Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What is this design thing, anyway?

I have been interested in design lately. For the last few years, I have thought of design as this subtle art of making things aesthetically pleasing. As in "interior design". Now, my interior design skills are limited to my recent realization that, one: I like walls that are painted a color other than white, and two: crown molding looks kind-of cool. Other than that, I am completely lost.

So when people talk about the importance of design in consumer products, I can definitely tell what I like, but I have no idea how to do it myself. I feel like this is important, but I feel helpless, so I feel frustrated. I look at products from Apple, and I agree that they are beautifully designed, but I cannot explain why. I read websites about design, and apparently the beauty is because this corner is rounded, and the other corner is square, and the bright-white power cord creates a cognitive dissonance. I really, really, don't get it.

Then I read this article in Fast Company about how all of Apple's products are flawed, and suddenly, I got it. I am not saying that their products are not flawed - I use several Apple products on a daily basis, and know exactly what I am getting and what I am giving up with this choice. I am saying that the description of what was wrong with the iPhone completely misses the point of design. In fact it missed the point in such an obvious way that it helped shine a light on exactly what good design is.

Design is not the art of making a corner round or square, or picking exactly the right color. Well, it is, but that is a small part of design.

Michael Fitzgerald thinks that the iPhone is a pretty box, but that it is missing a bunch of features, and that pretty boxes are easy to copy. "Fashionistas" (who apparently only care about the pretty box) will buy the iPhone for its looks, but the general population wants all those features. He lists a whole bunch of features that could be in the phone, but aren't, and labels them as fatal design flaws. And this is where design enters the picture.

A well designed product is not a bunch of features thrown into a box. For every feature available, there is a clear trend toward "better". For memory, battery life, network bandwidth, and free beer, more is always better. For weight and cost, less is generally better. We know this already. Just saying that there is a technology available that is better than the one we have is not the same as designing a better product.

Early in my career, a senior colleague told me that "Engineering is fundamentally about compromise". I didn't like this when I first heard it, but I quickly understood that he was right. Faster processors cost more money, consume more battery power, and generate more heat. Getting rid of the heat requires bigger heat-sinks (more size and weight), and / or more active cooling (more size, weight, and power). The bigger batteries demanded by the bigger processor and its cooling system take up size and weight, cost more, and require a bigger, more expensive charger. Aside from the functional requirements (what the gizmo being designed is supposed to do), a designer is typically working within power, weight, and physical envelope (size and shape) budgets.

Design is about making the trade-offs between faster this, slower that, and heavier overall package. I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that Apple designers sweated over decisions that would have made the iPhone one or two millimeters thicker, or a few grams heavier.

The user interface and the aesthetics of the phone are part of these decisions. Apple didn't think that the iPhone virtual keyboard is better than a physical keyboard, they just thought that it was a worth while trade-off to be able to hide the keyboard when you didn't need it (and without making the phone twice as thick so it could slide). They could have made the iPhone bigger and uglier, and harder to use, so that they could fit in all the biggest, fastest features on the market, but lots of people already make that phone.

The definition of a disruptive technology is that it is inferior to the state-of-the art. Telephone calls made over the Internet (VOIP) were, and perhaps still are inferior to those made over traditional circuit switched networks. But we love them, because they add convenience, are low cost, and can integrate with other technologies much better than my desk phone can. Disruptive technologies are disruptive because they change the competition away from the old metrics (e.g. fastest network access or typing speed), and begin competing on new metrics (e.g. easiest to use, or tightest integration). Kodak went from being a company with 90+ years of industry dominance to nearly irrelevant when we removed film from our cameras. Digital cameras had inferior image quality compared to Kodak film, but when was the last time you bought a roll of film?

So what is design? It is about creating a complete solution to a customer's problem. It is about making the trade-offs between all the possible features, and making the selected features work perfectly together. Design is like cooking: The best apples don't guarantee the best apple pie, but a great chef can make a great desert, even with average ingredients.

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