2011: The year design trumps tech

Adii Pienaar, the inventor of an internationally-successful WordPress theme-creation business, gave a recent presentation where he raised the idea of “User Experience (UX) and Design versus Tech”. He asked the question: “Is one more important than the other?”

Themes are essentially “plug and play” skins for WordPress sites, allowing a user to change the style and design of their site on the fly, at the click of a button. It has generally cut down, or cut out, the need for development.

Pienaar builds these themes for a living, so would naturally ask these questions. But it’s becoming easier to agree with his sentiments that design skills are in fact trumping those of development and technology.

Here’s why:

Often the solution is not technically demanding

When a new “to-do” list app comes to prominence in the iPhone App Market it is not because of breakthroughs in technology. The same is true of games that have gained ridiculous amounts of users, such as Angry Birds, Paper Toss and Farmville. What drives the massive adoption of these applications and games is their creative execution, and their careful focus on usability and user experience.

User experience thinking teaches us that the average end user doesn’t care at all about the tech involved in an application they are using – they perceive the interface, and everything else is just ‘magic’. If it does the job quickly, easily and efficiently in comparison to the competitors, then it’s a winner.

Good tech is ubiquitous

For most kinds of projects, good technology is widely – and often freely – available. We have amazing open-source CMS solutions such as WordPress and Drupal, with a wide variety of plugins and widgets that even beginner developers can customise with ease. All kinds of fascinating data is available through relatively easy to use APIs – think Google Maps, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Working with these APIs can be tricky at times, but it’s not like building back-end systems for a derivatives trading desk at an investment bank. Even on a more fundamental level we now have powerful higher level programming languages that are relatively easy to learn, like Python, Ruby and PHP. These enable a wider range of people to provide creative technical solutions than before.

UX and design are what matters to users

As mentioned in the first point, the tech side of an application or website is just magic to most users, and they are the ones we make all these amazing solutions for. Even though they might not always be aware of it, what is important to users is UX and design. It is the mixture of aesthetic beauty with a clear and obvious interface that drives users to try something out for the first time. It is the sometimes unquantifiable emotional connection that good design facilitates that keeps users coming back and keeps them happy. It is the knowledge that something ‘just works’ that motivates users to make recommendations to their friends. Whilst of course there is a lot of tech involved in something ‘just working’, it is the interaction and experience design of a product that makes a user feel this.

Tech is finite. Design is infinite

Admittedly, the headline is a bit sensationalist (and not entirely true), but it raises an important point. When it comes down to competition between two similar solutions, it is usually not a matter of technical differences that decides which solution becomes more successful.

Technical solutions are limited by the constraints of logic, available data, programming languages, and perhaps the skill of the developers. In essence it is easier to look at a particular technical solution, reverse engineer it and copy it, than it is to reverse engineer good design or UX. Of course one can copy design elements exactly, but that is not the point of good design. To create a compelling user experience one must consider all the unique factors pertaining to a particular project – just copying someone else’s design or UX choices will not work in the same way that copying the tech will.

The point of this article is not that tech is unimportant today. Clearly, there were amazing technical advances in 2010 that allowed individual companies to surge ahead on their innovations, and this will also be true in 2011. The point is that in 2010 we began to see a clear trend, that will continue into 2011 and beyond: That design and UX are becoming recognised as being more integral to success — even at the expense of tech.

Mobile has had a large part to play in this trend, with a simplification of applications, and a concentration on the new range of usability constraints that come with smaller devices.

2011 could be the year that people really need to learn the lesson –- to differentiate yourself in a saturated market, you need to understand that it’s all about the users, and for the users…it’s all about the experience.



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