influencing Design

Picture this common scenario. Your goal is to generate leads and users coming to the site want to find out pricing, service offerings and get some idea the quality of company X’s work. I would venture this loosely describes over 50% of the B2B service websites on the web.

With such a common design problem it’s not surprising most of the premium themes designed for this audience share a common set of characteristics. Below are the top three WordPress themes on ThemeForest.

What you will notice is all of these themes have a common set of elements. Typically news, a slider, their unique positioning statement, calls to action, massive amounts of social media links, blog listings, tweets, service offerings and previous work. Now there may be justification for some of these common elements, but certainly not all of them. There in lies the problem.

These themes were influenced by objectives but they aren’t objective driven. In all fairness, it would be near impossible to design a mass market theme in a “pure” ODD manner, but I digress. If you consider the primary goal of generating leads with users who’re looking for pricing, services and quality indicators then half the elements on the page are unnecessary. A carousel, while “cool” does little to help the users out. You could argue they are communication device, but I would counter that it’s hardly the most effective approach (well described here.) News? Typically news sections are a place for companies to brag about things users don’t care about.

In the end the design is probably not ineffective but it’s also not extremely effective either. Even a handful of unnecessary elements have a profound impact on a design. Those well versed in psychology know that adding decision points and expanding options create unnecessary cognitive load. Even simple decisions are a seven step process and take energy to perform. Thus every additional element on the page requires a decision to observe or ignore. Even after that decision you still have to process, comprehend and commit the stimuli to working memory. All together the task of browsing unfocused websites leads to ego depletion, leaving the user tired and strained… not the experience you want to be cultivating and certainly not the best way to generate conversions.

Let’s see how this differs with ODD.

Objective Driven Design (ODD)

I subscribe to the thought that users inherently want to convert. They have a task in mind, they’re interested in your product or service and if enticed will purchase, fill out your contact form… or whatever. Your job is to reduce the friction required to convert. This primarily achieved by eliminating slow downs and facilitate information retrieval. By preventing the user from having to think too hard and making it easy to find desired information you maximize the possibility of conversion. The best way of doing this is through the elimination everything which is not absolutely necessary.

If users are uninterested in your news feed, recent accomplishments or other self promotional content they will ignore it. It doesn’t mater that YOU want them to see it. See my post on selective disregard if you are interested in the reasoning. Instead of learning about the companies accomplishments you deplete their willpower by requiring unnecessary effort to ignore it in lieu of what they DO care about.

With ODD everything on the page supports the primary objectives (for both users and stakeholders.) Any element that doesn’t tie to the objectives is removed. Pure ODD is ruthless, even partially relevant elements are slashed and burned.

An Example of ODD

Not surprisingly well designed landing pages are great examples of ODD. Even though you can’t realistically design an entire website like a landing page you can still learn from them.

If we take a look at the DevAuditions landing page we can see that despite a large number of elements on the page each one is necessary to convert users. The design begins by introducing the user to the product with the USP and some supporting material. It follows up by outlining three key features, illustrated by the image to the right (giving the user an idea of what type of service this is.)

It then has the first call to action for those who are already sold. Those who aren’t get a detailed description of how it works, followed by some more detailed copy and credibility boosting client logos. This is topped off by some final teasers and another (stronger) call to action.

Notice how there is nothing superfluous? Notice how all the content on the page is also tailored towards the users questions? You can see with in each section they are answering common questions, stopping points, etc…

Question: What is this site?
Answer: DevActions.

Question: What is this about?
Answer: Hiring developers smarter.

Question: How does it work?
Answer: See this three-step process.

Question: What are the benefits of using DevAuditions?
Answer: Better hiring through demonstrated problem solving, reports on performance

Question: Who uses DevAuditions?
Answer: See our clients here.

Question: What do I do next?
Answer: Buy a Dev Audition

Note that ODD is about clarity, not sparsity. The design need not be drab, flat and boring. Rather everything exists to support the primary objectives without exception. The key here is primary, you don’t see social media icons, newsletter sign ups, etc…

What to Take Away

I could (and probably will) discuss ODD at great length, but this is not my intention for this post. The truth is ODD is nothing new. Some of you reading this have been doing it your whole career, only under a different name. The Aeronautics industry practically invented it, although they call it “Value-Driven Design.”

My hope is that I have planted a seed, one that you will consider even if in passing. Then, maybe, the next time you design that seedling will remind you to consider what you are doing just a slight bit more and maybe… just maybe you will decide to do something different as a result.