Saturday, November 19, 2011

Product design sucks

Over the last few weeks I've started to pay more attention to product design.  I don't know if that's because I've recently read the Steve Jobs biography that paints him as a legendary stickler for good design or if it's because I'm slowly moving my company towards its first real product release but, for whatever reason, I've started taking notice.

Largely, I've noticed how much most product design sucks.

Walking through a large department store the other day, I started looking at some of the home appliances; looking for anything that jumped out and grabbed my eye. Nothing did. I saw the same smooth curves or sharp angles on everything. Nothing looked remotely different, unique, or exciting. Everything was just really boring.

It's not just home appliances. Look at your computer, your television, your MP3 player, your car. None of it truly has the style to grab you by the neck and make you take notice. None of it is beautiful or looks like anyone paid much attention to pleasing the eye. It's the same tired, old, motifs repeated over and over on product after product. Nothing is special.

As our company starts designing its own product, I wonder if we'll be faced with the same dilemma. Will our product pay more attention to function over form? Will we seek to delight the users eye as much as we strive to meet their tech needs? Is there a need for compromise between radically different product design and really great functionality? Can you have both in the same product?

Personally, I believe the dearth of boring products is because consumers don't really notice anymore - especially on the low end. Sure, someone who pays $3,500 for a home stereo system is going to want something that looks amazing but what does someone who pays $159 for one expect?  Good sound. That's it. The lower we go, the more function seems to become more important than form.

When I worked at Walmart, I had a mantra I lived by and still live by today: Every customer gets the million dollar purchase treatment even if they're only spending $5.  When you choose to give me the money you worked hard to earn, you deserve to be treated to a spectacular experience. How much you're spending doesn't really matter. The fact that you're spending it with me instead of a competitor is what matters.

My coworkers and managers often didn't understand why I'd spend enormous amounts of effort helping customers choose sometimes incredibly cheap products. It's because they deserved my time and effort. The deserved the best. That's how I feel about product design: customers deserve the best effort and I don't believe designers are giving them that.

How about you? What are some products who's designs just 'wows' you? Why does it make such an impact on you? What about shoddy products? What would you do to change the design to make them amazing?  Leave your comments below or send me an email and discuss it.

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