SxSW: Traditional Design & New Technology

by March 11, 2006

Most of today’s SxSW2006 presentations gave me new ways of looking at (or understanding) digital product design. The morning session on Traditional Design & New Technology, however, made me feel like I was stepping back in time.

Perhaps it was my expectation coming in. I believed “traditional design” would be defined as generalist, holistic, “capital D” design and the conversation would focus on broad systems thinking to enable meaningful communication within digital products. It turns out that for the panelists, though, traditional design was synonymous with print design. As a result, a good portion of the discussion centered around why the principles that drove emotional attachment and value (the intangibles) in the print medium weren’t effectively exploited on the Web.

Several of the panelists noted that “good design” on the Web was measured within technical parameters: Web standards, accessibility, graceful degradation, etc. Instead, they argued good design should be judged on long term emotional engagement. The examples they picked to represent this contrast, though, could not have been any less illustrative of their point.

A comparison between the emotional engagement of Penguin design books and eBay favored Penguin simply based on Penguin’s aesthetics. Now, I’m not too familiar with the cult of Penguin books but I attended eBay Live 2005 and the 12,000 eBay members that trekked to San Jose, CA could not have been any more emotionally engaged. They savored their experiences with eBay in an almost religious manner despite eBay’s supposed lack of “emotionally engaging design”.

Having designed two new products for eBay from the ground-up, trust me there is a lot of designing going on there. But it is the design of experience not object. When you are designing a book, aesthetics are often all you have (beyond the actual printed words) to make an emotional connection with a consumer (not a user -a consumer). When you are designing social software there are many more variables. It simply doesn’t make sense to equate the design of eBay with the design of a book. eBay is the 28th largest economy in the world. It has interaction design nuances that keep hundreds of millions of people engaged, collaborating, and communicating with each other. Are there usability problems? Yes. Could the site be “prettier”? Sure.

But think of social experiences like eBay as organisms or as cities: they grow, they change, some parts of them are old, some parts are new, some parts are ugly and hard to get around, some are shiny and well lit. Social software is organic and ever changing. As a result, the constraints and opportunities for design on the Web are different than those for print.

To summarize, what I think was the missing point in this discussion is that those of us designing social software are enabling dynamic experiences not crafting static objects. Yes, aesthetics are an important part of experience design, but they most certainly aren’t the only thing responsible for emotional engagement online. Could we be exploiting aesthetics and the story telling that is inherent in “capital D” design more on the Web? Of course, we could in every medium. But online we also frequently need to enable people to tell their own stories and create their own experiences and that’s a big difference.