3 Design Lessons the CEO of Amazon

Quotes taken from his 2017 letter to investors and thoughts and application added

You read that right. I’m as surprised as you are but when a fellow coworker sent the letter to me saying I should take some time and read it I found nuggets of wisdom that are applicable to all of us. I also found a new respect for the founder and CEO of Amazon, its no wonder the company is what it is today. Whether or not you respect him some of these truths have further application to all of us than just how he’s using them in his letter.

1. Intrinsic or Teachable

If you take me on your basketball team, you can teach me many things, but you can’t teach me to be taller. —Jeff Bezos CEO, Amazon

There’s sort of a dual lesson here to glean from this principle. Contextually Bezos is talking about his philosophical views on treating and training people. That high standards can be trained if not currently found in a person. The idea that surrounding yourself with a culture of excellence will inspire that culture in yourself. Thats also why your parents are always told you to “choose your friends wisely” the attitudes of those around you will impact you. This is a lifelong principle and deserves a small callout. However, lets modify the meaning a bit.

Are features intrinsic or teachable?

At the core of our decisions in a UI/UX world is essentially this fundamental question. Which features are intrinsic and which are teachable? The whole “ a UI should be so easy you don’t have to learn anything” is complete garbage. A UI is only as usable as the sum of your past experiences using an interface. If you’ve never used the internet the worlds most usable browser wont help you. However, if we take a smartphone there are certain interactions which lend themselves as more intrinsic, they carry better affordances than others. A two year old child will quickly learn that tapping on those colored squares will cause something to happen. There’s an intrinsic value that doesn’t need to be “taught” per say but it does need to be learned.

Make this a rubric you use to qualify features and information that come out of research and brainstorming. Intrinsic or teachable? What is the cost to the user? If the future requires teaching what is the effort needed to learn? Are there ways to ease that pain? From here you can prepare better usability testing and plans which focus on key pieces of interaction you already know will require deeper user thought and understanding.

2. Universal or Domain Specific?

if you have high standards in one area, do you automatically have high standards elsewhere? I believe high standards are domain specific, and that you have to learn high standards separately in every arena of interest. — Jeff Bezos CEO, Amazon

Following close to the principle above is the idea that expertise has to be cultivated in each new category. I see this related closely to the 10,000 hour principle in that you can’t just acquire expertise across multiple disciplines without taking the time to understand and engage in that discipline over time. I don’t know that it has to be 10,000 hours but I believe that number was offered as a generality anyways.

Patterns and Systems

As designers we have ways of trying to build expertise across the application. Its one reason design systems, style guides, components, etc are becoming so vital to our toolset. Sure, there are development efficiencies to be gained but more importantly creating a sense of “expertise” in an experience is important for the user. Helping them predict how new features should be used based on previous experiences with the application. This is why redesigns can be so disorienting for existing users because you’ve changed the rules on them, their visual cues are gone.

We should also be careful in assuming that our attempts at unification guarantee understanding. Users will have to build expertise at each new junction. It definitely wont take 10,000 hours but they will have to put in effort, our job is to identify those “teaching” moments and helping that expertise grow.

3. Recognition and Scope

Unrealistic beliefs on scope — often hidden and undiscussed — kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be — Jeff Bezos CEO, Amazon

We are going to move away from the “project pitch” definitions that these terms carry in our industry and instead focus on it from a user perspective. I don’t know that I have a better argument for speaking/testing with users than this right here. Understanding the mental models your users have, their expectations as to what the outcome is or should be is vital to setting their expectations correctly but also helping them recognize that their need are being met.

Pushing beyond that, it also allows us to recognize when we have fallen short as designers. Be it from a user or stakeholder we all have those moments when we recognize our designs as no longer viable because their scope or intent was wrong to begin with. We redefine the scope based on that recognition and try again. In order to obtain the “high standard” of usefulness we have to go through the effort to obtain that information and understand it.

In conclusion

people are drawn to high standards — Jeff Bezos CEO, Amazon

Its that simple. We’ve been taught it since we were kids. Surround yourself with success and you will find success. People will use the things which help them. As long as that experience is benefitting them in appropriate ways it will get used. The days of app facetime are going away. In fact there’s a storm thats already here of people fighting against their phone addictions. Our role is to help people at the times they need it and then step aside as needed. Find those high standards and stick to them.



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Brant Day

Brant Day

Experience Designer @slalom. Founder, designer, and Illustrator @wattle_n_daub. Boring people to death with UX, illustration, typography, and identity design.