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 Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair 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. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
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.
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.+