The uneasy journey of finding the Minimal Viable Product

I like to consider as a spectrum. On the left hand side, you have the Minimal Viable Product (MVP), the absolute bare minimum you can do to ship the product. On the other end, you have the Dream UX , where I define it as the “If I have infinite time and resources this is what will I do” kind of design.

The challenge for every designers is to push their design towards the right hand side as much as possible while considering about the . In a company, this typically means time and resources. How one can embrace this constrain and thrive in this environment is what separates novice and seasoned designers.

In today’s article, I want to walk you through how we designed loading states in GoAnimate, where we slowly tweak our designs based on different constrains and finally coming up with something that strikes the balance between UX and available resources. Lets get right into it.

Background

When we were redesigning the GoAnimate video maker a year ago, our focus was to ship it into a working state as quickly as possible. This means that we were taking shortcuts and not paying too much attention to the user experience.

As a result, we didn’t create any loading states at all and is causing some frustrations to our users.

Why is loading state important?

Loading states is a way for a system to tell users that it has received their command and is now working to make things happen for them. Without a loading state as a feedback, users won’t know what is going on and it violates one of the top 10 principles of usability design — Lost of control.

Understanding the problem — Talking to Engineers

To create good loading states, first we need to understand how things are loaded in the back-end. At this stage, you basically ask 2 questions:

  1. Can it be done?
  2. If yes, at what cost?

Here is an example, let’s say on a 1 row layout, we want items to load one by one from left to right. Can it be done? The short answer is yes. However, the developer told us that there is no way to control which item to load first because items comes with different size, and they will appear as soon as they are rendered. Which means item 3 (counting from Left to Right) might show up before item 1 if the file size is smaller.

← Expectation: we want items to load from Left to Right | Reality: items shows up in whatever order they want depending on its size→

The only way to load item from left to right visually is to wait for all items to finish loading, then displaying them one by one from left to right. This means users will spend more time waiting and staring at the blank state. This goes against one of the purpose of the loading state, which is to mask waiting time!

The importance of talking to Engineers

As you can see from the example above, understanding whether our ideas is feasible up front saves us time from designing something that will never see the light, and we can spend our time to focus on something that can actually work.

Another important thing from this exercise is helps us to have a better understanding roughly how long each component will load, so we can design appropriate on each scenario.

In case you are curious, for the above example, we decided to use skeleton loading in the end to help mask loading time.

Design in action

I will walk you through how I design loading state for a small area —Loading items from the Library to the Stage.

Here is how the interaction works:

  1. Click an item from the Library.
  2. After a short loading time, the item is shown on the Stage.

Originally when you click an item, nothing happens. You will be staring at a blank canvas for 2 seconds before the item finishes loading and pop up. The delay and lack of feedback makes user feel the system is not responsive and triggers user to repeat their action. Which causes user to add multiple items unintentionally, and they have to wait even longer.

The Dream UX vs Reality

To approach this task, lets start with the dream UX, the holy-grail:

In an ideal world, when you click an item, item is shown immediately on the canvas.

This is what The Dream UX looks like, zero loading time!

Of course in the real world, items can’t appear instantly because it takes time to load them, but I don’t take “impossible” for an answer until it was proven, so I decided to ask the question:

Is it possible to render items immediately when we click on it?

The answer is yes…with a cost. Item takes time to load, if we want to have the appearance that items is shown immediately when we click on it, we have to preload the items in the backend. It is similar to when you download a big file, you decided to browse Facebook for the duration. Since you are preoccupied, you have the perception that you are not waiting for it to download, but the file is still taking its time behind the scene.

To achieve the “immediate response” effect, we need to “hide” the preload time somewhere such that users don’t feel like they are waiting for us. When user enters the GoAnimate app, we show them a loading screen before the app is fully loaded. Can we add this loading time to the loading screen?

Loading screen for GoAnimate’s Video Maker app

Yes we can! This is how we imagined the flow would look like, after the “Item loading” time has been absorbed by the “App loading” time:

The Item loading time is absorbed by the app loading time

Here is the catch, we have more than 20,000 items in our library. If we preload all these contents in the loading screen, this will take us more than 5 minutes. That’s quite a long time to wait, compared to the time to loading an item which only takes about 2–3 seconds.

Expectation vs Reality. Putting Item loading time into App loading time actually makes loading longer

Someone on our team suggested that can we preload only the items “above the fold” — items that are visible to users without them scrolling. The problem is that having instant access to those items doesn’t help us to achieve our goal of having 0 loading time, since this approach only benefit only roughly 100 items that is above the fold.

This is a time for us to pause and ask ourselves the big question —Is it worth to keep thinking about this direction?

As product designers, it is always important to keep asking yourself this question. Because you always have limited resources and a lot of problems to tackle, spending more time on this problem means you will spend less time on another problem.

In the end, we decided that we have tried our best for this 0 loading time direction and it didn’t work. Let’s find another way.

Building the gap

OK so we can’t show items instantly on the canvas, but we can try to do other tricks to mask the loading time. Below are some ideas:

Idea 1 — Real size selection box

  • When user selects an item, show its selection box on stage but without the item inside it, the selection box has the same size as the item the user selected.
  • Display the real item when it finishes loading

What I like about this idea — It is clear that the item is loading and it helps to mask loading time

Why this idea does not work — Showing a real size selection box requires the server to load the size data of the item, this means until it can get that data, users are still staring at a blank screen and the loading time remains unchanged.

Idea 2 — Fake selection box

  • When user selects an asset, show a fake selection box on stage. The fake selection does not represent the size of the Real item.
  • The fake box is replaced by the actual item when it finishes loading.

What I like about this idea — It gives instant feedback that the item is loading.

Why I don’t like this idea — After all, the selection box is fake and does not represent the actual size of the item being selected.

Idea 3 — Thumbnail images

When user selects an asset, show its thumbnail on the stage. Thumbnail is replaced by the real asset when it finishes loading.

What I like about this idea — It gives instant feedback and gives users a preview of the real thing as early as possible.

Why this idea was shut down — This idea seems really good on paper, however when I took this idea to the development team, I was told it would take more time to code it then we had planned. Which brings me back to the topic of this article — How to design under constrains.

Design is about trade offs. On one hand, we have and ideal solution that might deliver 90% of value to the user, but it will take 5 days to code. On the order hand, we have an Okay idea that will deliver 70% of value to the user, and takes 1 day to code.

In our case, time is limited, so we have to choose what is the best design within the constrain. Not what is the best design.

The final design

In the end, we went for Idea 2. We chose a box size that represents 80% of all item’s size. Which means that in 80% of the cases, the fake selection box is the perfect size and it represents the actual size of the item selected. I was actually surprised that it looked way better than I thought. Another reason why you should do prototype.

Here is what it looks like in the end:

Case 1: Item selected has the same size of the Fake selection box.
Case 2: Item selected does NOT have the same size with the selection box

Conclusion

I hope you enjoy me walking you through how I went from coming up with the dream design, and slowly got trim down by reality to have a design that is so simple that you might feel like you can come up with it in 10 minutes.

You know what? You maybe right, but the point of this article is that the dream design is just that — A Dream. The real world is a place full of constrains and a lot of things is beyond our control. We as designers, are problem solvers, not dreamers. The sooner we understand this, the better we will become.

I would like to end this article from a quote from General Patton:

“ A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”

The perfect design is the one that makes users pain point go away today, not tomorrow. Until next time, may your constrains helps you to learn to become a better designer 🙂



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