The power of NOT in design

Some say strategy is what we are going to do, this only tells part of the story. What we will not do also is an important part of your strategy. Exactly the same goes for design. What is smart design, from a user perspective, or even a user experience perspective? What is in scope for an interaction, an interface? And also what is not in scope. What is not smart for this user? Who is not the user? ‘Not’ can be quite powerful.

If we talk about strategy, we usually state what we are going to do, to deliver. It’s usually what we choose to do. I’d like to add that what we are not going to do is equally important for your strategy. Choosing what not to do is sharpening your strategy much more than just a bit. Choosing what not to do in addition to what you will do makes a much more complete strategy to execute.


Creating creative ideas in design also takes a huge leverage on the use of not. In the practical problem solving method for innovation, known asTRIZ, it is also a great tool for taking new perspectives. Thinking not on what you might consider essential in a current solution or offering, can help create a whole new direction – read disruption – in a service or even a whole sector. Some examples: The best hotel is not a hotel, the best taxi is not a taxi and the best interface is not an interface. Does it sound familiar, not?

Recently we created a great set of personas, scenarios and user stories for an interface on an iPad (primarily and secondary on a mobile phone). Being new in their respective area of operation (confidential, sorry), we didn’t quite get all the personas and accompanying scenarios and user stories spot on, so to say. To be honest we were quite off on some of them.

This user will never use the interface”, “This is not what they will use this solution for”. Not quotes we were expecting to hear. This felt a bit wrong, at first. As it turned out it massively helped our discussion around focusing on the user behavior and the demands for this interface. This “not a user” and “not a valid scenario” helped us scope the interface much more than just seeing what would supposedly be in scope. It sharpened the dialogue as well as the interface.

So, besides writing user stories, use cases (and possibly abuse cases for security), we can add ‘not’ user and ‘not’ use cases for sharpening the dialogue and by such scoping the interface and interaction with the users even further.  This thought us a very valuable lesson using ‘not’ in design. A handy tool that is easy for us to create a sharper scope and an even more logical interaction on any touch point. Would you use ‘not’ on your next design?

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  1. Marc Smaak February 5, 2016 Reply

    I could not agree more. You usually see the requirements of of a project only grow and it is often difficult to exclude things. However by excluding you can keep the scope clear if avoid confusion with the user. This starts with defining a clear goal for the product and indeed also the goals which are not to be met! This also gives you the opportunity to define new products which meet the excluded goals.

    In the time the engine of a power tool was the most expensive part you had one machine which could do drilling, sanding, saw, … They have all disappeared because it is not user friendly (just wallet friendly) I think this has to be the same for SW but you often see it differently.

  2. Marc Smaak February 5, 2016 Reply

    I could not agree more as the Germans say:
    In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister.
    Or if you can limit your self to the minimal you mostly have a better product.