The Modern Digital Tragedy / Part 1 of 6

We want to make software that is more useful, usable, and wildly accepted. Development teams have worked toward this ideal for decades. Noteworthy digital products are rare because they are so hard to create. Success requires managing endless details, expectations, and circumstances. It feels like a problem that can’t be solved.

The Age of Digital Products

We live in a world dependent on digital products. Technology utterly dominates our lives. You can hardly throw a rock without hitting someone using a connected device.

Because we interact with screens all day long, our attention on user interface has moved front and center. This presents daunting challenges for those of us who craft interactive products or services. Everyone prefers that their apps, websites, or software solve critical problems while being amazingly easy to use. Deep down, we also want our products to be head-over-heels loved. Digital products with these traits have a far greater chance to achieve profitability, overall success, and even market dominance.

Development teams have pursued this particular elusive goal since the first lines of code were written. Given the volume of industry chatter dedicated to making better apps, the world should be awash in stellar, intuitive software. But we all know this isn’t the case. Despite the existence of the software self-help industry, most web apps, mobile apps, interactive software, and intranets are mediocre at best, and barely usable at worst.

You know you can do better. But there are things in your way.

Where You’re Starting

First, let’s assume your digital product fulfills basic requirements for success:

  • It’s a strong idea. Your product has legs. It represents a feasible, workable concept that offers value.
  • The market is ready. Your digital product fulfills an unmet market need or boasts functionality that serves your market better than others.
  • You’re implementing a reasonable strategy. Your firm has a credible, not necessarily perfect, go-to-market plan.
  • Your product actually works. It is functional. This should go without saying. But we have to say it.

But assuming your product meets these criteria, the question still remains, “How do you make it remarkable, easy-to-use, and loved?

It can be done.

The marketplace is full of high-profile, well-planned products (physical and virtual). Several come immediately to mind, including Nest thermostat, Lego bricks, the iPhone, Google Maps, Basecamp, Aeron chairs, Netflix, the Oculus Rift, Slack, Airbnb, and MailChimp. Their fame is not merely the result of clever marketing or storytelling. Not all began with fountains of cash. These products succeed because they serve people beautifully. In both the real and virtual worlds, they deftly merge form and function. They are easy to use. The market has embraced them.

Unfortunately, most development-centered organizations do not understand why their software fails to live up to this promise fully.

We’re going to dig into the reasons.

The Core Conundrum

Development teams feel burdened with high expectations. Despite efforts to create excellent work on the level of admired products, you probably don’t often reach your goals. Instead, you spend endless time fighting the same battles for quality, buy-in, and process over and over again. Fate seems to conspire against you.

This has all the earmarks of an ancient Greek tragedy.

The Story of Sisyphus

Sisyphus, famed character of Greek myth, was a notoriously clever adversary of the gods. His repeated efforts to cheat death ran him afoul of Hades. Finally brought to heel by Zeus, he was condemned to spend an eternity rolling a massive boulder up a hill, only to see it endlessly roll back down. He was forced to endure an eternity of fruitless, pointless toil.

Are we modern boulder pushers?

Creating digital products can feel very much like pushing a massive chunk of rock uphill that never quite gets to the mountaintop. What developer, program manager, or interactive team cannot sympathize with this everlasting frustration and torment? We are the present-day Sisyphus.

We repeat the same process, take the same actions, and stubbornly adhere to the same standard approaches.

Despite lofty goals, we find ourselves mired in self-defeating patterns. We repeat the same process, take the same actions, and stubbornly adhere to the same standard approaches. Naturally then, software looks and behaves much as it ever has. People respond much as they ever will. Worse, like Sisyphus, we are conscious of our fate. We know it’s happening. And we feel like the cycle is forever. But it doesn’t have to be.

Your Sisyphean Burden

So you’re not dealing with gigantic rocks. You’re making digital products. But like Sisyphus, your job isn’t easy. Development teams are responsible for software that solves highly complex, intricate problems. This may involve traditional software, mobile apps, or web apps, and a multitude of factors are involved, all of which must succeed.

Development leaders must thrive in each of these (often conflicting) areas:

  • User Need – Your digital product serves a wide variety of people who have high and ever-increasing demands. They have real-world needs that must be addressed.
  • Market Knowledge – You are expected to have a profound understanding of the market.
  • Thorough Planning – Effective software requires extensive planning, from corporate strategy through finished release (and beyond).
  • Stakeholder Expectation – You have a diverse group of stakeholders to keep happy. Their needs often conflict. Worse, organizational leadership often focuses on short-term utility over long-term quality.
  • Time Pressure – Good work takes time, yet schedule pressure is a primary driving force for most digital products.
  • Complexity – Intricate functionality can be exceedingly difficult to build.
  • Requirements – Requirements must be well-defined, clearly communicated, and agreed upon by everyone involved. This is always tougher in practice than in theory.
  • Usability – You must balance depth of features and functions with the usability of the final product.
  • Quality – Everything must work perfectly.
  • Budget – Creating solid software requires a high investment in a world where margins demand greater and greater efficiency and cost reduction.
  • Competitiveness – At the end of the day, your product must be competitive in an ever-changing marketplace.
  • Team Building and Dynamics – It can be exceedingly difficult to find and keep the right people to make great software happen.

An Overwhelming Ideal

Balancing these imperatives is difficult to say the least. It’s such a problem, an entire industry is devoted to digital product improvement. Scores of books have been written on product strategy alone. But what about the people who are responsible for actually building the end products? Development teams are not always well connected with corporate strategy, market strategy, or even users themselves. Yet these teams are expected to make consistent and constant progress toward better and better interfaces. They are expected to make interactive products that stand above the rest, products that are as useful as they are usable. Everyone wants better usability.

It can feel like too much to bear. It can feel impossible. Perhaps the myth of Sisyphus teaches us to accept our place in the world and embrace the inevitability of failure.

But what if you didn’t have to resign yourself to this fate? What if you could get that boulder once and for all to the top of the mountain?

Attacking the Problem

At this very hour, developers are employing a wide variety of tactics to revolutionize what they make and how they make it. They are trying to create better user experiences. To do so, they naturally lean on their unique points of view. Development teams are filled with brilliant, analytical, process-driven engineers. And they play to their strengths.

We’re going to examine the things they try, and why they often fail.

Continue to Part 2 ›

Relying on Process Change

The Modern Digital Tragedy

Part 1: The Eternal Quest for Exceptional Digital Products
Part 2: Relying on Process Change
Part 3: Outsourcing the User Interface
Part 4: Teaching Correct Behavior
Part 5: Upgrading Visuals in a Vacuum
Part 6: Why Development-Centered UI Approaches Fail

About truematter

Frustrating screen experiences are everywhere. You deal with them, we deal with them, our older relatives deal with them, and they make us all want to take a hammer to whatever device we’re using.

Truematter exists to make all of our lives easier any time we have to deal with a website, app, or piece of software. Our team is always thinking about how to improve user experience to help create digital products that are usable, useful, and loved. You can read more of our thoughts at


Author: Dean Schuster
Editor: Bailey Lewis
Illustrator: Daniel Machado
Whitepaper Designer: Rannah Derrick