In his recent piece on The Experience Economy, entrepreneur and investor Chris Dixon writes:
Experiences make people happier than products (a fact that scientific studies support). […] The trend toward experiences is important for technology startups. The era of competing over technical specifications is over. Users want better experiences from devices, applications, websites, and the offline services they enable. It is no coincidence that interaction design is replacing technical prowess as the primary competency at startups. People who create great experiences will be the most valuable to startups, and startups that create great experiences will be the most valuable to users.
I pretty much agree with Dixon that interaction design and great experiences are the most critical aspect to consider, not just for technology startups but for any consumer-oriented company. What I raise my eyebrow at is the notion that this is a new idea. Consider, for example, this bit from the famous Steve Jobs Q&A at the ’97 WWDC:
“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.”
That was 15 years ago. It seems to me that Apple has been quite consistent about applying this philosophy to their products at least for the entire time since Jobs’s return to the company, and to great commercial success. Interaction design has been a critical part of that all along as well; it’s not right to lump it all together as “user experience design” unless you consider UX Design an umbrella discipline that you can specialize in without being a specialist in every sub-discipline it encompasses. Which is fine to do, but it should come with the awareness that interaction design has been a very important element of successful product design for a very long time.
The 1998 iMac had a handle to lift it; that made it clear to people it was “okay to touch,” and thereby friendlier and more approachable as a product. That small detail is an example of interaction design; it is a consideration of how the actual human beings that are your customers will interact with the product you are making for them.
That consideration is one of respect, but seemingly, if not truly, also of prescience. The strange and unfamiliar all-in-one iMac design had not yet been on the market for Apple to have feedback from customers, their own or competitors’. No feedback that might’ve explained the need for a handle to make the product more approachable. So how did Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs knew that this was the right thing to add to the product? A good understanding of interaction design, but also, intuition.
In my experience thus far, one good way to cultivate intuition is to constantly ask why: why do this, instead of that? Why this color instead of that one? And, when it comes to product design, ask the “why”-questions for your customers as best as possible up front, before they get to ask it themselves: why would a customer use this product? Why would they need that button? Why might they not understand what to do in this screen or view? If you cannot come up with a handful of convincing, realistic answers to the “why” questions for your product, you are simply nowhere near done with it.
As you’ll note, a lot of those “why” questions revolve around interactions, which is why I believe intuition and interaction design are very closely associated. Interaction Design asks the “How” question a lot: how can the user accomplish this goal they need to accomplish? How can our interface make it clear to the user what needs to be done next? How can we reveal these new features to users without making the interface look daunting? Interaction Design revolves around figuring out how to empower users to achieve goals, and it shows: the best products are not different in what they functionally allow us to do, but in how they allow us to do it. The iPod was not unique in being an MP3 player, but how you used it was vastly different and better than how you used any other MP3 player.
And we can observe (but also know from their own admissions on this), that Steve Jobs and Jony Ive asked themselves why they would create an MP3 player that worked just like all the others.
This is why I think cultivating one’s intuition is so crucially important for product people and executives or higher management (and valuable for everyone): competition in the consumer market is incredibly fierce; we need to think not just of what features or differences can set our product apart from that of our competitors; we need to also think about why we should do it this way altogether.
In my startup’s case, we’re asking ourselves why we would follow in the footsteps of people who have a large market share or presence, when we don’t find their products compelling enough for us to use them (and are, instead, building a competing product). We’re also asking ourselves this: why wouldn’t we completely rethink what this product experience can be like? So far, we have no answer other than “why not?”
As a closing note, I would also argue that great intuition means being able to quickly extrapolate from a point of view, idea, feature or product, the long-term result or benefit of it. The slow response time of competitors, in several markets, to Apple’s new products over the past few years, reveal that their leadership was not able to extrapolate quickly enough what kind of success or impact Apple’s products would have. Intuition, therefore, might be the real “Next Big Thing” that founders and CEOs should try to cultivate within their companies.