Posted by: Helen Walters on January 23, 2008
I’ve been thinking this for some time, and since the iPhone update, the time has come to call it. It’s hard to see from the illustrations at right (and please believe me, I tried, but I don’t know how to get good images of the iPhone interface from the phone to the computer) but Apple’s design for locator map pins is approximately a trillion percent superior to Google’s design for locator pins on its own maps.
Apple’s pins are sleek and absolutely precise — and they thud into the map in the most satisfying manner. Google’s pins, on the other hand, are precise-ish, bulky arrowheads which often obscure much of the surrounding map and which send you off to consult a decoding system that’s unintuitive and often downright unhelpful.
Ok, ok, so this sounds like a really little thing. But I think there are big implications. And here’s why. There may have been a real resurgence in recent times for deliberate non-design — a brazen lack of consideration for font style, kerning, type size, layout considerations, and all the things that have earned designers a keep since time immemoriam. But design is the differentiator. And once all is played out in the technological space; once the playing field is leveled (or at least level-ish) and all are working with the same limitations and opportunities, that attention to detail is going to be crucial — and it will pay huge dividends.
A while back, my colleague Matt Vella wrote a piece about attempts by search players such as Yahoo!, Ask.com and Microsoft Live Search to use design to compete with Google. Many of the resulting reader comments derided the attempts, saying that success simply boils down to effectiveness. The engine that provides the fastest, most accurate results, wins, and, really, who cares how it looks?
In a recent Times piece about the online dating Web site, Plenty of Fish, writer Randall Stross describes visiting the site as a "visually painful experience" and then recounts that founder Markus Frind hasn't dealt with issues such as elongated or scrunched imagery because Frind believes it's a "trivial issue that did not bother users."
I couldn't disagree more strongly. Despite the fact that Frind's success suggests that he has a point, and perhaps it's time for those of us who really do care about type and kerning and layouts (and widows, or single words on lines, my own particular betes noires) to take a step back and a deep breath and get over ourselves, design will prove to be the killer app. Not clutter or whizzbang unnecessariness, but clear, precise, informative, useful, helpful design that gives me what I want, when I want it. That's design right there, and Apple's got it nailed. And in the mobile environment, still so fledgling and untapped, this is going to be a huge advantage.
Those deciding to consign design to the dustbin in order to focus on effectiveness and content might find themselves going back cap in hand to ask designers if they won't just share a bit of the user interface love. Content may be king, but how you present it makes it very easy for users to judge whether to bother paying their respects or not.
What comes next? The BusinessWeek Innovation and Design team of Michael Arndt and Helen Walters chronicle new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.