Why you need a better understanding of design

October 2, 2010

business / design

Recently, I saw this post from the founder of Wesabe, which was a web-based software solution for managing your finances, about why Mint won, both in surviving and in getting acquired (for $170 million). The post is an important read for anyone with entrepreneurial thoughts, but I think it’s especially important in that it reveals a misunderstanding of design that is still incredibly common on the web and needs to be addressed.

Part of the post takes a look at some perceived myths about why Mint ended up being more successful. Then there are some reasons that the author sees as different from the myths that really do indicate why Mint succeeded. One of these myths, and the reasons that the author does recognize, are the reasons I’m writing this post.

The myth quoted is that Mint had a better name and better design, and examples are given for companies and services that have been beaten by competitors that had worse design, while still admitting that design is important and that Mint’s is very good. Further down he indicates that Mint did win because a) the system it used to import bank data gave it a much easier user experience, and b) Mint “focused on making the user do almost no work at all,” while Wesabe “prioritized trying to build tools that would eventually help people change their financial behavior.” The two reasons led to a much easier good experience on Mint, and to reaching that good experience quicker.

Now I write this as a person who tried both services, sticking with Mint in the end because it did have a better experience (after switching back and forth for a few weeks). Because of this I’m not an unbiased observer either, but I do have insights that I think are relevant to what’s being said.

I believe that the problem with the post is that it doesn’t understand that Mint’s design is it’s user experience. Mint didn’t beat Wesabe because it has pretty green colors, nice typography and imagery, shiny Ajax, and a clean interface. It beat Wesabe because it cared about user experience and saw that at the core of what it provided more than it cared about technology. The post just reinforces that by reflecting a view of design that is still all too common. Instead of seeing design as the way people experience something and as a thing worthy of our deepest attention as people who create things, it sees it as the superficial stuff on top of something that makes it appealing, and can help people to trust it (while both are true, this isn’t what design is).

I want to emphasize that Wesabe is not, by any means, the only website that sees design this way. I’ve worked with many people who see design as something that can be boiled down to “look and feel,” by which they mean colors and photos and maybe typography if we’re lucky, and by doing that they think it can all be done at the last minute, changed without thinking deeply about it, and done at all stages by people who are not passionate about it. This results in experiences that users don’t like, don’t want to use, and may abandon if there are better alternatives, even if those alternatives cost more, have inferior technology, or were created later. I’m not saying (because I don’t know) that Wesabe viewed design in this way, but the post’s separation of design (as a myth for why it lost) from user experience (as a reason that it did lose) indicates that at least to some extent it did, and I do know that Mint did not view design in this way.

The best designers on the web don’t see design like that, and the best products and services on the web don’t either. Design as a deep, broad way of creating experiences of something is the way that the best designers look at their work, and the best companies look at it this way as well. They allow this to influence the way they do everything. It doesn’t always result in the prettiest products or the most cutting edge technology, though it often does, because these things can improve the ways that people experience something.

This is the kind of work I want to do, and these are the kinds of things I want to use. It’s important to write this kind of post, even though there are all kinds of people wondering (on one side) whether user experience designers are really web designers, and other people wondering (on another side) if the term user experience is even useful after it has been so watered down by people using it as a buzzword in resumes and job descriptions and job titles.

Writing this is useful because in spite of all this, designing things for people is still not common practice in our field and many other fields, and understanding design that way is still not common knowledge. It is relevant to entrepreneurs, certainly, but it is also relevant to companies of all sizes and industries, and deeply relevant to everyone who creates things that people use.