Secret Sauce- Design Aesthetic

*Warning* Geeky stuff ahead- This is a bit of an esoteric rant on design an function,

so if you aren’t in the mood, you may want to skip this post.

This morning, I listened to an old interview of Malcolm Gladwell at the 92nd Street Y, talking about his book Blink, and how we are wired to often make quick, instinctual decisions, sometimes to our benefit, and other times, to our complete deficit. These ideas are reinforced by Dan Ariely’s great book, Predictably Irrational. I can’t help but come to the conclusion that often subtle things, like aesthetics have as much to do with successful products, websites and even people than almost anything else.
I subscribe to Slashdot, which self-describes itself as News for Nerds. There are almost daily debates about things like open source, Apple versus Microsoft vs. Android, and which ones are “better”. The heavy developer nerd crowd LOVES Android and Linux and almost anything open source. There are many in this crowd that seem to hate Apple even if they begrudgingly accept their commercial success as “Computers and gear for the lazy and uninformed.” After listening to Gladwell’s interview this morning, I see this whole debate in a new light.

Apple spends a tremendous amount of time on the design of its objects. The smart cover for the new iPad is one of the most obvious examples on how design aesthetic and function are forefront in Apple’s product development process, and how the products are designed to work for people with very little learning curve. By contrast, many other tablets, computers, phones and other products are not always “user interface” oriented- they are designed with specific functions in mind, or specific geeky engineers thinking about what they want to do with the product. I think it’s awesome that you can run terminal applications from an Android device, but since I don’t need to do that pretty much ever, that functionality is useless to me. The aesthetics of a Zune or a Xoom or other devices are not as center to the process as is design at Apple, and the marketplace seems to be voting for those products that have a more intuitive and visually, physically pleasing design.

Later on in the interview, Gladwell tells a story of putting ice cream- identical ice cream, in two different containers- one round and one square. When asked to taste both, people with overwhelming report the ice cream in the round container tastes better. We know that chemically speaking, that should be impossible, because both are the same, but our aesthetic sense makes us prefer the ice cream in the round container. Could the same be true for computers and other electronic products? The answer is surely Yes. The better looking the outside container, the sleeker and nicer it looks, the more we’re going to love it, regardless of the fact it is missing some arcane functionality most people don’t use every day, or our political stance on open source.

Now if all we are looking for in a product is functionality and aesthetics don’t mater at all, we’ll accept ugly to get what we truly need- which is probably why most 18-wheel trucks look the same- functionality triumphs over design, so it’s unlikely Ferrari and Bughatti will be making long haul vehicles any time soon. If you need to write code and design websites and do all sorts of things, perhaps you need power that you shouldn’t even expect out of a tablet computer in the first place. But if you want an mp3 player, isn’t is easier to get something that is both beautiful and functional and easy to use? Or do you want something you have to customize and reprogram and deal with file incompatibility? Some folks like the challenge of customizing their own stuff, but the vast middle of the curve is truly satisfied with beautiful, functional and easy.

Gladwell also talks about the fact that we tend to pick tall, handsome men for president, even though some of them have their own inherent character flaws that might make them ill suited for the presidency. Even in our politicians, we tend to go for the charismatic, good looking folks over the less attractive, geeky policy nerds. The outward design and our judgments of people, of products and our perceptions of utility are often influenced by these initial experiences.

For the rest of us, this means when you are designing a site, for example, thinking about the Three click-rule is important, whether you’re talking about a consumer goods site with an e-commerce bent, or even an education site, where you expect people to look more in depth for information. The more you bury the important stuff, the less likely people will be to search it out and find it. Yes, this means we’re shallow and impatient. But once you know people are shallow and impatient, it’s then your responsibility and duty to work with those inherent human flaws to design your thing so it works with, and not against, people’s natural instincts.

The more I learn, the more I study IDEO design strategy, Backwards design in education, Maslow’s hierarchy and more, the more I’m forced to admit that effective design is the keystone to success online or offline. The ease of the human-product-website interface will help determine how much of the information “available” is truly available within the time and attention span people have. As people creating content for the web, we have to keep in mind that design is not just about “trivial” things like flowers and colors- the design, in all aspects, sets the stage, the expectations, and the perceptions of you and your company when you’re not there in person. Each little piece contributes to an overall sense of the whole picture, and conveys messages we may (or may not) want to signal and convey.  Like facial micro-expressions that secretly signal our inner mood and thoughts, or body language, our tweets, and Facebook updates, blogs and websites all involve choices made that convey information about us.

While I could go on about this for days, let me end this by saying don’t underestimate the importance of design and “end user” interface and experience in creating any of your projects and work.  It’s more important than you thin, because we judge a book by it’s cover, even if we don’t want to.

As a weekend bonus, here’s a great short video of Malcolm Gladwell, talking about meaningful work: