I wrote the following nearly 15 years ago; this article spawned a lecture that was easily the most attended and most popular I’d ever done, before or since. I stumbled upon it recently and, after re-reading it, I think it’s every bit as relevant now as then — maybe even more so. Read on and judge for yourself.
WAKE UP AND DESIGN! A call to action for technology companies
First Things First
Let’s start here: 75% of everything you put in front of customers—potential or otherwise—is a result of DESIGN. By that I mean the appearance (form) and performance (function) of the product itself. What it does (and how well), how it’s used (and how easily), what it looks like—these are all design issues.
The other 25% is a shifting combination of manufacturing, implementation and marketing spin. The amount of each depends on what you’re selling.
Think about it for a minute. If you don’t agree—more or less—with what I just said, chances are your product—or your company—is in trouble. It probably means you have something that people either don’t want or have issues with, and your sales figures probably reflect that.
What’s the problem?
Design is typically given little or no consideration in too many organizations. it’s the last item on the list, it’s something that’s tagged on at the end of a project, it sits at the kids table while the grown-ups conduct ‘real’ business. Worse yet, it’s seen as something nearly anyone can do—I’ve seen companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars with people who had no business calling themselves designers. And the coup de grace is the organization who hands over interface design to the IT department—who isn’t qualified to do it.
How do I know? Because I’m the guy called in to do damage control. More often than not, it’s too late—substantial damage to the company’s product and bottom line has already been done. They involve us far too late in the process: the most beautiful user interface in the world can’t save a product that has too many buttons, convoluted navigation and requires the user to consult the manual to get past the first screen.
There is a hefty price to be paid if you trust your brand, your product or your interface to someone who isn’t qualified to handle it. Just ask any dot-com who IPO’d in 2000.
Great Technology, Bad Design
Sure, you have guys and gals in IT who can build complex Web applications and program Web pages in their sleep. They’re truly great at it and I readily acknowledge the extraordinary talent and sheer brainpower at work there. They’re the critical key to building functional products—but that does not mean they should be determining how the public will interact with those products.
These folks excel at creating technologies and packaging them into boxes or Web sites, but typically fail to put them together in ways that customers can easily understand and use. Tech types respond with awe at things they know were hard to implement or difficult to build, with minimal regard for the purpose they might serve.
The result? A technology industry riddled with inbred thinking. Tech companies seem to forget that the people within its industry are very different from the rest of the world. With the amazing power to create comes the trap of building what appeals to you as a creator—instead of things that will appeal to your customers and meet their needs.
I’ve seen countless examples of IT teams acting on the idea that if something is possible, it must be necessary. These people create more options, facets and functions than anyone could possibly want or need. The result—instead of simplicity and user-friendliness—is capability for capability’s sake. So the brass scrambles to put an ultra-clever marketing spin on a product it knows is a dead duck; make ‘em laugh real hard, maybe no one will notice.
All the Super Bowl advertising in the world will not save a poorly designed product. If no one can use the damn thing, no one will buy the damn thing. Get it?
Why the disconnect?
There’s a history of animosity between the camps of IT and design. IT types look at designers as someone who’s only interested in making things look pretty. The designer looks at the engineer as a barbarian who’s willing to sacrifice quality and usability to make the next killer app.
They’re both wrong.
In this new economy, the need for these two groups to talk and collaborate is more important than it ever was. To most people, the interface is the application, just like Yahoo is the Internet. What’s more, customers are spoiled—they expect personalization and customization in everything they use, and nowhere is this more true than on the Web. And that customization should be developed—at least in part—by someone who understands the psychology of human beings—what they want, what they need, what they’ll use.
That means that you C-level folks out there should be spending a significant amount of time, effort and money on design issues. It means you should bring in design consultants at the beginning of the project and keep them involved until the product ships or goes live. And before you start whining about cost, or the pressure on tech companies to be first to market, I’ll counter with two questions:
Does it make any sense to skimp on $100 or $200K to insure success when your investment is $8 million?
What’s the advantage in being first to market if your customers don’t want or can’t use your product?
Engineers obsess over the details of getting products to work, but they’re uncomfortable with the critical questions that have to be answered up front: Who wants this? What value does provide them? Designers revel in these abstract issues, but are lousy with issues like craftsmanship, durability and mechanics.
It’s like what my father always told me about marriage: ultimately, you want to partner with someone who complements your weaknesses with their strengths. I can’t think of two groups who need each other more than engineers and designers.
So if you want to succeed, here’s your roadmap. Find a way to bring IT and Design together on your next initiative. Lock them in a room and don’t let them out until everyone plays nice. Mark my words, the results will speak for themselves—provided you don’t blow your development budget on a Super Bowl ad.