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User Experience Matters: What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From "Objectified"

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Braun's Rams influenced Apple's Ive. Photo courtesy of Gizmodo

A few months ago, my friend Christian Lindholm, partner at Fjord, a convergence design agency, and father of the Series 60 interface (at Nokia) stopped by for one of our quarterly idea sessions. Our conversation eventually veered towards a topic that’s near and dear to both of us: design. I spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating design and its eventual impact on products and companies. Lindholm’s visit coincidentally was a few days before we launched the redesigned GigaOM. I wanted his opinion. Instead he offered great insight. Most companies (including web startups), he said, are looking to “wow” with their products, when in reality what they should be looking for is an “’of course’ reaction from their users.”

Puzzled, I looked at him. And then it hit me: Great design means that one look and the end user reacts by knowing what to do with a knob or a button, without as much as even thinking about it. Of course this knob is what turns the volume up, or brings up the home screen, or in case of our own site design, a hypertext link that brings up posts by Stacey or Liz or me.

This of course factor is at the heart of every great design — from the iPhone to the Braun alarm radio. And it’s an important lesson that every startup and entrepreneur should remember. Whether your company is making a physical product or a web service or mobile application, it’s essential for you to think about design.

This was brought home to me earlier today when I was watching “Objectified,” a documentary film by director Gary Hustwit, who’s well-known for his last film, “Helvetica.” (Both are available for download on the iTunes Store.) Hustwit explores objects around us, how they’re designed, and what they do. It was the best 75 minutes I’ve spent watching a movie, for it not only educated me about design, but it also helped me understand how great designers such as Marc Newson; Dieter Rams, Braun’s former design chief; and Apple’s Jonathan Ive think of and design products.

“In my experience users react positively when things are clear and understandable,” Rams told the Filmmaker. Rams, a veteran designer, is well-known for designing iconic products for Braun. He’s said to have been a major influence on Ive, Apple’s senior VP of Industrial Design.

When talking about the iPhone, Ive told the filmmaker:

When we are designing a product, we look at the various attributes of a product. Some of those attributes are the materials it is made from and the form that is connected to that material. Other issues is physically how do you connect to the product. For example in iPhone, everything defers to the display.

A lot of what we seem to be doing in a product like that is getting design out of the way. With that sort of reason, it feels almost inevitable, almost undesigned and it feels almost, like of course it is that way. Why would it be any other way?

I think this is what Apple’s competitors fail to understand. Many confuse features — aka feeds and speeds — with what really connects with customers: user experiences. (That’s a primary reason why I’m not a fan of Droid, the much ballyhooed Android device. And it’s also the reason why I have growing respect for HTC and what it’s doing with its Sense technology.)

Explaining Apple’s design philosophy behind MacBook Air, Ive told the filmmaker:

We push ourselves to ask, can we do the job of those six parts with just one? One part that provides so much functionality that it enables one product. It wasn’t design of the physical thing, but it was figuring out the process. It is about what’s important and what’s not important.

It is important to remember things that are important and not important and then removing things that are vying for your attention.

Similarly, all features have to have a reason, Ive explained. He gave the example of the indicator light on a MacBook which simply goes away when the laptop is in use.

Indicator has a value when it is indicating. So you spend a lot of time making things less obvious, less conspicuous. When indicator comes on, it is not a feature. It is a calm and considered solution and focus on how you are going to use it.

10 Rules of Good Design by Dieter Rams
1. Good design should be innovative
2. Good design should make a product useful
3. Good design is aesthetic design
4. Good design will make a product understandable
5. Good design is honest
6. Good design is unobtrusive
7. Good design is long lived
8. Good design is consistent in every details
9. Good design should be environmentally friendly
10. Good design is as little design as possible

But not everyone thinks like that. “What bothers me today is the arbitrariness and thoughtlessness with which many things are produced and brought to market, not only in the sector of consumer goods, but also in architecture and advertising,” Rams said in the film. “We have too many unnecessary things everywhere.” I completely agree. And when the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) kicks off later this week in Las Vegas, we’re going to see a gaudy display of these excesses. The good news is that many of these will never see the light of the day.

14 Responses to “User Experience Matters: What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From "Objectified"”

  1. I’m employed at a web and graphic design firm and I agree with the central focus of this article. We have the same focus with usability ranking as a top priority. When we create websites and web design applications, usability is a primary consideration. We test the layout and aesthetic appearance of the site with user testing; our sites always account for user interface web design.

    If a site is not usable to real people, the aesthetic appeal and other impressive features are worthless. First and foremost, a website needs to be highly functional.

  2. A brilliant “of course” piece. I too will remember the ‘…what they should be looking for is an “of course” reaction from their users’ quote. I see it as a nice restatement of Saint-Exupéry, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” I think most “new! things” designers nowadays, especially American ones, tend to either forget or ridicule that.

  3. Very nice post — thank you.

    I’d seen Helvetica some months ago, and had been feeling nerdy ever since for rating it 5 stars without being able to recommend it to anyone (friends could care less about typography). Will have to watch Objectified.

  4. Great article. I try to think quite a bit about design because I feel it can be quite a differentiator. Often times when creating a new page or feature for a site I have to keep bringing everyone back to the question “Why are people at this page?” We can’t be distracted by adding in flashy toys, we need to answer the key question as simply and elegantly as possible.

    It’s very hard to keep simple things simple.

    Sounds like it’s time to move Objectified to the top of my netflix queue.

  5. One can always see a design by Data (Microsoft, Google) … and a design by abstraction.

    Design by data leads to clutter, it always goes like this. But the data show that the user wants/expects it. Ignoring the fact that a million users have a million different ideas of what they want or need and any combination thereof.

    Design by abstraction leads to a clear understanding what something should do and where the boundaries are what it should not do. Problem is, there is no safety net to point to, like in data (where one can proof and disproof almost anything). One really has to think it through, no short cuts.

    • So you disagree with Apple’s design strategy to spend months and months designing every very little minuscule of their products and would encourage them to just smack some random bits and pieces together? Don’t confuse minimalism with minimal design

  6. “Most companies (including web startups), he said, are looking to “wow” with their products, when in reality what they should be looking for is an “’of course’ reaction from their users.” — I am going to remember this for my life time. Thanks Om for posting this.