Design is Compromise

When did the word “compromise” become vilified?

Compromise is neither good nor bad, it’s just something we do every day. It’s decision making. Prioritizing. Deciding that one thing is more important than another. It’s finding the right balance between two competing desires.

Which compromises you make — now that’s a different question.

Companies (and often politicians) like to tout their decisions as “uncompromising” or having “no compromises”. Plainly, this is impossible. Once you’ve decided on an approach, you’ve inherently decided against a number of other approaches.

A particularly poignant example came from 2011, when Microsoft launched the Surface tablet as a “no compromise” product that allowed users to run both the classic Windows operating system alongside their new touch-based OS. In one of the launch articles, Microsoft’s ex-head of Windows, Steven Sinofsky, repeats

“Our design goal was clear: no compromises. If you want to, you can seamlessly switch between Metro style apps and the improved Windows desktop.”

Obviously, this decision significantly compromised the performance and ease-of-use of the product. Journalists had a field day with Microsoft’s wording.

Recently, my ears tingled when Pebble launched what has now become the most successful crowd-funded product in history: its new smart watch. As the headline states, Pebble Time is an “Awesome Smartwatch, No Compromises”.

I’m not here to throw Pebble under the bus. Quite the opposite. I admire the product they launched. In fact, I admire it for its compromises.

Pebble Time’s biggest compromise is its e-paper display. A decision dear to my heart as I hope to see the technology continue to flourish. Because e-paper requires much less power than LCD or OLED screens, Pebble Time can function, always on, for 7 days on a single battery charge. Contrast that with Apple Watch, which only lasts 18 hours with its OLED screen. What’s more, e-paper performs much better in direct sunlight.

Now of course, Apple wouldn’t be using OLED if e-paper didn’t come with its own compromises. E-paper doesn’t match the “retina” resolution Apple desires, making text noticeably pixelated on the Pebble Time. The color reproduction has a much narrower gamut, making photographs look muted, and the refresh rate of e-paper is also lower, meaning that animations aren’t as smooth.

I find these compromises acceptable, if not better suited to a watch.

The reason companies like to vilify compromise is that being opinionated inherently exposes your approach to a set of weaknesses. The stronger your opinion, the more you compromise something else, the clearer your weaknesses are. Companies don’t like to expose weaknesses, because they worry about scaring away customers.

An 18-hour battery life is absolutely pitiful given that most watches can last years without maintenance or a new battery. But Apple doesn’t try to hide that flaw behind the banner of “no compromise”. In fact, Apple takes pride in its decision-making, as illustrated by their design philosophy: “one thousand no’s for every yes”.

Unlike Microsoft, which took a middle-of-the-road approach, Pebble made a strong decision. Pebble bet on a technology it knew Apple wouldn’t use, and created a distinct, opinionated product. And that’s how Pebble took back its crown as highest grossing Kickstarter campaign. They should take pride in the compromises they chose.

There is more power in what you say ‘no’ to than what you say ‘yes’ to.

Personally, I prefer using the word trade-off than compromise. It better conveys the relationship between strengths and weaknesses. You are trading a weakness for a strength.

Good design is opinionated. Making something great is making the right compromises for the people who will use it.