The Lifecycle of Design: Part 2

by Luke Wroblewski September 20, 2006

Part two of The Lifecycle of Design: a conversation about how the role of design tends to change as products mature (be sure to check out part one first).

Luke Wroblewski Sounds like we are in agreement about the need to shift the conversation with consumers from pure utility toward desirability as products get closer to commoditization. And yes, there's lots of factors -like the type of material in a pan, or the continued sharpness of a knife- beyond pure aesthetics that help turn commodity into luxury. But great visual design can't hurt when you are trying to charge one hundred dollars for a cutting board!

I'm also glad you brought up my quote about telling users what they are seeing, how it works, and why they should care. From my experience, these three considerations are always at the heart of "design as communication" regardless of where a product is in its lifecycle. The only potential difference is which message is speaking the loudest.

  • "What is this?" communicates utility. How will this product be useful to me? Function is critical. After all for utility to exist, a product has to work.
  • "How do I use it?" is all about usability. How do I get the maximum utility out of this? Function is no longer enough if it is not clearly exposed and communicated. You need an effective intersection of function and form.
  • "Why do I care?" is desirability. I know what it does for me and how but why should I do it that way? Function is expected and as a result form needs to create an emotional connection through brand or value proposition.

Which brings me back to your original question: what about the success of sites like MySpace and CraigsList? When these products emerged, the focus of the conversation with consumers was on "What is this?". Unfortunately this may have come at the expense of "How do I use it?" and "Why do I care?" as both of these examples don't have great usability and, as you pointed out earlier, they are both often cited as being "ugly".

Personally, I don't believe the balance has to be that extreme for a product to be successful in its early stages. If anything, I think there's not enough design in products like these that communicates usability & desirability. I'm also not convinced their hyper focus on utility is really that deliberate. Someone might look at MySpace and CraigsList and their success with the early adopter market and assume that putting out a less "designed" product first is a good right step. In truth, though there are a number of unintentional factors responsible for the early focus on function:

  • New products are primarily developed by technologists exploring new ground and developing new technologies. Rarely do they have a designer alongside.
  • Because it is so early in the development of the technology the focus is on getting things to work. This leaves very little time and money for distinguishing design. The first cars were essentially boxes, as manufacturing caught up- you saw a lot more styling.

But the barriers to entry in production (3d models, manufacturing in china, web applications, fab labs!) are all coming down. This means its becoming faster and easier to produce functional products. As a result, usability and desirability come into play earlier in a technology's lifecycle simply because they can. There was never an "ugly version" of the ipod and the mp3 player was far from being a commodity when the ipod was released.

But ugly is a pretty subjective measure and to come back to the MySpace example once again, many of the profile pages on that site are really exercises in self-expression. So what's ugly to one person may in fact be attractive for another. Some might even argue what you see on MySpace profiles is art. If you consider art to be the manipulation of a specific medium (in this case the Web) for the purposes of self-expression that seems to fit the bill. Design, on the other hand, is also the manipulation of a specific medium but for the purpose of communication not self-expression.

Joshua Porter Your three questions: "What is this?", "How do I use it?" and "Why do I care?" are right on. If I could see a place where we might diverge it is with your statement: "the focus on getting things to work... leaves very little time/money for distinguishing design". In my opinion, functionality is the soul of the design. Focusing on getting the thing to work is the first and major hurdle in design. If I could get half the things I want to get working to work, I would be a successful designer. Functionality is the way a design solves a problem. Functionality is the reason for design, the reason why design is design and art is art.

Once we can solve that problem with our design, we can set to work optimizing it. That's where the later stages come in, that's where we talk about usability and style. That's just the aftermath of design. The genesis of design, the getting the thing to work, is when the design exists.

The quote/unquote "undesigned" sites like MySpace, Craigslist, and Del.icio.us are actually designed *very* well, they just don't focus on style at all because style isn't very important at that stage. The main issue at that stage is what it does, how it works. I've recently started to call what these sites are doing "social design". This separates their success from other types of design, like visual or interface design. I don't think that their designs are strong visually or from an interface design standpoint, but boy did they nail the social aspects. Connecting people...giving people tools to communicate. They've done a tremendous job there.

However, the point you made is worth repeating: these sites, though they might have good functionality, might lose their advantage over time ("the barrier to entry is coming down"). As we mentioned, the needs of users for any given product type change over time. In the beginning, users need functionality. Then, usability becomes a differentiating factor. Then, style. So MySpace will definitely need to become more usable over time, unless it can repeatedly reset the lifecycle by adding valuable functionality.

Luke Wroblewski Well I'm not sure the sites you're referencing are as well designed as you claim. After all, there's a company out there whose sole business is: "making the notoriously unnavigable profile pages on MySpace easier to use".

MySpace and perhaps Craigslist are for the most part inconsistent (from a user interface perspective), unstructured (from an information architecture perspective), loosely connected systems of very compelling interactive content. Craiglist & MySpace expose their full content to users and basically tell them to explore. The problem is this doesn't work for everyone. Despite amazing growth in 2-3 markets, Craigslist growth has teetered off in almost all new markets it enters. The recent changes on Del.icio.us are a testament that the interaction and information design of the application is continually progressing.

I think we've agreed that having something that works is a crucial baseline for acceptance. But why does usability have to wait until a product enters a different "stage"? Why not have something that functions well and has great usability? When you say "functionality is the reason for the design" I know what you mean but there's an important distinction you are glossing over. I can build a product that functions extremely well but that no one else other than me can use. Once I begin to consider how others can use the application that's when design comes in.

So I would modify your statement from "If I could get half the things I want to get working to work, I would be a successful designer." to "If I could get half the things I want to get working to work, I would be a successful engineer". And similarly "If I could communicate to others how to get the things they want working, I would be a successful designer."

Continued...

Part 3 of The Lifecycle of Design is on Josh's site.