Why Design is How It Works?
One of the many famous Steve Jobs quotes involves something that is clearly a fundamental part of how Apple works, and by extension why their products have been so successful. Steve Jobs said this:
“People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
I think there is great truth to this, but the idea is apparently quite controversial if we go by the folk wisdom of those who say Apple products are “just” PCs/mp3-players/whatever with a nice skin, that it is essentially just this “veneer” Steve Jobs was talking about.
I think Mr. Jobs was addressing a common fallacy of form versus function, a false dichotomy with a pretense of truth. The problem is that you can’t really have one without the other in anything even remotely useful.
Pure functionality is meaningless without a usable form that allows us to take advantage of such functionality. On the flip side pure form is useless without some purpose to it.
Pure functionality without the form is like a brain without a body, or a computer processor without any input or output devices. Pure form without function is like a lifeless body, or a computer case with no components in it.
It is clear that useful devices must be a balanced blend of both form and function, and creating this balance is what design is all about. When Steve Jobs said that “design is how it works” I believe this is what he meant. When the goal is for a device to “just work” perfectly, you really have to think hard about how to achieve this balance. Design becomes paramount.
The fact is that everything from the placement of chips inside of the device to the look and feel of its case as well as the user interface of its software ultimately influence how well will the device “work” for the user, or how well will the user perceive the device to be working.
How the internals are designed and put together can influence a variety of issues such as cooling, durability, sturdiness, and the thinness of the device. How the outside of the device looks and feels like influences how well will the user be able to interface with the device.
A lot of people, and even companies who actually manufacture products, tend to underestimate the importance of various details because they seem to have no relevance to the “function” of the device. Even such seemingly unimportant details as the color and size of the keys on the keyboard, the placement of the power button, the size of the touchpad and the feel of its surface all influence the utility of the device.
Getting any of these right can make a difference between something you put up with, and something that “just works”.
Utility of Beauty
I would dare to go as far to suggest that even those design elements whose purpose is merely to make the device prettier actually have an effect on utility. A difference between ugly and beautiful can be quite analogous to the difference between something you put up with and something that “just works”.
Look & Feel is really about making the experience of using a device a pleasant one at every step of the way as opposed to something you just get over with. Feeling good about doing something that would otherwise feel mundane can motivate a person to do more of it, and therefore potentially become more productive.
It is in fact this phenomenon that has been hugely at play in transforming computers from something scary and overly technical to something that everyone can use and enjoy. Something beautiful is invariably going to appear more friendly and inviting than something merely mundane or even ugly.
This makes the Look & Feel portion of the design an extension of its more functional elements which are themselves the necessary component in making the raw functionality of the device readily accessible and usable.
Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what might look beautiful to one person may be nothing special or even ugly to another. This, however, doesn’t really change the validity of any of the above points. Furthermore, there appear to be certain commonalities between what people find beautiful and what people find ugly. That most people do describe Apple products as great looking seems to testify to that effect.
You can have the most powerful computer on the market, but if it is badly designed it could actually prove itself less valuable than initially thought of. Bad design could mean lower reliability and durability, making all this power actually last shorter. Bad design could even cause the device to perform poorer than would be expected given its specs.
And of course, bad design could cause frustration during use when it feels like you’re fighting the device instead of working with it. All of these issues actually reduce the overall utility of the device even if they have nothing to do with the “raw power” under the hood.
Raw power isn’t where usefulness comes from. Raw power plus good design is what makes something useful. And that’s why “design is how it works”.
Finally, this is not an indictment of every non-Apple manufacturer or just a song of praise of Apple products. I wouldn’t even claim that every Apple design is flawless (if there even is such a thing). I’m merely defending the principle. The fact is that most digital device manufacturers employ this principle to some extent, even if people don’t quite realize this. If they didn’t their devices would literally be next to useless.
Apple simply tends to take it up a notch, and happen to be a major driver for the adoption of this principle, as they’ve played an instrumental role in making computers easier to use and less scary to adopt.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway here, aside from the general principle in question, is to take the value of design into consideration before criticizing anyone who chooses something because it looks and feels better, or because it has better design. It is not necessarily “just a pretty skin”, and even if it was, there is real value in that as well.