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MUD: Minimum Usable Design

There is a paradox that fits my life. Doesn’t matter what aspect of my life I am talking about because it always seems to apply. Even more so when I think about this paradox and the design of this website and other websites. I really hate this paradox.

“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.”

This example is based off of Zeno’s paradoxes1, which are even more mind-boggling than the one above.

No matter what stage of a design I am in, I am always halfway there. This is why you might find yourself always saying that you need two more weeks to finish up all the details. It will always be two more weeks no matter what, because all you did was get halfway from where you were to where you are trying to go. Using this mentality can wear you down, but if you twist it around a bit, it can be used as motivation to achieve a successful design.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

A Totally Made Up Theory Link

Let’s use our good ol’ sparring partner Google6 as an example. You are about to sit down and create the first home page in Google’s history. If you had an infinite amount of time you could tackle any part of the design that you wanted without any worries. But unfortunately life doesn’t give us non-deadlined projects. Because of this, you know the goal that you are striving to achieve—you know what it looks like once you leave the woods, so first, you just have to get halfway there.

If the very first half makes the design at least 50% usable then what would you design first? The logo? The footer? The obvious choice would be the search box and button. In fact, if you design that, then you are probably over 50% of the way through with the design because the website is now usable. It’s good to get that first 50% out of the way, and now you are halfway to your end goal. Some people like to call this working from the inside out.

Next step is to get halfway from where we are now to where we need to be. I think it’s important that we have some kind of branding on the page so people know where to come back to next time they want to search. That means I put the logo on the page. Once I am done with that I’m 75% of the way to my goal. 75% of the way through and how many people in the world would be satisfied with using Google if it had nothing but a logo, search bar and one button on it? I’m betting more than 75%. But if getting 75% of the way towards our goal can please even 75% of our audience, we might be doing a good job.

If you continue on with this process of knocking out half of what you need to do, eventually you will get close enough to your goal where good enough is as good as you are going to get. I know people argue about what good enough means, but if you are 99% of the way to where you are trying to go, then good enough is good enough.

MUD Link

In the startup community there is a term called minimum viable product.

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

Minimum Viable Product, from Wikipedia7

I’m coining the term Minimum Usable Design, and that is when you reach your 50% mark for your design. If you can’t use your design after you have reached 50% (or a person can’t understand at least 50% of what is going on) then you haven’t reached the 50% mark yet.

By no means does this imply that you should show your design to the public at the 50% mark, but you can use it as a way to gauge your progress. Sometimes you need to wait untill you are 99% done before showing your work to a larger audience. There is nothing wrong with striving for perfection, but it depends on your design and audience. Apple8 does minimum viable product with the limited features on their products, but make up for it with maximum viable design (a new term, crown me king).

An Example Link

Blog design is a very simplistic example, but lets run with it. On my website, Drawar, the main goal is to get people to read the content. If I can do that, I have achieved my number one goal, and it just so happens that this goal will keep the majority of my audience happy. Because of this, I want to make the content easy to get to, and so I need to know what design will help me get there.

The 50% mark. Not much, but it achieves the #1 goal.

With this design, anyone that comes to my website can read the content. That is 50% of my journey, but now I need to go the other half to reach another subset of people coming to my design. I decide next that there should be some branding on the website so that people can know where they are at and remember the website if they visit it again.

Now the design is 75% there.

Now when you visit the website you know where you are at, but notice that the additions didn’t take away from the original MUD that I created. From here I can take another halfway point journey by adding links to other sections of the website, and also provide a bit of context about the website they are on.

87.5% of the way…

Again, the additions do not take away from the original 50%, so that is a good thing. Time for one more halfway journey before I push the website out, and that would be adding some revenue.

93.75% complete (well, at least to me).

Basically the design is finished, but there are additional things I could add to the design to make it more complete to some people. For example, search, social media widgets, and possibly a blogroll. I’ve set the goals of the design though, so I understand the milestones that I want to achieve.

Design Is Never Finished Link

Although I’m happy with the end result of the design, it doesn’t mean it will work for everyone that visits. Someone will always want to get more out of a design, and that is why a design will never be able to leave the forest. Fortunately, the more halfway points you knock out in a design, the smaller the subset of people that are still wanting more out of it. Be careful though, because adding too much will take away from the original 50%, which was the main purpose of the design from the beginning.

And don’t think that this only applies to “minimalistic” websites—that is just my style of design, but it applies just as much to the designs that add a lot of flare to their aesthetic. Tweetbot13, for example, isn’t any less of a usable design than other Twitter clients in my mind, because it adds a bit more flash to its design elements.

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.

Image on frontpage created by Libby Levi14.

(jvb) (jc)

Footnotes Link

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Paul Scrivens is a passionate designer who runs Drawar and innovation consulting at Emersian. He loves design. He loves learning. He loves being wrong. That last one was a lie. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.

  1. 1

    Excellent article — concise, to the point, easy to read, useful and fun! Well done, Smashing Mag (and Paul)! Thumbs up! :-)

    PS You actually walk out of the woods the same way you walked in. This is a theoretical paradox only; in real life, you don’t walk 50% of the distance, then 50% of the remaining 50% (so, 25%), and so on — you just walk, and sooner or later you cover the whole distance… ;-)

    • 2

      You actually cover half the distance in half the time. If you keep halving the distance and the time, not only do you not reach your destination, but time stands still. Or, from another perspective, the inexorable grind of causality will get you to your destination eventually…

    • 3

      At some point the remaining distance is so small, it can be covered in one step. That’s how I remember my highschool teacher solving the paradox.
      So maybe, following that line of thought, placing that one last element in your design is enough to cover the remaining percentage and you’ve just created the PERFECT website!

      • 4

        Actually, the solution to the paradox is: time is not built up by single moments one next to another (as is space – indeed you can divide a distance in half, and half, and half), but is a single, fluid stream without interruption. Humans adopted a convention about hours, minutes and seconds to divide time as they divide space, but it’s a common illusion.

  2. 5

    “Design is never finished” I like your concept. This is so true. A Creative Director once told me to be careful not to fall in the pit of perfecting the mockup. This way I’ll be able to make room for possible add-ons and details, thus crafting the design step by step without keeping my eyes off the goal.

  3. 6

    Ryan Magada

    May 29, 2012 4:57 pm

    Fantastic. Spot on. Thanks for sharing!

  4. 7

    This might very well be the best post I’ve ever read. I truly believe this will help me a lot since I am a seriously OCD when it comes to details and adding more.

  5. 8

    Well written and fun, but not much to take away here, could be summarized in a tweet: Once your design is usable, you are 50% done, after that, you can work on it to infinity.

  6. 9

    Aaron Martone

    May 29, 2012 7:28 pm

    Though the article is sound in its logic, I have to admit that I am initially put off because the author seems to just want to coin more phrases. MUD? I’m not sure why so many authors seem adamant about wanting to create the next “big thing”.

    The concepts are sound, but I’m all for filing this under usability principles than giving it its own moniker.

    Hopefully I’m not offending you by saying this, and maybe it’s just my short term memory loss, but I’m just burned out on abbreviations. Or….BOOA, as it might be called.

    • 10

      I came here looking for Multi-User Dungeons. I am, however, a designer and agree completely!

  7. 11

    Gabriele Romanato

    May 29, 2012 8:09 pm

    Your point is limited only to a small percentage of website designs. Usable designs are not so new as many web workers may think. Furthermore, MUD also implies that your client shares the same view expressed above. But, as you know, clients are generally not so wise to properly understand the major benefits of using your approach. If your inner desire is to spread the MUD concept across clients, you should be able to make them think first about what are their primary goals when they publish a website. More business? More satisfied customers? More SEO hits? Or just a box where they can put all the fireworks they can imagine? MUD should be rewritten as MUDE, namely Minimum Usable Design (and client’s) Education. It’s not only a point of design, but also a way to make clients grow in their web experience. The more they get wiser, the more MUD will be adopted.

  8. 12

    YES! “Design is never finished” sounds like a quote I heard from a art professor back in college. Thanks for the post.

    • 13

      “Art is never finished, only abandoned” – Leonardo da Vinci.
      Your art professor was standing on the shoulders of giants.

      Sadly of course, the answer to the paradox is that one walks through the third quarter of the woods in half the time, the seventh eighth in one quarter of the time etc. so that one ends up walking through infinitesimal segments of the woods at an infinite rate and thus one’s momentum is maintained – frequently not the case when under a deadline.

      BTW “standing on the shoulders of giants” – Isaac Newton – I know a giant when I see one :)

  9. 14

    Dave Yuknat

    May 29, 2012 8:57 pm

    This looks more like reverse engineering flipped on its head than a design process. Interesting way to consider prioritization of user goals however.

  10. 15

    Matt Coddington

    May 29, 2012 9:54 pm

    I despise people who use CSS to recreate frame functionality =/

  11. 16

    Adonis Raul Raduca

    May 29, 2012 11:06 pm

    This rationament can be modeled using a convergent sequence from mathematics
    1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 …
    This sequence converges to 1 (100%) if we consider an infinite number of therms. So practical never reach it. Each therm in the sequence corresponds to one design iteration. The more steps we consider, the much closer from the converging point we are … :)

    For me is not clear the meaning of Maximum Viable Design … As I understand, more design will made the product unviable … because it is to expensive to built or is to late to the market … ?

  12. 17

    James Hatfield

    May 30, 2012 6:41 am

    Agile Design. Love it.

    Add a product backlog and some sprint planning and you’ll be official.

  13. 18

    Excellent article.Thank you for nice sharing.

  14. 19

    I just finished reading an article on Wired about MVP, and I was thinking how most of those concepts can be applied to web design, and here you are! Well done, Paul.

  15. 20

    Really nice post and so true!

  16. 21

    So you designed an accessible website and decided to create an acronym to reflect this process.


  17. 22

    Ryan Rampersad

    May 31, 2012 6:04 am

    This particular design reminds me a lot of the Svbtle network. It’s clean and simple, two column with that static left hand column and responsive.

  18. 23

    This is very obvious simple logic we should considering specially when we want to start new project

    or when we want to complete it according to the project concepts

    thank you

  19. 24

    Simply awesome…. nice and simple way to explain Usability ideas…worth using next project…

  20. 25

    What I take away from this, is that design can never be 100% complete. It reaches a level where it can be released into the woods and survive but in order to thrive, it must evolve within it’s environment to make the most of what’s available in the moment. Thanks for a great read.

  21. 26

    Mike Richards

    June 1, 2012 7:18 pm

    Really enjoyed that.

    Illuminating. Thanks.

  22. 27

    Marco Pesani

    June 2, 2012 10:29 am

    Someone said “Agile”?

  23. 28

    Dmitry Nekrasovski

    June 4, 2012 5:42 pm

    I like the “design is never done” philosophy, but the concept of MUD worries me. It could be easily used as a crutch to argue “but we’ve already achieved MUD (whatever that means) – let’s stop here”.

    Also, it’s based on a very incomplete understanding of what the concept of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) means in the Lean Startup community. As the Wikipedia article explains (if you read more than 1 sentence of it):

    “An MVP is not a minimal product, it is a strategy and process directed toward making and selling a product to customers.”

    Specifically, an MVP is used to test hypotheses with customers. These could related to the product’s business model, feature set, usefulness, or design.

    I see no indication that the author of this article gets this point. The % complete milestones mentioned in the article are pretty arbitrary. There’s no reference to testing them and learning from the process.

    So, to be honest, I don’t see much new here. Just a lot of potential for misuse in the name of “leanness” and “minimalism”.

  24. 29

    This article itself needs to be edited according to its own rules. The first few paragraphs contain the only info you need!

  25. 30

    Dylan Brits

    June 5, 2012 1:05 pm

    Great article Paul…Aspects remind me of a ted talk by Rory Sutherland where he touches on Goal dilution. Awesome stuff. I used the minimal method on my latest personal project and hopefully it works :) Keep up the great work.

  26. 31

    Great post, once again, Paul.

    I often feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t see MVP/MUD as a problem.

    I think one of the biggest barriers to greatness is the desire to check something off and move on. I’m a creative strategist, and the way I see it, it’s my job to always be looking for ways to improve and innovate. Think if Steve Jobs stopped with the first iPod and said, “Ok, now I’m done.” — or on the other hand, if he never shipped the iPhone 1, 2, 3, 4, or 4S because he wanted to build the iPhone 5 first.

    The web agency I work for ( uses the metaphor, “A website is a living thing” to help reposition web projects in the minds of our clients. Digital products can’t be seen as a single, finite initiative — it has to be an ongoing series of phases. Absolutely, there are sprints and goals and deadlines. But launch day isn’t the end. You have to plan for ongoing maintenance, updates, revisions, innovation, etc. Technology and user expectations change too quickly not to.

  27. 32

    Great article …a job is finished only when you destroy the thing,if the thing is there then there’s always scope for improvement.


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