Design Leads The Way

images-1 It is a sexy little thing. The iPhone that is. It’s finally out after arguably the greatest viral marketing blitz in the history of everything. Apple seems to understand human nature – a key ingredient that preceded the Web and blogging. I’m convinced there’s a part of P.T. Barnum in Steve Jobs. They understand suspense, drama and some really basic things about what triggers the inner child in us.

But this post isn’t about the marketing of the iPhone. It’s about the iPhone being the single most drastic example of infusing design into the development of a product.

I’ve often yammered on about how great design can really make the difference for your product; how marking off some time for some good, solid design sessions can really elevate your product beyond the ordinary. A really successful design can almost feel like something completely new if done right.

If we roughly break it down, there are three ways to fold design into your product development process:

  1. Build the thing first, then design around it. This is bad. Really bad. The development group has gone ahead and picked off the key “function points” around some business requirements list. Here, design is an afterthought. Warning signs are phrases like “it’s nearly done, now let’s give it to the design team to make it look nicer.” Design is an afterthought.
  2. Have some brainstorming design sessions. This approach isn’t half bad. You’ll often see a “representative” from development sitting in on these sessions. Here, design is sort of mushed into the development process. “Negotiations” often take place with the development team pointing out impossibilities or near impossibilities (“there’s no way that’s making into this timeframe.”). This approach is fairly common nowadays. The value of design has finally gained some headway so you’ll often have your CIO (or some equivalent) saying “hmm, we should probably have an interface designer in the mix.”
  3. Design leads the way. This is rare. Really rare. Here, development – the construction company – doesn’t make a single move until the design is created, tested, validated, and ideally, refined again. Only once presented to the development group can they give their assessment. You know you’re in a design-driven shop when development is on its heels, excited to figure out the puzzles that will make this design come alive. The power dynamic is shifted compared to #2 above. The designers and product managers will make the hard call of what can or can’t make it in.

Apple is in a very rare place today. They are very large, very powerful (in terms of purchasing power) company that happens to adhere to #3. Not only are they entirely design-driven, but the design will not only influence the development team down the hall, but the hardware manufacturer across the globe and one of the largest mobile phone carriers in the world. Apple believes in design as the lever, and they’ve now reached that place where that lever can affect a lot. The result is the iPhone, the outcome of a massive alignment of hardware, software and design. That’s why it looks like an impossible device by today’s standards.

The thing that other companies have struggled with in trying to catch up to Apple is their inability to dismantle the engineering-driven mindset within their organizations. Microsoft and Dell have felt the pain of somehow always feeling a step behind. Nokia and LG are now about to.

So it’s yet another lesson learned from Apple. If you head a product group, put a few hours aside and take your design team out to lunch. If you’re really interested in making an impact, give them the reigns and do what you can to get everyone else out of their way. The less encumbered they are, the better your product will be.

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