Feature-Driven vs Connection-Driven Design: recognising the often ignored levels of user experience

Tim Allan
3 min readNov 7, 2023

In a world of double diamonds, ‘solutioning’ and agile software delivery, the mindset of digital product design seems bent towards feature delivery — Functional units of software, which help people do the stuff they’re trying to do.

Take Airbnb. A superficial look at what they do could boil down to a list of functions for viewing properties, reading review and finding out how far the property is from the train station. To create an Airbnb rival you just need to copy their features. Well that’s what Stayz.com.au seem to think….

I teach UX at University to 1st year students. Most are fresh from school having done some design technology course, some have transitioned from other courses — Architecture for one, others are taking the unit as an elective —they’re usually comp-sci students.

Many of the students, when completing their first assignments, often deliver prototypes that are characterised by the layering of functionality. That is, many see the primary goal of creating a user experience is the delivery of complex functionality for a user to achieve their goal(s). Be it viewing, rating, reviewing, sorting — these are the go-to tools and mechanisms to achieve tasks.

We have 3 fictitious briefs that can choose from, but regardless of which one they choose, most approach the design problem in the same way. For example, one brief is for a niche wild swimming experience — think influencer instagram worthy travelogue of wild swimming locations across Australia.

Most students tackle this through listing the listing of locations, complete with star ratings and reviews with locations filtered based on location. All this makes total sense….up to a point.

However, this functional level is just the first step. The table stakes in any user experience. However, considering design’s evolution of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or Kotler’s 5 product levels of customer value, the delivery of functionality is often not enough to create a meaningful connection between a user and your product or service. It’s often just the first level.

The question I push students to answer is, from their understanding of their customers (this unit has a qualitative research component) what is the form of the mechanism (or mechanisms) that will create that connection between them and the product? How can you create that link between someone using your product and the narrative of the wider user experience?

From that perspective, this moves the conversation (and thinking on) from the delivery of functionality, to the unique way you can harness someones interaction in order to connect them with your products narrative. So rather than thinking just about reviews and star ratings, start thinking thinking about what those things actually mean for the customer — its not about a pithy star rating, its about a deep user need for informative, useful and often inspirational stories (from other users) so they can decide whether to spend the time to go to this place?

Digital experiences are often proxy’s for the future value of the thing. So for the wild swimming website, its all about your future swimming experience. Often the digital experience needs to echo that future value in interesting ways so as to immediately start creating that connection between a customer and the wider product experience.

I’m not taking a dig at 1st year students here. It’s something that organisations often miss. And it’s not just about about ‘lifestlye brands’ — such as travel, fashion experiences — which are well known for narrative approaches. The new gov.uk re-design attempts a similar thing. It positions itself directly inside the narrative of citizen accessing a government service. What are the things they are dong in their life and how can this service integrate into that narrative.

Similarly, tools that I have worked on -a suite of for improved tasking for field workers — operates the same way: connecting the tool with the way someone is doing their work. By building this connection, understanding the user needs in the context of the wider user narrative, helps build that connection between users and the experience.

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Tim Allan

https://timallan.io Fmr: Design Manager for clinical care @ Babylon. Fmr Lead Design/research in Urgent & Emergency Care at NHS.uk. RCA MRES