Micro UX.

How bottom-up product design liberates designers and delights users.

Francesco Bertelli
February 26, 2014

We are on the cusp of a major shift in how product designers approach their jobs. The legacy method is to spend a lot of upfront time concocting a formal strategy and identifying “user needs” before getting to work building something, a top-down process that is time-consuming and costly. An alternative—and increasingly accessible—method is to focus on synthesizing individual elements and features of a product from the bottom-up, ultimately discovering new use cases that could drive a viable business strategy. If the traditional approach is “macro UX,” the new one is “micro UX.”

The best example of bottom-up design—micro UX—is building with Legos. The designer uses predefined units and works with them as starting points to create something new. In designing digital products, we similarly leverage specific technologies, gestures and features of different devices to build something without worrying about the overall strategy. With each iteration, a cohesive product takes form, and using real-time usability testing, designers continue to tweak that new product until users love it. This open-ended process might spook some clients or traditional practitioners, but it’s what’s beginning to separate truly great product design from merely adequate design.

Why micro UX now?

For the last few decades of digital product design, we’ve taken the macro UX approach. UX pioneer Don Norman was an early advocate of focusing on user needs upfront in the process. But something has changed in recent years (in fact, Norman himself repudiated the existing paradigm in a provocative essay called “Technology First, Needs Last,” in 2010). There are several big factors at play for the shift:

  • Increased access to better and cheaper technology, from Arduino to smartphones and tablets to sensors.
  • More immediate and deeper global knowledge networks, from coder forums to stackoverflow.com.
  • Easier ways to test product iterations relatively cheaply, from KickStarter to the App Store. 
  • Real-time tracking tools, from online surveys to eye tracking costing less than $200 to widely-available cursor trackers. 

These converging developments make micro UX low-risk and liberate product designers to experiment and play with small features (designer and micro UX evangelist Dan Saffer calls them microinteractions) that together affect the user in myriad ways and constitute her experience. 

When is micro UX best? 

Micro UX will not—and should not—entirely supplant macro UX. It works best with smaller, informal teams, smaller budgets and smaller products in general (though not exclusively). Other scenarios:

  • Designing experimental products with no predefined audience. Take Jelly, the app that lets users take photos and attach text messages. The way users use Jelly is still evolving, but these uses are triggers that could help the company determine its identity later. 
  • Designing an insurgent product aimed at taking out incumbents. When Facebook was still just becoming the behemoth it is today and competing with MySpace, it focused on small details like incorporating JavaScript so the user didn’t have to refresh pages constantly, like they did on MySpace. While several, complex factors contributed to Facebook’s ultimate success, micro UX played a role. Similarly, Tinder, the wildly popular dating app, is built on top of a simple swipe gesture that only makes matches when both parties accept them. The micro UX of Tinder has helped the startup supplant larger, more established sites that built services based on preconceived matching algorithms, like Match.com or OKCupid. 
  • Refreshing an established brand’s digital presence. For companies with successful, existing digital products, updating the design with a micro UX approach helps keep the focus on incremental, user-focused improvements. For example, TED.com’s recent redesign boasts several smaller adjustments that provide delightful moments, like smarter, more intuitive pull-down menus when there are many options to choose from (full disclosure, Huge worked with TED on the project). 

Marrying macro and micro UX?

Of course it’s possible that the best way forward is to adjust how traditional macro UX works informed by micro UX best practices. Designers and strategists/researchers would work together from the outset, with the latter doing audience research in parallel with the former’s iterating and real-time testing. Together, they would validate the evolving product design. This approach would let user needs, as determined by research, align with actual user use, as shown by testing. 

The advent of micro UX is exciting for both the designer and user. The designer is now able to incorporate a broader skill set—coding, visual design, psychology—in his quest to build the delightful moments that together make up the micro UX of a product, not to mention observe the impact of each iteration on actual users and adjust as necessary. The user is about to experience a host of products designed to make her life easier and much more fun.

*With Tom O’Reilly, Director, Huge Content.