How Much Design Is Too Much Design?

As we await the launch of Apple’s latest attempt at creating a credible cloud computing service, an editorial at Ars Technica asks whether Apple can really succeed at this game. Writer Timothy B. Lee argues that Apple’s “centralized, designer-driven culture can be a serious weakness when building scalable network services,” and that analysis and iteration is what is truly necessary to make these things work.

This may or may not be an accurate assessment of Apple’s predicament, but I think the debate about whether designer-driven network products — not just cloud services, but social networks too — can succeed is an interesting one. I wouldn’t say that a strongly designer-led corporate culture makes it impossible for a company to create network products that people really want to use. But it does seem to me that, as much as we talk about the cruciality of design to the success of software that it’s also true that having too much design is often counter-productive.


Breathing Room

If you look across the digital landscape, the most exquisitely designed user interfaces and the most
comprehensively designed user experiences are rarely the most successful. On the other hand, the most successful network products make good use of design but are usually not high watermarks for design execution. Flickr and Facebook, to name two, are both very well-designed but employ only just enough in the way of intricately polished user interface elements and highly controlled layouts to succeed, and stop short of over-managing their details. Products like these are savvy enough to allow sufficient room for a user to live within them, to flex his or her muscles and breathe freely within the product’s architecture. They’re also the result of considerable iteration and improvisation, and sometimes they show that fact almost baldly in their patchwork agglomeration of mismatched features. No one would call them beautiful but they work phenomenally well and users love them.

By contrast, I’ve seen more than a few designer-driven products that feature gorgeously rendered buttons, forms and U.I. cues — or even luxuriously minimal interfaces — that have also failed to grab the imagination of a critical mass of users. They spring forth fully-formed from the imaginations of prolific designers or design teams, leaving little room for change or adaptation. They leave no pixel unmanaged, so to speak, and inadvertently suffocate their users with their overwhelming penchant for visual and experiential control. They’re beautiful but little used and inspire not much passion.

It’s difficult to say exactly how much design is “too much,” but finding that middle ground may be the most important job that an interaction designer has. Negotiating an equilibrium between the user’s ability to roam free and the system’s desire to funnel activities into specific directions is tricky business. This is a challenge that requires not only imagination and skill, which the best designers always have, but also perseverance and insight — the ability and willingness to work in an iterative, responsive fashion, with the understanding that the job is never really done. Even among the best designers, that’s rare.

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20 Comments

  1. There are three primary dualities that are encountered in this discussion. The balance must be found not between any two points in a plane, but between the two poles of every dimension, and each one of these dualities adds another to the argument.

    The first is between elitism and populism. The “exquisite design” or “minimal interface”, appealing as they may be, are elitist attractions. Only individuals and those with artistic / design bents can appreciate the effort. Collectives and those in a hurry would much prefer functionality over design, and design does get in the way at times; if not in the way of interaction, than at least in the way of fast delivery.

    The second is between collaboration and control. Here is where the user freedom and expression comes in. This is (arguably) the reason why MySpace died, because it toppled the balance by giving too much freedom to the users. But this is also why Windows Live Blogs were shut down and migrated to WordPress: they weren’t doing enough.

    The last is between the artist and the viewer, the creator and the consumer. All software is functional: it has to be. It provides a framework in which people can do things easily and meaningfully. Successful software is not just a contract, but a brainchild which needs nurturing and support by both parties, be they system devs and app devs over a platform, or socialnet devs and users over a website. The creator needs to provide direction, and the consumer needs to provide energy. This is why, increasingly, we are using the terms “responsive” in design: because there needs to be greater harmony between the two.

    Ultimately, the cost of detailed design is ignoring your users, while the cost of listening to users is ignoring yourself. As two paddles to a boat, these must work in harmony to move the boat forward. When listening to users becomes too loud and unproductive: trust your gut and pay attention to design. When design starts to slow the pace, pull back and listen to your users, have fresh eyes look at your work. True balance is in those products that can listen and trust this rhythm.

  2. Thank you, this was a great read for me. At the moment I’m rethinking my magazine’s web strategy and what the next apps will look like and this is just what I needed to hear.

    As far as iCloud’s potential success, I’ve been using it and like it, but obviously the real test comes in the fall. I didn’t like that Ars Technica article because it assumes that if Apple has performance issues then they’ve failed or screwed up, when that’s just a part of the game. Every company has had a couple rough patches scaling, it’s part of the game.

  3. Don’t you think though, Khoi, that the examples you cite of design gone wrong aren’t so much “over designed” as they are designed for the wrong medium?

    I’ve worked with designers who come from a print background, and they produce designs much as you describe; over-controlled, every pixel in its place, with little room for growth or “real” data.

    On the other hand, designers who are familiar with the web usually produce designs which can flex and grow more easily.

    I think the difference is just experience with the medium.

  4. John: It’s true, print designers making the leap to digital design often fall into this trap. But I don’t think it would be accurate to say it’s only print designers who do so. I’ve seen a lot of talented interaction designers do the same thing.

  5. I think it’s important here to distinguish between visual design and interaction design. Both are crucial elements, but they can’t be confused– a polished UI doesn’t make a usable product.

    For designers, making something usable should be a prerequisite to making it beautiful.

  6. Harish, I think the line between visual and interaction design is being blurred more and more these days. Especially now that we’re moving towards touch screens where you directly interact with the visual elements.

  7. I was in the audience for a panel discussion/launch event for Living in the Endless City last week – although they were talking about environmental design rather than digital product, one of the commentators (Saskia Sassen) said something relevant. Paraphrasing:

    “Things that have been completed can only become obsolete, but unfinished products can continue to adapt and evolve”

    Designing systems rather than single-shot solutions & layouts is a good start, but the problem is higher level than that. Facebook, Flickr, Twitter etc are relatively undefined as products which has given them freedom to respond to their users changing behaviours. Their interface design simply reflects the intentions of the product (as all good design should).

  8. John Kramer: I hadn’t thought that this was a companion to that earlier blog post I wrote about designer promotions. I guess insofar that they both share the common theme of making sure design adds value only where it really counts, they make sense together. Thanks for pointing it out.

    Mark Hurrell: Thanks for that quote, it’s excellent.

  9. Thoughtful article, but I was just wondering if you could cite some examples of the designer-driven products that you feel have failed, to contrast with the examples of Flickr and Facebook.

  10. one more thing…thank you John, for touching on how print designers (like myself) sometimes have a hard time transitioning to web design. For print, we need everything in its place and perfect, because we don’t get a second chance to print it and we need that control. I’ve wondered why I haven’t taken to web design as much, and maybe that is why, so much being out of our “control”. Now I want to redesign my website…sigh

  11. Agreed with Cathy. Terrance, that was a fabulous, succinct, and nuanced articulation of the overarching issues underlying the root problems behind Khoi’s post. Nicely done.

    Part of the reason why some products/software services/experiences (re: google, facebook, etc.) are so readily embraced by their audiences is that they are relatively “un-designed”, “they’re not slick”, etc. are all comments I hear in any design research we do on the topic. People have a weird cultural predisposition to trust things that seem more open, more “handmade”, un-embellished, and simple.

    That phenomenon is part and parcel of the spectrums Terrance unpacked in his comment.

  12. I don’t think this is a case of too much design but designing appropriately. Facebook and Flicker might not effuse a sense of style but they are highly considered and—in my view—very well designed. They success might lie in their functionality but I think they do this in concert with good design rather than in spite of it; as is arguably the case with sites like eBay or Craig’s List.

    MobileMe’s problem wasn’t that it was aesthetically pleasing, it was just a poor product for many reasons. Noone can release a product which is late to the market, unreliable, lacking in important features, and more expensive than the competition and expect it to succeed. Apple must have hoped that it’s close integration with ithe iPhone and it’s attractive web applications would have been enough to sell it. However, just because functionality and reliability are important to online services doesn’t mean that user experience is not.

    Time will tell if iCloud is a success or not what the Ars Technica article misses is that whole they may be led by strong product & interface design they often marry this very effectively with good engineering (of both hardware and software).

  13. It’s always easy to over-design and follow current trends than throughly hand-craft a unique, invisible interface that works for a product.

    As you said, Facebook and Flickr made this. Facebook is a great example: Ugly, but has possibly the best interactions on the web. Nobody cares about it’s beauty—-it just works. Badoo.com is another great example of a functional, minimal, interface that lets content shine.

  14. Nice post.

    Reminded me of the value of *balance* between the “ideal” vs “unfinished” a designer needs to strike. One bit I would add is the notion of *distance*.

    The ability of distancing from our own creations makes the balancing act somewhat easier.

  15. I’m tempted to say that many good designs fail because almost all designs fail, whether good or bad. Success or failure is sometimes due to the sheerest chance. But also, success correlates more much strongly with a good business model than good design. By “much more” I mean “infinitely more”. A good designer may or may not have a good business model.

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