For some Silicon Valley companies, the mantra is: “Slap code together, design a quick user interface, and get it to market.” And above all, as Mark Zuckerberg would remind us, “Keep shipping.”
That kind of talk probably gives Instagram founder Kevin Systrom heartburn. That’s because Systrom thinks designing software code should be an inspired effort, just like the delectable creations of top chefs around the world.
When it comes to digital products, the idea that form follows function is being tossed out the window. As a New York Times article describes, it’s no longer necessary to simply examine a digital device or application to discern what it does. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a sense of beauty and simplicity necessary for digital products. In fact, the goal for software engineers designing best-in-class digital products is to build instinctive and intuitive applications and devices.
Perhaps that’s why Kevin Systrom’s Instagram was worth one billion dollars to Facebook. As noted in a Financial Times article titled, “The Aesthete of Silicon Valley Who Makes Photos Beautiful,” Systrom is obsessed with building things that are inherently beautiful. Systrom says great chefs who painstakingly labor over their creations and add high-quality ingredients despite potentially higher costs inspire him. “The things we’re creating solve a need,” he says, “but in the meantime, they should be visually stimulating and fun to interact with.”
An obsessive personality, Systrom would likely have been a better disciple of Steve Jobs rather than of his new boss, Mark Zuckerberg. “Kevin notices the details that most of us don’t notice,” says Clara Shih, a friend of Systrom. “He’s a slow walker and lets himself get distracted. He takes time not just to smell the roses but to analyze the roses and think about the detail.”
Technological advances are coming so fast that it takes us a long time to assimilate all the benefits of each product and service. For example, software companies are notorious for rolling out hundreds of new features in each release, only to have customers use very few.
As our digital lives get inevitably more complicated, there will be an insatiable customer requirement for simplicity and aesthetic beauty. And as user interfaces get more cluttered, clarity in purpose and design will drive market share (as Google can attest). Indeed, the elegance of a single search box—unencumbered by advertising—is one reason Google has the lion’s share of search requests.
Instead of focusing on additional features that users will probably never use, digital companies of all stripes perhaps should aim for a crisper design and greater ease of use.
Ultimately, making digital products easier to use takes a long time in discerning and studying user behaviors, capturing those learnings, and using them to design better and more intuitive devices and interfaces. However, much like how top culinary chefs take the time to use better ingredients and obsess over the tiniest details in presenting their creations, digital creators will need to endeavor to stress the small stuff.
For digital consumers, naturalness, comfort, and fit will matter more in the near future. And thoughtfulness in terms of design and ease of use will be the next generation of differentiation for digital companies.
Finally, there’s been a bit of stress for Instagram users now that Facebook has purchased the company. Despite Facebook saying it will run the company independently, plenty of users fret that Instagram will lose its touch. However, wouldn’t it be something if Systrom didn’t end up leaving Facebook after all and instead became the company’s Jonathan Ive? It could end up being a magical pairing.
(Photo courtesy of Bigstock: Young Man Dressed Like Nerd)
Paul Barsch directs services marketing programs for one of top 10 software companies in the United States.