Explaining Design With a Doughnut
Updated: May 25, 2021
While design has been around since humans first learned to scratch pictures onto cave walls, when it comes to user experience design there is still a lot of misunderstanding on what it is.
Many a UI designer has blinked in exhaustion as a well-meaning but misinformed manager states, "We have a new marketing campaign that needs a banner."
While the designer may internally scream "But I'm not a graphic designer!" the truth is that trying to explain the dynamics of what interface design is, and how it differs from visual design takes too long.
However, breaking down the dynamics of design is easier if you use food. So, let's design a doughnut.
If you were asked to explain how a doughnut is made, bought and consumed to someone who had never seen or tasted one before, what would you say? If someone has never seen one before, just showing a photo isn't enough.
Let's start with how a doughnut is made.
Pro Tip: If you're using the analogy in a team meeting, bring doughnuts! Learning is much more visceral if people are experiencing it using all their senses.
Product Design: How the thing is made
A doughnut is a glazed, yeast-raised ring. It is made by taking the ends of a long, skinny piece of dough and joining them together.
Product design is not simply how a system looks, but the blueprint mapping out it's structure and the data connections that must be joined.
When using this analogy, turn this question to your development or tech leads:
How is our product made?
What is the process behind the scenes that makes it come to life?
User Experience Design: How the thing is consumed
A doughnut is usually eaten by hand, and is best when fresh and hot. Eating by hand usually results in sticky fingers or lips.
At the core, user experience design answers the questions:
How will people use this thing?
What happens after they use it? What is the result?
What should they expect when they use it?
I once gave this analogy to a network security team during their team meeting. The network team was experiencing difficulty in users adopting protocols and following their security agreement process for launching new applications into an environment. Their team lead had asked me to come explain how design could help simplify the process while getting to the end result: ensuring the security of the company.
So, armed with doughnuts and a powerpoint presentation, I began breaking down design. When I got to 'user experience design', I turned to one of the network security analysts and handed him a doughnut.
"Let's pretend you've never had a doughnut in your life," I said, handing him a chocolate sprinkled one. "I've just handed you this thing and asked you to eat it. Would you trust me?"
He shook his head, "No, I don't think I would."
"Right," I said, handing him a napkin. "You would want to know a lot of things, like 'Why should I eat this', 'How should I eat this' and 'Is this poisoned'."
The group laughed.
We then discussed how users needed to know how to "consume" the security protocol process, where to go, what to do and why the details of what the user would experience after was so important.
User Interface Design: What it looks like
A doughnut has various toppings of sugar, chocolate or maple glaze. Other visual aesthetics can include a variety of colorful sparkles as either small or elongated dots.
When designers are asked to "Make it pretty", but the product and user experience design has been ignored, it is like asking for a bucket of maple glaze and expecting a doughnut. Good designers know that what product owners don't want is an actual bowl of glaze, because it will make their users sick.
More importantly, and I cannot stress this enough, a bucket of glaze is not a doughnut.
Service Design: Where people get the thing
A doughnut is usually sold in grocery stores by a human being. The sale usually includes a receipt of purchase.
How users consume your product is just as important as how it looks, feels and is made. Even if a doughnut is perfectly made, having it thrown at your head, dropped on the floor or crammed through a screen window would probably detract you from consuming it. (I mean, I'm assuming people don't want doughnuts thrown at them, but I don't judge).
This drives a key point of design: Designing for the environment in which your product is expected to be consumed is just as important as making it functional.
If you create an application for warehouse workers to pick inventory, but fail to realize that they are working in the frozen section and have to wear thick gloves and thus cannot tap the screen with their fingers, whose fault is it?
Experience Design: How it all comes together
A combination of product, user experience, interface and service design determines whether or not I have a good doughnut experience.
Design is holistic, so focusing on one aspect while ignoring the others almost guarantees that your user will try to adopt something else.
Design is not homogenous, nor is it a linear process whereby doing the exact same tasks you get from point A to point B. Design is a cyclical, undulating ecosystem of interwoven disciplines working together to create something beautiful, tangible, functional and purposeful.
If you are a designer who is struggling to explain the dynamics of design, feel free to use this analogy. Take it to a team meeting, bring doughnuts and break down the complexity of what we do by making it about what many people enjoy: food.