Highly Demographic Language

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.

Low-level Marketing

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.

  1. In some ways, I wonder if the comparison of Apple to Google is fair. It’s an easy comparison, but they both have very different ways of making money.

    I think you’re correct in the assessment that a lot of Apple’s UI work doubles as good marketing work. At the same time, part of me thinks that Gmail would look a lot different (at least at its inception) if their strategy was to get people to plunk down $12/mo. to use it instead of the ad-based strategy.

    On some level I think people expect a certain amount of design-refinement in things they pay for.

    If something is free, but incredibly useful, we’re more forgiving a much more utilitarian interface.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts, Khoi.

    I like your idea of how things can *look* easy to use. I was going to mention a study a few years ago that showed that there was little to no correlation between users’ perception of how easy a site is to use (based on asking them how easy a site was) and empirical measurements of how easy the site is to use (based on measurements of efficiency, accuracy, and time). In other words, a site can make you feel more productive than you actually are.

    This is not an excuse for designers to focus on creating things that look easy to use but are hard, or to rescue a hard-to-use design with the superficial ‘markers of usability’. But it does say that you can improve the overall quality of a product’s user experience, and improve the sales potential of that product, by being conscientious of these ‘markers’.

    What are these markers, then? That’s another question, but I have always felt that there is an ‘aesthetic of efficiency’ that a great many designers use (sometimes successfully, relying on the emotional appeal of the aesthetic) as a crutch for real usability.

  3. The idea of UI ‘showmanship’ is an interesting one. I think the hard-to-grasp but you know it when you see it is not that it looks ‘easy’ as much as it looks ‘right.

    And of course ‘right’ is really deep into the ‘I’ll know it when I see it category.’ It’s something close to the feeling you get when you settle into an unfamiliar environment…someone else’s workspace, for example, and yet everything you need is exactly where it should be when you reach for it, or look for it. UIs can offer this perceived…what,…not ease, not familiarity…zen propriety?

    I’ve certainly had the opposite experience…getting into a GM rental car and finding absolutely nothing (except maybe the steering wheel) is ‘where it should be.’ And boy, did I want to get out of that environment quick…as much so as if the car had been dusted with itching powder before my arrival. And not all of that was a functional dischord…I swear the glare from the chrome in the car where I didn’t want it was driving me nuts too.

  4. Hi,

    The other day I stumbled on an old article from InformationArchitects that discusses the relation between Interface and Brand. In the article the author conceives the formula Interface = Brand. I feel there’s a conversion factor missing in that equation. I suppose here’s where the ‘unconscious desire’ could fit: Interface * Unconscious Desire=Brand. In a way, for a Brand, a GUI is little different from its other interfaces. The product is marketing.

    GUIs are not created for themselves, they are created for their targeted users to interact with the application. So they must speak to that ‘unconscious desire’ of the user. Apple does it very well. Google too, but their brands are very different, so their respective interfaces are very different.

  5. Does interface designing equal marketing? It’s not so on the D.O.D.’s interfaces or NASA’s interfaces for flight management or other non-consumer based applications.

    The graphic designer is already the quiet seller. Compared to an advertising designer creating the in your face, hard sale. Apple claims to produce many of their products without having to look at marketing statistics except when it came to the iPhone. For reasons, I forgot. I’m guessing it was to figure out where to position 3G networks.

    Companies have to rely on marketing means that they don’t know their target audience or possibly have no vision. A designer who builds interfaces based on these numbers are probably doing less designing and more following numbers that only point to proved results. Sometimes the same goes true if trying to save money on production costs, using template solutions. You really have to throw up on the laps of these designers or feel sad for them because they have to follow culture-less company policies. Verses creating something fun, exciting and different which marketing just gets in the way of creating successful interfaces.

  6. I think the interface designer is marketing with everything he designs. He has to get acceptance for the design before it goes into production so on a basic level the designer must sell the interface. It is of course another type of marketing if the design is designed to appeal to as wider audience as possible. If simplicity sells then that is not a bad thing to add to technology.

  7. Something I worry about is the ‘dumbing down’ of design. This includes interface design, and more significantly, marketing. Some of the most successful designers of our time haven’t worried if the demographic profile was fulfilled, or if the general public were smart enough to understand it.

  8. I forgot to add: because the general public IS smarter than we think it to be. The most successful interface designs reference tradition, while subtly pushing the user beyond their comfort zone.

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