When do you need design?

I guess as a designer I’m quite design-agnostic. Particularly, I’m agnostic about user centered design. I don’t think user experience is the most significant differentiator of a product, at least not always, not at all phases of the product life cycle. Here’s why.

In the space of product innovation, you’ll typically see this pattern:

It begins with a technology disruption. An invention. A discovery. A breakthrough. Take, the digital camera. At the dawn of digital imaging, all of the product strategy was about patents, technology monopoly, appealing to the early adopters, being the first to shake the market. There was not much room for user experience, because the engineers were still figuring things out. The kind of design needed at this point was more of an engineering design. Just wrap all the circuits together and make sure they’re presentable and usable.

As the technology matures, more and more players would join the game to seize a market share. Like in the early 2000. At first it was Nikon, Canon and Kodak appealing to the pro users. Soon enough, the consumer market was occupied by Sony, Panasonic, Samsung and many others. At this stage, the core technology, digital imaging in this case, was not the selling point any more. The products were competing with usability and features. Was the shutter button too far to reach? How was the ergonomics? Did it have megapixel resolution? Was it waterproof? Could we tilt or flip the monitoring screen (We had not invented the word “selfie” yet)? Was it ultra sleek and portable? Large memory? Remote control? Artistic filters? Stabilizer?… This is a product designer’s happy zone. There’s not much technology uncertainty that blocks the road, and plenty of opportunities to improve the human experience.

Then the disruptiveness wanes down. What looked novel is now expected. To secure some market share, you’ll need designers who understand marketing and advertising. What used to be a technology product needs to be branded as a lifestyle product. Carrying a Canon 5D makes you feel like a pro. Olympus EM5 shows that you’ve got a good taste for mechanical retro.

As soon as the technology is commoditized, the product that existed for this technology will disappear. Nobody carries a Nikon Coolpix any more. The technology itself will become a feature embedded in other technologies. People nowadays get pro quality photos with their smart phones. GoPro can shoot fancy motion footages. It’s time to move on to another technology disruption.

When do you need design? It depends on what design we’re talking about. At the early stage of a new technology, we’ll need engineering design, which is concerned more with the machine, less with the human. When the technology is maturing, we’ll need product design, which binds technology and human experience into smooth usability and attractive features. As the technology inevitably commoditizes, we’ll need branding and marketing design to differentiate the product.

Now, how is this relevant to software development?

In software product development, things would happen in the same fluctuant manner, except within much much shorter intervals. The first digital camera were invented in 1973. It took 35 years until Apple could organize an iOS photography competition. How long does it take for a Javascript framework to go from a cult to a household must-have? (On average less than 2 years) How long did it take for parallax scrolling to go from amazing to tacky? (Less than 6 months)

If the physical product evolves like mammals, the software evolves like virus. Once a pattern is proved to be superior, it immediately gets replicated. That’s why I am especially design-agnostic in software development — if by design we mean the parts not concerned with technology. In such a short innovation cycle, we can’t wait there for 10 years of engineering, 10 years of productization, and another 10 years for branding. We need everything almost instantaneously.

I often think of Leonardo da Vinci and his time, when a person can pursue so many domains of arts and sciences. Today the human knowledge has proliferated to an extent that we have to be compartmented into different specialties. It’s a little unfortunate, given the amount of domain experts needed for innovation. That’s why in software development it’s particularly crucial to cultivate an environment where knowledge can flow freely.