Here’s the story: I’m at a meeting hosted by another company. A bunch of us walk into their team room, talking, and I wander over to the table in the center of the room and touch the keyboard laying there. Then I start swearing.
I swore because Apple did it again. The keyboard was one of their designs, just a simple keyboard, not even a sexy product. But somehow it pulled me away from the group, pulled my hand out of my pocket, and got me to stroke it—all without my even being aware of what I was doing.
This isn’t about some kind of silly Apple vs. PC war, either. I wasn’t thinking about Apple. I wasn’t thinking about the keyboard at all. I was talking to my friends. This was pure seduction: something about the design of that keyboard bypassed any sort of higher reasoning and hooked me at the level of sensation.
This isn’t about usability or usefulness or fit to purpose, either. I’ve never typed on that keyboard—I’ve no idea whether it actually works. But for the things we bring into our lives there’s a level of design that is independent of use. This level of design is about image, style, mood—and we do make choices based on these qualities. I do, anyway. And the more technology becomes part of everyday life, the more this level of design matters.
It’s not all that matters, of course. Any of us can tell stories about designs that were so extreme they made the device unusable. If that keyboard doesn’t work well as a keyboard, I’d start hating it within five minutes of use. But any decent company can make a good keyboard these days. The design of the look becomes a differentiator once the core utility is taken care of.
The other reason I swore when I found myself seduced by a keyboard is because nobody but Apple seems to care about this kind of design in their computers these days. Other companies succeed in producing minimalist designs—simple, no clutter, what’s there is just what’s needed. But there is a gulf between simple and graceful, between uncluttered and elegant.
It’s a hard gulf to cross. I can teach you how to be useful, how to enhance the life or work of real people. We have a process for that. I can even teach you to be transformative—to make the leap from the way things are done now to the way they ought to be done. (Really. We have a process for that, too.) But making your product seductive is something else again. There’s a level of artistry to there.
This is similar to what goes on in the car industry, which has been seducing consumers for a very long time. For one of our projects, we studied how Porsche works with their designers. We discovered that Porsche often doesn’t do their own design—they work with Italian design companies to design the look of their cars. The Germans supply the engineering and the Italians supply the art, and I apologize for the national stereotyping such a statement suggests.
But notice I’m talking about the final look and polish, not the fundamental operation of the product. If that keyboard is difficult to operate, I’ll fall out of love with it in no time flat—and I’ll never feel the same about the brand, either. So you’d better get the basics right—by working with your users—and then in your visual design you’d better be enhancing and reinforcing your users’ values and self-image. Otherwise, the product won’t seduce.
What this implies is that if you want to achieve a certain look, to go to the experts. Don’t expect engineers to do beautiful designs. It takes time and training to develop any skill, whether that’s coding, user interaction design, or visual design. And to develop a design that’s not only attractive but seductive… well, watch this space. We may have more to say about that.