With VMworld EMEA coming up next week, I am reminded of an evening at VMworld last year, and a stimulating discussion about good product design with Prabhakar Gopalan (@PGopalan), a former colleague at CA Technologies who is now with Dell.
Prabhakar is insightful to a depth few people reach, and passionate about innovative thinking. In Copenhagen he talked excitedly about a small museum he had visited called the Danish Design Centre (and yes, that is the correct spelling 🙂 ), and what Danish design could teach us about building better software.
I visited it a couple of days later*, and one exhibit really caught my eye, with 10 ‘preconditions for good design‘ laid out in stylized writing on a plain brick wall (see photo top left). It was interesting to think about how these provided 1o principles for CIOs in designing better IT solutions.
Notwithstanding the potential value of ‘blue sky’ research and ‘skunkworks’ projects, IT could do a lot worse than designing solutions that are:
An innovative design can be a â€˜break-throughâ€™ product or service, but it can also be a re-design of an existing product or service. A â€˜break-throughâ€™ product offers the market and the user a new and previously unseen function and added value, while a re-design improves on an existing product.
An evolutionary solution (re-)design – e.g. migrating existing applications to the cloud – can deliver substantial incremental business benefits. However,Â revolutionary ‘break-through’ innovation – e.g. new cloud-native applications to leverage social and mobile – can drive exponential value.
Functional design is intended to serve a function â€“ preferably a primary and a supplemental function. A functional design solves a problem, and in its design it optimises a given function.
Functionality is critical as IT exists to solve real business problems. We love technology, and non-directed research can deliver great innovation, but IT must focus on functionality that reduces costs, drives revenue, or increases shareholder value. Form is important, but form follows function.
An aesthetic product has an inherent power of fascination and an immediately accessible sensuous quality.
Even so, form is still important. Better interfaces increase productivity, just as aesthetic appeal underpins many successful consumer applications. All else being equal, a good-looking solution will be easier to promote, faster to adopt, and more enjoyable to use, driving better faster time to value.
Intuitive design is self-explanatory and thus often negates the need for a user manual. It is obvious how the design should be used, perceived and understood. The design explains the function.
Watching business users test a new IT solution can be a real eye-opener! Intuitive design means solutions ‘just work’, reducing training costs, improving cycle times, and simplifying resourcing. It is also becoming a fundamental requirement as consumer-driven IT makes this a baseline user expectation.
5. Good Business
Good design is competitive and stands out in a competitive market. Good business means a healthy bottom line â€“ hence, good design is also a product or a service that sells well.
It should not even need stating that business solutions only exist to solve business problems. Even open source software can stand out in a competitive market; even non-profits need healthy bottom lines. IT solutions must drive competition, expansion, productivity, revenue, or some other business value.
An honest design only communicates the functions and values it actually offers. It should not manipulate buyers or users into thinking that it offers more than it does.
This should be obvious too. The “Save” button should save; the “Help” menu should help. IT solutions should live up to expectations and deliver on their promise to the business, whether they are in-house applications or commercial solutions. Sales and marketing please note – this applies to you too!
In a society characterised by excessive consumption, good design serves an important purpose. It is based on durability in the sense that the design and the materials have staying power rather than just representing a fad. Waste and excessive consumption are not aspects of good design.
The best business solutions don’t just have immediate value, they have long-term value. Mainframe job schedulers are over 20 years old, but continue to provide mission-critical value, as do web browsers, email clients, and more. Good IT solutions provide value year after year, even with little enhancement.
Good design is responsible, among other things by considering environmental concerns. For example, it may contribute to a cleaner and more sustainable world, where materials have high durability and may even be recycled in new contexts.
‘Responsible’ for IT solutions could mean energy-efficient CPUs or cloud solutions to directly reduce environmental impact. It could mean designing to prevent data loss or privacy violations. Or it could mean an open source community solving problems that commercial developers don’t – or vice-versa.
9. Shaped and Styled
Shape and appearance are essential aspects of good design. They are the basis for creating and designing. Shaping and styling ensure an attractive sensuous quality and an added value.
More than just aesthetics, the ‘shape and style’ of a solution correlates to ‘look and feel’ – the workflow, functional processes, the appearance, completeness, ease of use. This is difficult to measure objectively, but alongside ease of deployment, typically rates at the top of business requirements.
10. User Oriented
Good design focuses on the user and aims to improve a given situation for the user. User-oriented design provides an added value, whether material or immaterial, and thus increases the userâ€™s satisfaction and life situation.
IT should always design solutions to improve business user ‘situations’. Well-designed solutions that are user-oriented make user activity faster, easier, and less complex. Ultimately this delivers solutions that are more important and more profitable for the business.
One More Rule
There is just one more rule I would add to this list …
Great design breaks rules.
I think these rules are excellent principles, but should not be absolute restrictions. True innovation can and perhaps should work outside of traditional rules, no matter how sensible, universal, and flexible those rules may be. These Danish Design Centre rules may prescribe good design, but innovators must be prepared to break rules like these in the service of great design.
* I have to say, the Danish Design Centre was very cool, but it was also very small and quite pricey. I would not recommend it. On the other hand, most of its gorgeous domestic household designs – plus many, many more – are showcased much better in the Royal Copenhagen stores on Amagertorv in the StrÃ¸get pedestrian district. These are all, naturally, free to browse. I highly recommend a quick stroll through these stores. Illums Bolighus is especiallyÂ worth a visit, even if you don’t buy anything , just to see the array of delightful kitchen utensils and other iconic Danish designs.