Design First, Not Mobile First
Why design is more important than technical capabilities and feature set, and how this ties into the way we think about and build microservices.
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Imagine a chair. Four legs (or 3 ), a place to sit, and some support to lean on. The technology is ubiquitous. Nonetheless, IKEA has hundreds (maybe thousands) of different items that you could call a chair. And beyond that, IKEA has a design language that differentiates it from other furniture makers also making chairs. And all of these chair makers are making chairs — even I could make a chair after a trip to Home Depot, or by just pulling together some things that I have lying around the house.
Yet, IKEA is successful, people love their chairs, and pay hundreds of dollars for them.
Before Wi-Fi, we had high-speed modems connected to grey cables. Before high-speed modems, we had just regular modems. They were clunky, noisy, and not very user-friendly. Slowly they became faster — 9.6k to 14.4k and beyond. Right around 100m we stopped caring. The speed of the modem was higher than what we needed. A 100m modem allows you to watch Youtube no problem. All of a sudden a new modem promising 120m will no longer have an impact.
There is a dynamic balance — at some point, the maximum bandwidth required to enjoy most Internet-based services became lower than the maximum bandwidth available.
At this point, Wi-Fi started showing up. Wi-Fi really solves a design problem. It did not “innovate” technologically — you are still just connecting to the same internet, watching the same movies. But it liberated you from that grey cable. A contractor was no longer required to run wires through your drywall just to get internet upstairs.
And now Wi-Fi is ubiquitous. Most companies provide a Wi-Fi router that will allow you to stream 4k on Netflix anywhere in the house.
And so Google entered the market by building one that is easier to hook up and connect, and it looks sleek.
Design Matters When Functional Capabilities Stop Being Exceptional
For Steve Jobs to succeed, Bill Gates had to succeed. Only after “a computer was on every desk and in every home” did people start caring about the design of a computer. And only after everyone already had a flip phone did the iPhone have a chance. In the '80s, Steve Jobs was too far ahead of his time — in 2006 he was just right.
For years I was a proud Android user who scoffed at the fools lining up to buy an iPhone. But Samsung and co. didn’t understand the user. The user is not so concerned with the number of cores the CPU has, just with the types of apps they can use; the user doesn’t care about the number of megapixels in the camera, just about the quality of pictures they will take. While Samsung was trying to stuff features into its phone it did not investigate design. It took a long time for Samsung to understand that cell phones are saturated — to differentiate they didn’t just need to design better phones, their phones needed better design. Cellphones are now like chairs. And to succeed companies need to think like IKEA.
Design Is Not the Color of the Button
A lot of times people enter the room with the wrong assumption — that design is about the colors of the buttons and the margins, etc. As Steve Jobs explained ages ago, “Design is how it works.”
Websites, like computers and chairs, have become commoditized. Squarespace, Wix.com, etc. allow none developers to achieve almost all the functionalities that an owner of a website would want. There is no longer a need to hire a webmaster, a web designer, or a web developer to be able to sell shirts online or write a blog.
Design First Development
Mobile first is old, and most conversations still start with business requirements. Most conversations need to start with design requirements.
This means accessibility in its broadest sense — from color contrast to screen readers, to reading on mobile phones from 2008, to loading with low bandwidth, no bandwidth, etc. It means understanding the user, understanding your user, and developing a product that helps them. If the user wanted your information they already know how to get it. They can phone you, find you on Facebook, tweet you, DM you on Instagram, etc. If you want them to get it your way, you need to design it their way.
It is not enough that the information is available, the information must be more accessible and comprehensible than what is available now. To achieve this, the focus has to be on design, not on technical capability. Even one feature that's more design-friendly to the user will create valuable traction and conversion. It will drive adoption. Design will drive adoption, not your feature set.
Design First and Microservices
Often I hear people throw the microservices catchphrase around. Netflix has it, etc., and entire organizations think of it as a technology strategy. Engineers and architects need to understand that microservices do not solve a technological problem. The same way Wi-Fi didn’t solve a technological problem. The ability to be nimble and deliver features quickly is not a technological requirement, it is a design requirement that comes from seeking alignment with users.
As an architecture pattern, microservices allow software companies to embrace Design Thinking and a Design First approach to technology. We deliver a small service that is tied to a particular feature and if the feature needs to change we can write another service without breaking the first one. Some users can use the feature the way it was initially written, and some other users can be given the different version of the feature that better fits their need.
Monolithic architectures want monolithic users. Microservices embrace diversity in users. Microservices, fundamentally, solve a design problem. Starting off your architecture redesign journey without design leadership is like investing in building a great factory without having any product in mind.
Design First Technology
Some may think this is old news. But having worked most of my career with technology teams, I know that there is a weak understanding of the value of design. Design is often sacrificed first to achieve time to market. Most product owners and business executives still believe a larger feature set is preferable to a small feature set with top-notch design.
The larger feature set is only required if you are giving the user something they have never done before — like an underwater cellphone. If the user is already doing all the things they are doing — and I don’t mean digitally, I mean they are somehow doing it — then it is important to lead with design.
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