Minimum Usable Design

There is a paradox that fits my life. It doesn’t matter which part of my life, because it alsmost always applies. Even more so when I think about Design and in particular Landscape Design.

“To walk through the woods, you first need to walk halfway through. Then, once you’re in the middle of it, you still need to walk half of the remaining distance, then half of the distance again, and then another half, and you can never successfully make it through the woods.” – Zeno’s Paradox

When designing I’m always halfway there. I am never done, nothing is ever perfect and finished. It can allways be better. If I just had two more weeks to finish it. And another two weeks to make it perfect. And another week to do this and that. I am always halfway there. This can wear me down, but with a little twist I can get the design to 99% perfect.

The Google Example

If we had a infinite time and there were no deadlines, one could tackle every part of the design we wanted without any worries. But we don’t have projects without deadlines, we have projects that have unforgiving deadlines, deadlines that have to be met or we don’t get paid. But we also know what we want to achieve, but first we have to get halfway there.

If the very first half of the design makes the product 50% usable, then what would you design first? In the case of Google: The Logo? The Footer? The obvious choice would be the search box and the button. In fact if we design that, then we’re probably 50% finished because the design is now usable. We’re halfway to our end goal.

Now we need to get halfway from where we are now to where we need to be. For Google it’s important that their branding is present, so people know where to come back the next time the want to search. That means a logo. Now we have a Search box with a button and a logo. We’re 75% finished. (Many people would be satisfied with using Google with just this, something like 75% of the people). So if a 75% design pleases 75% of the people, we’re already doing great.

If you keep knocking out half of what you need to do, eventually the design will be good enough and please 99% of the people. And isn’t 99% a really great result?!

Minimum Usable Design

“A Minimum Viable Product has just those features (and no more) that allows the product to be deployed.” – MVP

The term “Minimum Viable Product” is used in the startup community. I would like to introduce a new term to the design community: “Minimum Usable Design“. This is when you reach the 50% point of your design, if your design can’t be used when you’ve reached 50%, then you haven’t reached 50%.

This does not imply that your design is finished at 50%, it just means that it is usable and the basis is complete. Sometimes you need to reach 99% before your design is finished (this is Maximum Viable Design). Sometimes you don’t. It depends on your design and the users.

Apple uses Minimum Viable Product with the limited features, but make up for it with Maximum Viable Design.

An Example

Garden Design is a fair example, so lets try it. When I design I have expectations, demands and clients that don’t know what they want but do know. The main goal is to make the garden usable for these specific clients. Making it usable will make the vast majority of the clients happy. Because of this, I want to make sure that the garden is as usable as it can possible be and so I need to know which design will get me there.

The 50% mark. It will be incredible simple and achieve the #1 goal.

With this goal reached, I can continue my design journey and make the clients even more happy. I decide the next step should be implementing some (if reasonable) demands of the clients.

The 75% mark. It will have the lines, elements and uses the clients want from the garden.

After reaching this point, most clients will be happy and the original Minimum Usable Design will still be intact. From this point I can take another halfway point journey by defining all the plants and materials.

87,5% of the journey…

Again this does not take away from the original 50%. Time for another halfway journey. Making the details of (almost) every part of the garden. The pavement. The pool. The garden house. Anything that’s in the garden.

93,75% of the journey is completed

For a lot of people the garden will be finished by now, for some it needs finishing touches. Like furniture, lighting, maintenance plans, etc… that will bring me to the 99%.


Design is Never finished

Although the clients and I may be happy with the end result of this design journey, it doesn’t mean it will be this way in a year or two. The clients may have gotten children, their children may have grown up or they got a dog. These things demand something else of the garden. Fortunately, the more halfway points you knock out in a design, the smaller the chance that it doesn’t make them happy.

Be careful though, adding to much will take away from the original 50% which was the main purpose of the design from te beginning.

And don’t think that this applies only to minimalistic design – that’s just what I like – , it applies as much to design that add a lot of flare to their aesthetic.

Always aim for the next halfway point and you will get closer and closer to the edge of the forest – but remember that you will never reach the end. Designs can always be improved upon and therefore will always be unfinished.

Previous Posts