12/23/2013 02:40 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2014

Designing for Firsts: A Primer for Premier Experiences

Everyone remembers their first, no matter what it was -- first kiss, first car, first house or first kid. Most first-time experiences are charged with emotion, from pangs of anxiety to flutters of excitement. When you find yourself designing for a "first" moment, especially as a product designer, there's a certain path to be taken to get you there faster and farther.

When my team started solving for the first-time home-buying experience, we knew we'd be dealing with the new owners' highs and lows. Everything from responsibility, stability, achievement, identity and fantasy to confusion and fear. If we could build a product that amplified their wonder and diminished their dread, it would mean we had achieved an optimized experience.

Seems simple, right? Measuring how well a concept strikes an emotional cord is far from easy. Ideally, it starts with testing of the core offering, and extends to evaluating the brand and experience you are looking to design in greater context. At this point, you're in building mode, the sprint to realization, when you're building to test, and testing to build. Riddled with the potholes of technical problem solving, this phase requires a balancing force. That counterweight is the customer and how well their overarching needs are being served. Do they feel comfortable? Are we instilling confidence? What do they need to know? Keeping the experience at the forefront means all team members align to a common purpose: to create an effective and resonant experience for the user.

Whether you're designing for an educational product, a retail shopping cart flow, or a small business app, you're handling the priceless tender of emotions at every step. As you're on that journey, here's how to design the path of least resistance for first timers:

Acknowledge their anxiety

Don't use their naiveté against them. In the 1950s and 1960s, car salesman would use impenetrable jargon to overwhelm would-be buyers into acquiescence. No one wants to be like a bad car salesman. Show empathy to earn your customers' trust by guiding them toward a stronger decision instead of a moment of weakness. Fittingly, Weight Watchers Mobile serves up user-friendly information -- online and off -- that works with human nature to help users simplify their food decisions -- no degree in nutrition required. It's worth a look even if you can't spare any pounds.

Let them choose their starting place

The needs of first-timers range widely. People start from different places and envision different goals, but often share similar expectations: to be able to do what they want to do. Meeting them where they're at is key to keeping them in your orbit. Remember that some will have conducted exhaustive research while others need help simply framing the right questions. Does your product allow for easy on-boarding? Can they set their own pace and depth?

Provide information on a need-to-know basis

Content should be both tailored to the medium and staged based on user need. This doesn't mean you can't give customers a hint of the whole, but don't give them everything at once. Reduce their anxiety by foreshadowing the experience, indicating breadcrumbs of progress, and managing expectations, all while teaching micro-lessons. The Uber app does a good job of this, showing on a map the location of the driver and their expected arrival time, while informing the customer of any demand-based pricing surges. This type of solid user experience enables the customer to focus on the subject matter at hand -- or on pressing issues beyond the screen --while unconsciously mind-mapping the logic of the product for easier use in the future.

Enlighten to educate

What's the difference between enlightening and educating? Enlightening means using relatable metaphors to explain the new and previously incomprehensible. I've heard escrow (the term escrow is best known in the United States in the context of real estate) described as the money held in a soft drink machine, the third-party intermediary between transacting parties. In this particular case, use of an objective metaphor (unless you've fought a vending machine and lost) also reduces the word's potentially charged associations.

Teaching in the moment is also important, with understandable user error and success messages going a long way to preventing user drop off. In the same vein as these bite-sized messages are the editorial reassurance that dynamically guides us in the form of responsive text when we're filling out forms, considering links, and so on. The UP lifestyle tracker by Jawbone (UP is a wristband and app that tracks how you sleep, move and eat) shows us how important it is to celebrate small victories in order to encourage further progress and differentiate the user experience. This type of direct feedback loop is all the more effective when delivered in a personable and engaging tone.

These are a mere handful of the learnings that can make designing for firsts a fruitful and mutually rewarding endeavor. This list could go on, but, of course, we wouldn't want to overwhelm you.