When the details make the difference

I attended a talk some weeks ago that I’ve been meaning to write about. It was given by one of the chief something-or-others of Continuum, a design firm in the Boston area. He used the analogy of the light spectrum to describe a spectrum of design — “ultraviolet” on the one end referring to impractical but beautiful artsy design, to “infrared” on the other focusing on “design that’s almost invisible, but it makes you feel warm, so you go back and buy more.” This “infrared” end is what Continuum is all about.

For me, the most interesting part of his talk was his point that his favorite design problems are very constrained, with very little wiggle room to change anything. He pointed out that when this is the case, the little details can make all the difference. For example, his team worked on disposable diapers (for Pampers), and had a huge impact on their market share by carefully adjusting the smell of the diapers and by introducing slightly different diaper shapes for different developmental stages of the baby (because parents love to talk about the development of their baby).

The reason this is interesting is that as any product becomes commoditized (a process which is only intensified by globalization), the more the design settles, the less room there is for change, and the more the details make the difference. This means that software interfaces will improve as applications like word processing become commodities, because the competitive advantage will be gained on “little things” like the details of the user experience — beyond the feature set to how good the users feel when they use the product. As Continuum guy put it: as technological differentiation between products decreases, the value of customer experience differentiation increases.

Apple has always been very good at the user experience aspects of product design, so I think they will do well in the future. Indeed, Apple does not tend to develop new paradigms per se but new crucial tweaks that enhance the usability, the feel, the efficiency of the product. They do well in consumer markets (as opposed to corporate) because that is where products are sold on the whole experience rather than some sort of price/feature tradeoff decision made by managers.

Two kinds of stress

Stress is generally thought of as a bad thing, but it occurred to me last night that there are really two very different kinds of stress. The type which I find very unpleasant is based on fear; fear of not finishing something you are supposed to do, or in general fear of being unable to prevent an unwanted scenario. For example, “can I finish my thesis and graduate in time.”

In contrast, the other type of stress I see as part of what makes life worth living: the desire to do more than might be possible. This type of stress is proactive, based on things you want to do, and comes with excitement. I think it is part of what Cervantes means by the “impossible dream.” For example, “can I make my thesis really excellent in the time I have left.”

Stress about grades can also illustrate the difference: worrying about the negative consequences of getting bad grades vs. striving for good grades to achieve positive consequences. It’s related to the optimistic vs. pessimistic explanation styles described in positive psychology.