Justin, about a quarter of the way in, I was ready to disagree with you, but you absolutely nailed it.
This is something startups with designer-founders can sometimes struggle with. The designer-founder looks at a product category and thinks, "All of the existing products look so ugly!" They then decide to enter that category because they believe they can make a "beautiful version of X".
Designer-founders tend to overemphasise the appeal of a product's visual sheen because that's what they're geared to focus on. What usually ends up happening, though, is that these startups never gain traction - the designer-founder has spent so much time trying to make their product beautiful that they've neglected to focus on solving the underlying problem more efficiently, cheaply, or easily. Sometimes it seems as though some designer-founders believe that if they spend enough time polishing a turd (a little like the one to the left), it'll turn into gold... nope, never happens.
I'll also add: your point about Path is a great one. Path is beautifully designed, at least on the surface, but was unable to grow its userbase until it engaged in spammy, black-hat user acquisition techniques. It seems to me as though they began polishing pixels way too early, instead of spending more time designing an engaging/useful core product.
Hey Connor, thanks for the thoughtful reply.
Your point about "the designer-founder has spent so much time trying to make their product beautiful that they've neglected to focus on solving the underlying problem more efficiently, cheaply, or easily" is particularly acute.
Again, I'm thinking about Craigslist, Hacker News, the Drudge Report, even the "command line"... these are all products that don't have a nice visual sheen, and yet they have tremendous traction with users.
One experiment I've found helpful lately is to strip away the visual sheen of the product I'm working on until it's at Craigslist/HN level, then get a few users to test it. If they find it engaging, or find it does the job better than existing alternatives, it's worth pursuing. If not, it's back to the drawing board. It's a great way to step back and get a handle on what you're really building.
Great post, that I more or less agree with/
I'm reminded of an issue I have with the general use of the word 'design,' though. Graphic or visual design is often viewed as the definition of design, perhaps because a lot of digital designers initially came from a print/graphics background. As a "UX Designer" (don't get me started on that term), I find myself thinking as a (digital) product designer.
Perhaps one of the biggest beefs I have is the circle-jerk notion that 'design', in a visual sense, will solve everything. The phrase "lipstick on a pig" comes to mind," yet the attitude still persists. You need a well-designed product with a solid base, then some solid interaction design. Visual design is often icing on the cake.
...and that's not to say it's value is minimal. Visual can be a strong cue for a user and really skew the perception of a product
I agree: there are many times where a strong first impression is important.
But before we think about first impressions, we need to think about the following questions:
- Whose problem are you going to solve?
- What's their biggest problem, that they'll pay you to solve?
Everything that follows (design, engineering, marketing, management, funding, HR) need to be informed by the answers to those two questions.
In my experience, the success of a product / consulting comes down to:
- Successfully identifying a real problem
- Successfully executing a solution to that problem
For a lot of designers working on client work, they're actually designing for the business owner (more than the business' clients). The "problem" that they're solving, is that a business owner wants to feel good about their business. There's nothing wrong with that; it's a fine way to make a living!
But teams working on designing products need to dig deeper. Yes, a well designed product (like Path) might be well executed - but it might also be solving a problem that people don't really care about. On the other hand, a product like Comic Sans (which designers on the whole dislike), solves a legitimate problem for millions of users around the world: they want a fun, irreverent font to use on their memos, in their emails, etc...
I see it as a Maslow's like pyramid: having two services equally proficient, the decision may be based on higher needs, such as the ease of use.
I believe as technology is becoming a commodity at certain point, companies are differentiating themselves from the competition improving the overal interaction's experiences, and that's where great design comes in.
Also, if an experience is designed from the ground up to be superb, but your structure can't deliver what you promised, the efforts are wasted. Design is far more bigger than an UI, and you can't fake it in the long term.
I agree: design, as it relates to the overall experience, is important.
What I'm thinking about specifically is graphic design, visual design, and design "decoration".
I think the example of the restaurant that uses Comic Sans is a good one. Most patrons (ie. non-designers) don't care about Comic Sans on a sign, they just care about the food and service.
I realize this is potentially contentious: I'd love to hear people's thoughts (on both sides).