The role of being bold in product design

Someone recently asked this question on Quora and I thought I’d share my thoughts.

“What’s the role of being bold in product design?”

Think of a product you find disruptive. What is it? And what makes something “bold” to begin with?

Bold usually alludes to novelty. People don’t think of products that look and work like existing products as being novel, original, or remarkable.

This is one of the hardest challenges product designers face: How can you design something that’s functional, easy to use, yet bold at the same time?

Some of the key differentiators are visual design, user experience, and core function of the product itself.

Let’s look at how each influences perception and the individual set of challenges you’ll usually run into:

Visual Design

The way a product looks is the most tangible and marketable way to differentiate it. Think of OS X Aqua. The whole language of the operating system was specifically designed to be fluid and liquid. It was a completely new visual style.

OS X Aqua screenshot

Aqua conveyed a new message in a compelling way.

In todays world, interaction design and visual design are inextricably linked. You can’t have one without influencing the other. Therefore, it becomes challenging to be truly innovative on that front.

Why?

Because studies repeatedly show that you can only deviate from established patterns up to a certain point before you see user performance decline. So, you’ll essentially see yourself facing a tradeoff between usability and visual design. Come up with a novel navigation concept users need to spend time learning, or make it look and work similar to others and be perceived as less “bold”.

The key challenge is to design and create something that looks and works in a way we expect, and yet feels novel and unique at the same time. There is no guide out there that will explain how to do that. It’s precisely this ability, that separates good designers from the great ones. There is no substitute for experience.

Core Function

Changing the core of a product is another way to innovate and be “bold”. Design is about solving a problem. Yet with today’s fetishization of design, it’s role has shifted. It’s no longer a feature. It’s the expectation. It’s the entry barrier to mass consumer markets.

Today, core differentiations often need to happen on a deeper, more fundamental level.

Warby Parker, one of the biggest online sunglass retailers in the world, was started by a few students. Their idea was simple. They observed how other businesses were able to sell shoes and fashion online. So they wondered: why not apply the same concept to sunglasses and prescription glasses?

Friends and even investors told them they are crazy. But they were bold enough to follow through and turn the idea into reality. Bold design is often a manifestation of bold ideas.

They took the core idea of what it means to sell products online, but applied it to an industry no one previously thought would work.

UX

The end user experience of a product can be bold, when it involves previously unseen patterns or new ways to solve an existing problem.

Although, pull-to-refresh is just a micro-interaction, I still think it’s a great example. The simple interaction invented by Loren Brichter is today’s standard way to request new content.

Pull to refresh patent

What makes this pattern so remarkable? It didn’t need any explanation. Its function is so seamlessly embedded in the experience, that it becomes almost invisible. Combining lots of these different details, can shape the larger perception of a product.

But obviously this doesn’t just apply to micro-interactions. Good UX happens on a more fundamental level and starts with a carefully crafted information architecture. Without good structure, a clear message, and a reduction to the essence, great UX can’t happen.

User experience is becoming harder and harder to use as a key differentiator and is quickly turning into a commodity. We may need to investigate new ways to differentiate ourselves and the products we build on a more fundamental level.


What’s bold product design?

Bold products either address an entirely new set of problems, or solve existing problems in a new way. The art is to make the unfamiliar seem familiar, without it feeling old.

Thanks for reading! 💯

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