Pretty or Solving Problems?

I’ve observed a wonderful thing happening over the past two years: companies have started to care about design. Call it the “Apple Effect” or the “iPhone effect” or whatever you might, but average consumers are starting to experience what Mac users have known for many decades – technology can look great and be easy to use. It doesn’t have to be a migraine inducing level of frustration.

People and companies who make technology have taken notice. The problem is that it’s a misguided notion, coming from a good place. Companies have no focused on building pretty products. Products with a great “look and feel”1.

What people are doing is visual design: building the same products, but with a pretty wrapper.

It’s a first step, and again, one that comes from a good intention, but that shouldn’t be the goal of companies.

The next step is to focus on solving problems. Solving a problem doesn’t always mean a gorgeous design, and often times, a gorgeous design doesn’t solve any problems.

Design is how it works.

The trend with many companies is that they are hiring user experience designers, treating design as something to be handed off – just like they toss requirements over the fence to development teams.

That’s how we’ve ended up with glorified PDFs as the solution to digital magazines.

Solving problems or “design” means rethinking what you do for every new medium. It means rethinking your business from the ground up of how you can better serve your customers with the evolutions in technology.

What it doesn’t mean is wedging what you do into a new medium.

Conde Nast could very easily tomorrow hire beautiful visual designers for mobile, but if they’re not rethinking entirely how content is consumed on mobile devices, all they’re doing is slapping a pretty skin on something that doesn’t work any better than the old conventions. That’s why Flipboard created a beautiful, much better experience for consuming content than any of the traditional publishers have with all their baggage.

Design should be a fundamental skill of every person that touches a project, not a silo that delivers 1/10 of the puzzle. That doesn’t mean that every business, finance, marketing, and development person has to know Photoshop and how to create gorgeous interfaces. As John Gruber pointed out, Tweetie for iPhone could be held up as one of the best iOS apps of all time. It did that while using a very simple visual design that mostly used Apple’s standard UI Kit.

Design is a thought process. Boil down what you’re doing to a question about what you’re solving. Then explore options for better solving that.

What you shouldn’t do is immediately toss technology at what you’re doing.

“As a small restaurant, we need to increase foot traffic.” You could have 50 “social media experts” swoop in at this business and tell them to start a Facebook page, a Twitter account, register on Foursquare. But if the food is bad in the first place, you’re not solving the real problem.

So I have one request:

Large companies, as you acquire smaller companies with a great sense of design, don’t ask them to reskin what you do today. Let them rethink how things work, let your business get restructured, and focus on delighting your users. Design is not a skin. It’s how things work. The bigger your platform, the bigger your opportunity to surprise and delight your users2.

  1. I hate that term. []
  2. This does not only mean application developers, this applies to every type of business that serves a customer of any sort []
December 9, 2011