The hidden design cost of ‘free’ software

And what it means for your business.

You’re paying through the nose for ‘free.’ Any business that designs software at any level — and that means nearly all of us — is paying for ‘free.’

If you’re alive today, chances are you’ve signed up for and used free platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many others. By the numbers, close to 2 billion people use these services on a monthly basis.

These companies are based on ad revenue models, so their product is free for anyone and everyone to use. I get that the transaction requires the user to give up personal information. But if privacy is dead and has zero value to people, then the cost moves to zero.

What are they doing with these revenues? Lots. One thing is clear, they’re investing in design and continuous innovation. A host of companies have acquired design firms or attracted designers to the fold. John Maeda talked about it in his inaugural #DesignInTech report. What are they doing with all that talent?

They’re making their software better.

The bar for great product design is constantly being raised and nobody using these free apps has to pay for it.

What does that mean, though, for the small startup who wants to build their own app? They’d better be sure to avoid bad user interfaces. But more so, they’d better continue to invest and improve to simply keep up with the level of great product design these large companies are pushing.

What if you’re not a startup, but sell expensive, high-end software to vertical niches? What happens when a user unfavorably compares your $500k system to the free Instagram? It’s tempting to say, “Why does this suck? It cost half a million dollars! Instagram is way better. And I didn’t pay a dime!”

Do you think the average user gets that Facebook makes billions and is able to invest greatly in improving their software, but a smaller company can’t? Do you think they care?

I don’t.

From my discussions with people who want to design software for their business, they mostly don’t understand the effort it takes. It seems natural to think ‘easy to use’ equals ‘easy to build.’ After all, the best digital products are free. It couldn’t cost that much to make, right?


If you consider Facebook started over a decade ago, that should give some insight into their journey to where they are today. Facebook has hundreds of designers and developers, too.

We all benefit from free. But the cost to keep up with free is high. Open source tools continue to improve, UX continues to evolve, and the ability for designers to produce high-end products faster has expanded greatly.

But for smaller companies that fund continuous software improvement, the cost — and the need — has never been higher.

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