What makes ‘great’ designs ‘great’?
What is a ‘great’ design? There’s been a great deal of discussion of this question following the death of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. What made his products so good, and how did he get there?
Many people say Steve was a ‘maverick’, developing ‘great’ products, products that people didn’t even know they wanted before he made them. But what actually makes a product ‘great’? What qualities do we look for in a ‘great’ product?
As any good designer will tell you, truly ‘great’ products often achieve commercial success because of the lifestyle-enhancing result for the person using it.
The most successful designs must achieve some, if not all, of the following:
1. They make things easier, faster, and more fun; they empower the user.
2. An emotional connection. There’s a certain ‘intangible’ quality to many great designs. The head often rules the heart when making consumer purchases. We’ve all bought a branded product that wasn’t the best spec or build quality, or was a little too expensive. The buzz of owning the latest product or a sublime piece of engineering is something that every designer should seek to inspire.
3. Designs that can make you feel that you’re seeing something done in a certain way for the first time; that you’re close to the unexpected.
4. A great deal of mileage is to be had by offering customers incremental improvements and small ‘delighters’. Most companies these days understand the importance of, for example, producing a good central user experience; but don’t always take the time to pay attention to the small, and, minor details, like the action of a battery compartment catch, or the resistance on a button. With commercial pressures on every side, it’s all too easy to leave out the details, and produce a mundane product. Conventional wisdom states that customers look for ‘core functionality’, and you win them over by adding additional functions.
As a design consultancy we’re often talking about ‘fulfilling unmet practical and emotional needs’: This is the place where product innovation collides with consumer ‘need states’. To look at some of our recent designs; from a soup system that fosters independent and healthy eating in the elderly, to oxygen delivery systems that save lives for front line troops; in each case, identifying and fulfilling the emotional human need was both the start and the end point for these design projects.
Like Jobs, if you identify perfectly what your customers want and desire, a great design team closes the gap between a business and its consumers: It uncovers the insights that are the embryonic product opportunities of the future; they visualise the ‘what if…?’ opportunities that can be delivered to customers with cost effective ‘how to’ solutions.
So why do some businesses design ‘great’ products and succeed again and again while others fail?
Agile, responsive design teams deliver innovation. When costs rise or design timescales stretch out, you often end up with the traditional management practices that can stifle innovation. The original, coherent, disciplined vision of the product can fall between the gaps of short-termist, siloed thinking. ‘Great’ design houses maintain that clarity of vision as an imperative, and don’t let too much corporate noise get in the way of delivering the quality user experience that will deliver commercial success.
Great design does entail risk and effective risk management is a differentiator for commercial success. Having said that consumers should support and applaud companies that try to produce ‘great’ designs, even if they fail. That company’s next launch may just be mind-blowing. And if we had a single tip for businesses looking to create something truly lasting and memorable, it would be simply to have the courage not to compromise on your vision.