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The lowest common denominator for interface design has risen over the last decade. You see a lot less of this now:
We’ve figured out how to make user interfaces look okay and function reasonably well. Industry standards have emerged, just as you have them in other mature industries: In a car, you wouldn’t switch the positions of the gas and brake pedal, or put the seats on the outside of the car. In a user interface, you wouldn’t add blinking text or music playing automatically, and you want things to be relatively uncluttered.
This is great progress for the industry. But what do we do now? Is it enough to just no longer commit the most egregious errors? Or should we strive for more?
I think that the field of digital design is at a point where we need to strive for greatness, rather than just being content with being “good”.
But what does great design look like? How does it differ from good design? Let’s walk through some principles.
Good Design Gives People What They Say They Want, Great Design Solves People’s Problems In Unexpected Ways
About a year ago, Samsung announced that it was developing a foldable smartphone. This quote stood out to me:
“DJ Koh said that ‘it’s time to deliver’ on a foldable device after consumer surveys carried out by Samsung showed that there is a market for that kind of handset.”
The fact that Samsung is almost proud to say that customer surveys are the reason the company is working on a foldable smartphone is scary.
It’s one thing to send your customers a survey on how they enjoy using a product or how a recent product repair went. However, to base product development plans on customer surveys is highly questionable.
Customer surveys would not have led to products like iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch.
This is a classic example of that overused Henry Ford quote that “If we had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’”.
Great design understands that the average layperson can’t always articulate solutions — they only know they have a problem. It’s up to the designer, who lives at the intersection of technology and the creative arts, to come up with new ways of solving that problem. The designer can make unexpected connections between subjects and solve the problem in new ways.
Good Design Is Data-Driven, Great Design Is Data-Informed
“Data-driven” is an interesting word combination. It literally means that the data is “driving” your decisionmaking. The data points are in the driver’s seat, not you.
This is dangerous because not everything is an optimization problem that can be solved with data. Basing all of your decisionmaking on data points that you can measure right now can lead to you losing focus of important macro aspects of the problem you’re trying to solve.
Data is just one source of information on the way to solving a problem. Hence, being “data-informed” is the way to go if you want to produce great design.
Booking.com is a great example of data-driven design. They do a lot of A/B testing to see how people best convert to booking flights and hotels on their platform.
Through their tests, they’ve discovered that adding “Urgency Messaging” drives people to book more. Urgency messaging is something like “Hey this hotel has just 4 rooms left, book soon”. That’s nice, however, over the years, booking.com has added one urgency message after another, to the point where now it looks more like a shady used car lot than like a serious place to book hotels.
Most recently, it has started showing you hotels you can’t even book, just to drive home that point that “people are booking hotels here at booking.com so you should too”:
And I’m sure it works to improve conversions by 0.4%. But if you look at the whole experience, it’s really starting to degrade. That’s the type of result you get when you myopically optimize your product based on data points and single-digit improvements to conversion, without considering the overall experience.
Compare that with Hotel Tonight, one of the fastest growing hotel booking apps, recently acquired by airbnb for a few hundred million.
Hotel Tonight understands that people are trying to find a nice room to stay in, and optimizes for that. It shows larger preview images of the hotel rooms than booking.com does and has a hint of urgency messaging, but it doesn’t overpower the entire layout of the page. They are focusing on overall experience rather than just tiny conversion improvements driven by data.
Good Design Tries To Please Everyone, Great Design Is Opinionated And Challenges Conventions
Great design has a worldview and values, that it executes on consistently. It doesn’t try to please everyone.
Consider Apple’s MacBook and iPad vs Microsoft’s Surface. Microsoft takes the approach of “We don’t want to make a decision on what’s the best experience for consumers, so let’s give them everything and let them decide for themselves.” In a way, they are letting the consumers design their own experience, rather than designing an experience.
What you get as a result of that is a laptop with a touchscreen and a stylus, that can also fold both ways, and you can also detach the screen. It looks nice, but what will you really use it for?
Meanwhile, Apple takes the approach of “Let’s make technology more personal, and create tools and form factors around specific usage scenarios”.
The iPhone and iPad are designed to handle some tasks formerly given to laptops and desktops. In the process of creating this new form factor, the iPhone and iPad are able to handle entirely new tasks as well. A similar dynamic occurs with Apple Watch being able to handle tasks previously given to iPhone, while also handling new tasks.
In Apple’s view, the iPhone and iPad should be kept separate from Mac because each category ends up being more powerful by being true to its form factor. The idea isn’t to have these products share the same user inputs so that people can do whatever is possible on a desktop and laptop on a tablet and smartphone. Instead, each has different capabilities based on the user input method and form factor.
That is an opinionated approach to designing devices. Not everyone agrees with Apple’s approach, but the results are clear: Apple products have been outselling Microsoft’s products by a factor of 30 to 1 for the last 4 years.
Great Design Sweats The Details Without Losing Sight Of The Big Picture
You see a lot of companies right now talking about the importance of design. Salesforce released a comprehensive design system complete with a fancy name(“Lightning Design System”) and lots of illustrated mascots.
However, they neglected to properly set the typography in their design system to optimize for readability on screens. They had such a grand vision that they lost sight of the fundamentals of design.
Another fundamental you often see neglected these days is figure-ground contrast: Text on top of images that isn’t readable…all the while talking about how important “good design” is.
Focusing on the flashy parts of design while neglecting the fundamentals, is like focusing only on hitting home runs in baseball, or only doing slam dunks in basketball. It’s fun to look at, but a player who neglects the fundamentals of the game will fall apart when tested in a real-life competitive environment.
Great design never neglects the fundamentals on a quest to impress the world around them.
On that note…..
Good Design Tries To Impress, Great Design Gets Out Of The Way
“A good designer finds an elegant way to put everything you need on a page. A great designer convinces you half that shit is unnecessary.”
— Thomas Hutchings (@DearImpossible) November 14, 2013
Good design aims to impress people with “delightful animations” and “beautiful user interfaces”. You can spot good design, break it down, and document both what you like and how it was done.
Great design is invisible. It almost feels like it wasn’t designed at all. It’s things like your MacBook unlocking automatically when you have your Apple Watch on, or your Nest thermostat adjusting to your preferred temperature when you enter a room. But it can also be something as simple as the egg cartons at the supermarket (have you ever tried designing a better egg carton?).
Great design is invisible. It almost feels like it wasn’t designed at all. It is the outcome of painstaking thoughtfulness and a desire to help others.
Great Design Takes Vision, Courage, And Discipline
Right now there’s a trend in Silicon Valley of trying to turn Design into a process that can be duplicated and reproduced no matter who you slot into the position.
Creating a clearly defined process is a great idea, especially for large companies. But when you’re working day to day in an organization at that level, it’s easy to get overly focused on optimizing the process and lose sight of what you’re building, and why. You end up iterating and optimizing on things that don’t matter. It happens to all of us sometimes.
A big part of doing great design work is creating a compelling vision of the future, and having the courage and discipline to stick to that vision in the face of adversity.
Just following a process step-by-step doesn’t lead to great products. You can get a design that’s “Good enough” with that approach. But the difference between good design and great design is the difference between good success and great success.
Jared Spool’s recent post about creating an experience vision is, to me, the quintessence of what it takes to create great design:
The easiest way to create an effective experience vision story is to start with the current experience. What makes today’s experience with our product or service frustrating for our users?
We can ask, “What’s the best experience we could imagine providing our users?” We look closely at the frustrations and imagine an experience where those frustrations don’t occur.
Next up is to determine the timeframe of the horizon. […]Most of our experience visions come closer to a five-year horizon. […]In 5 years (or whatever horizon we pick), what is the best experience we can imagine delivering? How will people’s lives be better because we’ve removed all the frustration?
A compelling vision is what orients the “process machine” of an organization to create great products.
Defining an experience vision in that fashion is relatively easy for a skilled designer. The sustained discipline it takes to follow through on that vision makes it damn near impossible to achieve. That’s why there are so many crappy products on the market, and why most apps and websites look the same. It’s much easier to just stick to making it “good enough”.
There are many reasons to try and do great work rather than just “good enough” work: It sets you apart from the rest of the pack. It makes people around you happier. It makes you happier. It’s incredibly fun and satisfying.
But most of all, what else are you going to do with your life? What better thing to do with your time on earth than trying your hardest to make the world around you better? Imagine the world we’d live in if everyone did this. It starts with you.
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What are some examples of great design? Share them with us in the comments.