What is Great Design? Part 1

As a User Experience professional I am often asked the age-old question, “So what makes a great design?” If you’re also in the design profession, perhaps your management has asked you to quantify it, break it down in to terms or numbers that business people understand. Maybe your CEO has “challenged” your company to create the next iPod or iPhone. “Let’s be the next Apple” or something like that.

What do you say?

How do you respond?

What’s the answer?

Steve Martin once said, “Talking about art is like dancing to architecture.” While I understand his point was, “you have to experience it for yourself” I still think you should be able to articulate why it was so good, or why it had such an impact on you. Having read through piles of usability study findings and watching hours of footage, I find it interesting when a participant is asked, “What did you like about xxxx?”

It’s like listening to a non-technical friend try and describe a problem with their computer that they want you to fix. They stumble through a sincere, but limited recap of the experience. They lived through the experience so they should be able to describe it in excruciating detail, yet they can’t. Why? Because that’s not their specialty. They’re not trained professionals. Computer’s are not what they are good at. The same principle applies to design. As Bill Buxton would say,

Not everyone is a designer.

He’s right.

As a design professional, I should be able to do a better job about describing what good design is. After all, I am a designer. So what makes it so hard? There’s a quality about great design that is difficult to put into words. It’s easy to focus on just a few aspects of a design such as it’s great interface, good task flow, or maybe the excellent content. While all of those things are important, how do you nail down that feeling of satisfaction you experience when you encounter a product that clicks with you on a deeper level?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’m going to attempt to capture what I think the ingredients for great experience are. Let’s start with a few examples of some relatively undisputed kings of great design and experience.

TiVo. The supreme leader of the DVR revolution. TiVo didn’t invent anything new. People have been recording TV shows for years. Why did this displace the VCR? Pausing live TV was a neat gimmick, but who watches live TV once they have a DVR? Uh, nobody… that’s who. There’s plenty of other DVR boxes out there, so why does TiVo have a 98.3% recommendation rating from existing owners to their friends? Did you know that 63% of TiVo users would give up there cell phone before parting ways with their TiVo? My 78 year-old mother can use TiVo. She can’t use a VCR, even when I left her detailed instructions. My wife is ready to march down and wage a holy-war against DirecTV because they no longer have TiVo. They have their own DVR now. Functionally, it does all the same things as TiVo. So what’s pissing off my wife?

Mini Cooper. I’m not a car guy. Ask me how much horsepower my car has and I shrug my shoulders. What’s it do 0-60 in? Dunno. Couldn’t tell you. But I like cars. There’s a lot of different cars I would like to have so I lease my vehicles for 3 years. Every 3 years, I have the opportunity to get something different. For the last two opportunities, I’ve leased the same vehicle; a Mini Cooper. Why? It goes against the very principle about why I lease my cars, right? The grocery bag size trunk, cute gesture of a “back seat”, or fear of being run over by a moped surely must factor into my decision. What happened? Everything from the actual buying process (who actually enjoys buying a car?) to the physical design, superb gas mileage, other Mini owners waving to me when they drive by. It’s like a little private club. Also, find me a Mini Cooper that doesn’t have a personalized license plate? Owners express themselves through their car. It’s an outlet for their creative expression. What other car evokes that level of pride and passion on such a wide audience?

Then there’s the iPod. It’s significantly more expensive than any other MP3 player out there. It has fewer features than the competition, crappier audio quality, only one music provider, and can be scratched beyond all recognition just by touching it. Oh, and that shiny mirror back will be permanently covered in greasy fingerprint smudges from the moment you take it out of the elegant package until the battery wears out and you have to throw away the whole thing and buy another. But it has 87% of the market at this time of writing.

How about the iPhone? Can I buy it at a discount with a shackling 2-year commitment? Nope, $500 please. Can I pop the SIM card out when I’m overseas so I don’t have to pay all of those nasty roaming fees? No, sir. Where’s the ToDo list? Doesn’t have one. A Smartphone without a ToDo list? WTF? Will it sync OTA (Over-the-air) like my BlackBerry? No, you’ll need to dock it like your Palm pilot from the late 90s. This touchscreen keyboard is way harder to use than my BlackBerry/Palm/BlackJack. Suck it up, princess. Yet, it was the most hyped device of the century and lived up to that expectation. It also put the cell phone industry on high alert and raised the bar of what a mobile phone should be.

So how can these products be leaders in their markets with such obvious flaws? None of these were the all-important Marketing requirement of “first to Market”. Alan Cooper has a great saying:

I’ll take best-to-market over first-to-market any day.

Bingo. Marketing folks reading this are probably steaming right now. I’m sure you have a plethora of first-to-market success stories. However, I’d ask that you be intellectually honest with yourself and ask was it a success because it was first? Or was it a success because it was a great product? You can certainly combine best-to-market with first-to-market and have a win. You can’t say the same thing with just the first-to-market criteria by itself. A turd is still a turd even if it was first. Best-to-market will always displace first-to-market if it truly is best. TiVo wasn’t first. iPod wasn’t first. iPhone wasn’t first either. But they are best.

Is it usability? If I make a product that is easier to use than anything else on the market, will I have a great product? This is the one that people think is the secret sauce to all product success factors. While it’s an important aspect, it’s just one element of the overall recepie. Joel Spolsky said it best.

Every time I read Jakob Nielsen I get this feeling that he really doesn’t appreciate that usability is not the most important thing on earth. Sure, usability is important (I wrote a whole book about it). But it is simply not everyone’s number one priority, nor should it be. You get the feeling that if Mr. Nielsen designed a singles bar, it would be well lit, clean, with giant menus printed in Arial 14 point, and you’d never have to wait to get a drink. But nobody would go there; they would all be at the Coyote Ugly Saloon pouring beer on each other and having fun.

True that.

What if it just looks great? I know lot’s of people who buy something just on the looks. Absolutely. The entire fashion industry is based on this very principle. Quick, can you think of one person you know who owns a pair of pants which are really uncomfortable, but they still wear them because they look good in them? Of course you do. Billy Crystal’s SNL character Fernando Lamas was famous for saying, “It’s not how you feel, it’s how you look. And you look mah-velous, dah-ling!” Raise your hand if you think Cindy Crawford wears any of the stuff she models on the runway at home? Anyone? Bueller? Hmmm. Can’t get away with just looks then.

Brand? I find this to be more prominent in the older folks than the younglings. My mom is a classic example. I just moved her from Toronto to California. It was more economical to buy new furniture here than to move it from Toronto. Great deal. She gets all new furniture for a better price. Essentials first, she’s on the hunt for a bed. Not being familiar with the area or stores, she flips through the newspaper and sees an ad for a Lazy-Boy store and says to me, “Oh, we should go there. They have very good stuff. I’ll bet I can find a great bed there.” I can’t help it. I thrive on this kind of stuff. I jump on it.

“Really? Good stuff? You had a Lazy-Boy store back in Toronto?”

“Well … uhh …. I’m not sure. If they did, I have not been to it. But they make good products.”

“Did you have a Lazy-Boy recliner or something back in Toronto?”

“No. But they’re Lazy-Boy. They must be good.”

Wow. No experience with the product, but she’s sold on buying one of their beds based solely on the brand. By the way, Lazy-Boy doesn’t make beds. But if they did, my Mom would line up for one. Brand clearly made an impact on her. She was willing to blindly purchase a bed with the Lazy-Boy name on it because she was familiar with it in a world of unfamiliarity. Also, she associated a name with product quality even though she previously never owned a Lazy-Boy product. Certainly, brand must be the answer. It’s good, but brand has to earn that reputation first. Clever marketing can fool many initially, but fooling customers is a short-term, and terminal approach. Once burned, customers will go out of their way to not buy or use your products. Your work just tripled. Ahhh. Great brands are associated with great design which are associated with … and we loop back to great experience. Well that was a fun ride.

Check out Part 2 in this series. We covered some interesting aspects of good design and how just adding one piece of this pie isn’t enough.

About the author

Terry Blanchard

I'm the Vice President of Engineering at Readdle, ex-Apple, design evangelist, drummer, and gadget junkie extraordinaire.

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