This year, Jony Ive is back in the driver’s seat, leading Apple’s design teams. This is great news for those of us who love products with an excellent user experience.
Technology companies, for the most part, have never had strong relationships with artists. Instead, they focus on the engineering, leaving design almost as an afterthought. If we are to build great products, however, we need to flip the formula, imagining great design and then building the technology to achieve it. That’s what this article is about: the importance of artists in the tech world.
At its most basic, excellent product starts with three guiding principles:
1. Imagine a great user experience.
2. Find just enough technology to create that experience.
3. Remove anything that is not essential to that experience.
1- Look for an amazing experience: A product should begin with UX and not with technology.
“You have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.” That was Steve Jobs’ answer to a hostile audience member challenging Apple on its decision to eschew a particular technology. His point became very clear: technology for its own sake doesn’t change the world. Technology in service to a user experience just might.
Many people may find it surprising that a founder of a leading AI technology company would embrace Jobs’ position. After all, my company builds great technology. But Jobs is right.
We must look for unique user experiences. We must make the user feel.
Typically, engineers are great at creating technology to solve problems. If we want to create breakthrough products that touch people, we need to add artists to the mix.
When I say artists, I don’t just mean graphic designers. They are necessary, of course, but so are artists from many different disciplines — designers, musicians, photographers, film directors, screenwriters, and more.
2- Look for good enough technology that is capable of bringing great user experience to life.
First, we must imagine outstanding user experience. Only then, should we begin to look for the necessary technology that will allow us to achieve that best experience. No more, no less.
A great product is not about using more complicated algorithms or more innovative techniques. I never liked product comparisons based solely on technical specifications like processing power, memory, etc. Technical one-ups-manship never created great products. They only work for commodities.
These features battles remind me of the famous Pirelli tire advertisement. The famous runner Carl Lewis is in starting position on a track, wearing high-heels instead of proper track shoes. The ad says: Power is nothing without control.
In the same vein, great technology without great user experience is nothing.
3- Remove anything that is not essential to that experience.
The fashion designer Coco Chanel purportedly said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” She knew that elegance was achieved through simplicity.
I have this discussion with my team often. I hear many ideas for new features intended to improve the product. “Why don’t we add this or that? People would like it!” I keep saying no. The truth is, these features would make the product worse, not better.
It is a concept that is difficult to convey and harder to explain, when you see it so clearly in your own mind. Adding something is the surest way to make a product worse, to make perception and comprehension worse, to generate confusion and frustration, and definitively to worsen the user experience (see Hick’s Law). To build a great product, we must look for the essence of the user experience and remove everything else so that the product can be seen and understood.
An old Volkswagen ad explains this well. The ad began with the word “Never” over a photograph of a two-toned VW Bug. In the first couple lines, the ad said, “We´d no sooner make over-chromed two toned Volkswagen” then went on to say “It´s not that the chromed version looks bad it´s just it doesn´t make the car work better.”
Or, as the great Braun designer Dieter Rams famously said in his Tenth Principle of Design: “Less but better.”
Never start a feature battle with the competition. Start a User Experience War.
For years, technology companies competed on features. Who could add more to a product. Those feature wars created complex, not better, products. That’s not the war we want to have today. Instead, we need to start the User Experience War, fighting to create products that are a delight to use.
I have always resisted the idea that “done is better than perfect”. For me, if you know what perfection looks like, you can achieve it. You can be both done and perfect. That perfection is the basis of the third principle, and is captured in the words of Antoine Saint-Exupery: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”.
I’ll talk about beauty in another article, but for me, the concepts of beauty and user experience are so intertwined that I’d like to conclude with a quote by architect Leon Battista Alberti: “Beauty is that reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse.” (De re aedificatoria, Book VI, sect. 2)-