The Lifecycle of Design: Part 1

by Luke Wroblewski September 19, 2006

This past June, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Joshua Porter for the User Interface 11 conference. Following the interview we got to talking about how the role of design tends to change as products mature. Before long we had quite a compelling dialogue on our hands. Rather than keep it all to ourselves, we decided to invite you all to participate in the discussion:

Joshua Porter While I was working on the questions for my interview with you (as a speaker for the User Interface Conference) I became newly interested in the theory of visual design. In particular, what is the relationship between visual design and the overall success of a product? Surely we are all affected by visuals, but how much? When? and Why? Are there times when visuals are more important/less important? The recent success of so-called "ugly" sites like MySpace, Craigslist, and Google suggest that there are times when visuals are more important than at other times.

These sites, however, are all relatively new. So is that a coincidence that many of the new success stories are ugly, or is there some relationship here?

So let's talk about visual design in terms of the product/design lifecycle. (Your writing has very much influenced my thinking on this.) When I was looking specifically at the issue of how sites can be successful while having poor/mediocre visual design it occurred to me that it might have something to do with where they are in their lifecycle:

  • Introduction
  • Growth
  • Maturity
  • Decline

or, alternatively

  • Early Adopter
  • Mainstream
  • Commodity

Related to the product lifecyle there is also a corresponding design lifecycle, as rarely do products stay as originally designed. What are your thoughts on that?

Luke Wroblewski There's certainly a relationship between visual design and the typical product lifecycle. Since visual design is responsible for communicating the utility, usability, and desirability of a product- as those change the message being communicated to customers needs to change as well.

As you outlined, products typically go from early adopter to mainstream to commodity. Experience design tends to become more important as you move up the curve. During the Early Adopter stage, people will put up with a less than ideal user experience in order to get a valuable set of functionality that previously did not exist. When products reach the mainstream however, function is an expectation and, as a result, no longer a clear differentiator. And once a product becomes a true commodity -- one of the only ways to distinguish it from the pack is through experience design.

Donald Norman articulated this progression quite well in his technology life-cycle so I won't dwell on it too much. But there's a lot of examples of it in action today. Dell's recent acquisition of AlienWare speaks to their need to offer consumers something beyond low costs. They need the focused communication of AlienWare's product design to reach beyond customers that are simply looking for the cheapest price on a computer. Similarly, it's only through design that Target manages to compete with Wal-mart in the retail market.

In addition to product lifecycles, its also important to consider what type of product are we trying to bring to market? Williams Sonoma, for example, can't get away with an "ugly" Web site even in the early adopter stage because aesthetics are a huge part of their brand message. It’s all about high-end top-quality cookware. Every aspect of their communication with customers needs to reflect that. So even early on, visceral design is a key component of their products and marketing.

Joshua Porter Williams Sonoma is an interesting example. Their entire product line is filled with items that seem like commodities: pans, knives, and other kitchen utensils. Everybody knows what knives and pans do: no designer needs to communicate that to us.

So it would seem like Williams Sonoma is using elegant visual design to get people to purchase items that they could just as easily find at Target or Walmart. But I don't think that's what's happening.

Part of what Williams Sonoma tries to do is to reset the product lifecycle by innovating...by creating higher quality products. For example, when my wife worked for the Williams Sonoma Co. we bought a knife set and a pan set there, for far more money than we could have spent on a set at Walmart or Target. The reason why we did so was because friends of ours had raved about the quality of All-Clad pans, that they hold heat exceptionally well and should last forever. Those two points, more than anything, sold us on the pans. We didn't buy them because they look good. We bought them because they work well.

So though Williams-Sonoma's design is very elegant, they couldn't get away with it if their products were exactly the same quality as Target's or Walmarts. People are too curious for that: they would figure it out. In other words, these products weren't exactly commoditized...yet. They provided better functionality than did the Target or Walmart brand.

This type of thing isn't represented in many of the lifecycle models. Product designers are constantly trying to reset the lifecycle. If you can reset the lifecycle, by providing better functionality or better usability, then you don't have to rely solely on visceral qualities to convince others to use the product.

In the first stage of the lifecycle the role of visual design is to convey usefulness. I quote you here: "visual design bears the responsibility of communicating the possibilities, limitations, and state of interactions. It tells users what they are seeing, how it works, and why they should care."

In later stages, the role shifts to usability and then to style. However, there are actually very few product types out there that are only differentiated by style. As you mention, gaming machines by Alienware and Dell may be one type. When new chips come out, both brands' machines simply get a little bit faster. But Alienware looks sooo cool, that they get the nod when all other things are equal. Clothing is another area where style is a huge differentiator...but there are also attempts at providing better functionality, too. Like Gore-tex.

There's More...

Continue to part 2 of The Lifecycle of Design