is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
In a recent blog post, my friend Chris Fahey raises the question of whether or not an interface designer is a salesman. In a way, he’s tackling more seriously a subject that I wrote about three years ago in a post titled “Window Dress for Success,” in which I only half-jokingly inferred possible marketing motivations from the then-proliferating varieties of chrome in Mac OS X applications.
In his post, Chris cannily argues that it’s the designer’s job not only to create a solution that is easy to use, but also to create a solution that looks easy to use. He writes:
“A designer who neglects marketing concerns and designs a product that the target audience sees as undesirable (because, for example, it lacks a sexy list of features or a glossy interface) is just as bad as a designer who neglects production concerns and creates something that is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to build (to manufacture, program, whatever).”
With some qualifications, this statement about the role of designers — and especially, from where I sit, the role of interface designers — strikes me as insightfully true. As I somewhat cheekily suggested in that June 2005 post, it’s my opinion that interface is marketing, and unavoidably so.
To be clear, I’m hardly a leading booster of the social merits of marketing. In many ways, I find it regrettable that one of the central learnings that we’ll take away from the digital age is that anything can be marketed anywhere. Still, I readily admit that the practice plays an important role in capitalist society and certainly marketing is an important complement to design in all its forms. It’s reasonable to argue, as many people do, that design and marketing have a symbiotic relationship, that one is often predicated on the other.
If you think about marketing as a way of communicating the benefits of a designed product to users, then it’s clear to me at least that good interfaces do that. To make an interface ‘user friendly’ is to communicate the value of features or content to a user, and to do so in as expedient and succinct a fashion as possible. At a low level, expressing functionality as a tab, or providing a summarized view of complex information, or positioning like features in close proximity to one another — or any number of nuanced decisions that designers make — is very much about marketing that functionality to users.
The Designer Is Marketing to You
Many of Apple’s user interfaces for consumer products like iPhoto and iChat, for instance, qualify as highly effective marketing tools of their own. Indeed, a significant portion of the Macintosh operating system’s U.I. itself, from the Dock to Time Machine to Cover Flow, are intensely marketing-motivated exercises in creative showmanship. That their designers have chosen to provide lush visual effects, generously proportioned inputs, and a carefully doled out quantity of controls and dials sends a certain kind of marketing message intended for a certain kind of demographic — those of you out there who happen to fall into that target audience know well who you are.
And when we talk about Apple’s user interfaces, it’s only natural to compare them with those that come out of Google’s offices: Gmail and Google Docs are by contrast nearly ascetic, stripped down to only the bare essentials and highly engineering driven. To a point. Their U.I.s are still more than raw computing functionality, though, as a tremendous amount of interface engineering goes into expressing their functionality within the framework of a very precise flavor of offhandedness; business casual chrome, you might call it. The marketing message for these all-comers applications is capability without visual artifice, and of a sort that exists well within the reach of novices. They’re lean, able and, crucially, free — as in free of cost and freely usable by anyone.
These examples are obvious, I know, but it’s useful to run through them because, through the power of design, their interfaces so clearly render specific marketing intentions. But interface design is now a sufficiently mature profession that even the absence of subjectively ‘good’ design constitutes a marketing activity of its own, albeit one that’s somewhat unconscious in nature. Any new software written for command-line interfaces like UNIX, for example, and outside of the language of graphical user interfaces is effectively attracting a self-selecting audience of users who are technically proficient and, importantly, actively turning away those who are not.
Where Does It End
All of which isn’t to say that interface designers are the same as marketing managers. There’s a point, to be sure, where the salesmanship that a designer can bring to the product ends, and more fully dedicated marketing begins. Marketing is only one aspect of the work that we do. If you were to ask me to better demarcate the limits of interface design as marketing, I’d say that it resides within the overlap of the explicit goals that a user brings to an interface and their unconscious desire to feel that they can meet those goals. Which is to say, where we can create a solution that allows users to complete a desired task while also communicating to the user that completing the task is within their power, we’re wearing the both the hats of a marketer and an interface designer. In my opinion, the best designers realize that.+