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Product design is magic

Product design is indeed magic, especially when it brings to us a wonderful experience that leaves us happy and smiling. And this happens to me when I read on Medium or chat on Slack.

But, at the same time, product design is also magic for the wrong reasons.

While we go to a magician willingly to be tricked, we don't use an app or a product to be tricked. Yet, a lot of successfully deployed product design philosophies are ripped straight out of a magician's playbook.

A magician seemingly gives us free reign while asking us to pick a card or choose a door. But, he controls our choices by controlling the menu. And this is what a lot of apps and even physical stores do. When you go to buy vegetables or soaps at the supermarket, you seem to have a lot of choice. But there have been several occasions where I haven't found what I originally went in wanting to buy but ended up buying something else that seemed like a good enough substitute.

A magician keeps our attention by offering intermittent variable rewards. This is how a casino operates as well. With every hand in blackjack, or every spin of the slot machine, we can potentially gain a big reward, but the odds of that are quite low. Yet, we try because we have no way of knowing on what try that reward could be high. When apps send us notifications, they employ the same philosophy. Every time there is a new email or a new notification, the scenario is that of intermittent variable reward. Occasionally, there will be something that is really important and one we would like to be interrupted for, but most of the time, we play along just in case.

One of the oldest magic tricks is where you are offered a handkerchief and when you pull it out, it is followed by another and another and another. The bottomless pits of the news feed and self-playing videos is like this. You pull one because you probably needed it and then you keep pulling out more and more before you realise you have spent two hours that you cannot later remember why you ended up spending this way.

Just like a magician can manipulate our choices by controlling the menu of choices, he can also do it by making it harder for us to make inconvenient choices. Have you ever tried deleting your Facebook account? Or unsubscribing from Monster emails? If not, give it a try and you'll know what I'm talking about.

Product design is magic. But it is up to us to use it to delight users or to trick them.

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