Optimizing the mundane: A lesson in design simplicity

R/GA's Una Walsh and Ben Williams at Design Week Portland

In their talk during Design Week Portland, R/GA’s executive creative directors Una Walsh and Ben Williams found that the hype of technology and design has made way for reality.

While the industry grapples with a never ceasing onslaught of fancy new toys in design and technology (i.e. VR, AR and the like), Walsh and Williams articulated key themes, like going beyond the interface to create things that are simple, purposeful and integrated. On display was some of the work R/GA has done with the likes of Nike and Samsung. But their conversation reiterated the fact that really good design, coupled with really interesting technology, is at its best when it “optimizes the mundane”.

“I think we’ve all become so excited about innovation, we want our name attached to the next greatest thing, that we’ve actually forgotten that sometimes just doing the simplest thing is the best thing,” said Walsh following the panel discussion.

Layers of complexity and unnecessary technology are rife. Refrigerators that connect to social networks and cameras that have more features than any person actually needs inhibit an opportunity to interact with a brand in a meaningful way. At its best, innovation serves the most pressing needs, even when consumers don’t exactly know they need it.

“When you ask people who are the most innovative companies, people [tend to say] ‘Apple. Apple’s super innovative’,” said Williams. “Actually, they’re not. They sit back and wait and see how people use things – and they take things that exist.”

Indeed, Apple didn’t create the first phone with a camera or the first phone that connected to the internet. The difference is in the experiences layered in and this is a place that Apple, and others like Amazon, tend to excel.

“They actually train us to do things,” said Walsh.

For instance, as mobile payment started, Apple didn't just jump in; they waited and used other opportunities to train the armies of iPhone-wielding consumers.

“[Apple] thought, ‘I’m going to train you with [mundane things like] tickets and things that don’t have any real value,” noted Walsh. “Then, [with Apple Wallet], they added the financial side. That’s how Apple trains you."

First to market vs. best to market

Those who are truly innovative or those who sit back and see where the opportunities lie can often mean the difference between first to market and best to market. The classic example is Microsoft vs. Apple in the Zune v. iPod battle in the early 2000s. Zune had plenty of features while the iPod had simple design. Zune gave you plenty of technology reasons to buy it, whereas iPod had only one.

“A thousand songs in your pocket,” Williams recalls the simple positioning of the Apple product. “There was an instant understanding of what it was, [past being] a hard drive that connects to a computer and has a scrolling wheel.”

At present, one layer of the design innovation story is told – and the lack of attention spans doesn’t necessarily help. Nor does the inclination to chase after awards, accolades and the simple notion of “doing something” to get credit. According to Williams, getting the press release out, heralding success, coupled with lack of depth by the media doesn’t tell the whole story.

Walsh chalks some of this up to the relative “newness” of the industry, and the associated hype. Due to technology, there is plenty that the industry can try, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right thing to do.

“We're actually in our rebellious states,” said Walsh. “[We’re thinking], ‘let’s just try everything and experiment and then see what sort of sticks to the wall [as opposed to] what are the things that I should be doing. That's what I think's wrong with the industry at the minute but I feel that it's maturing really quickly and at the same time, there's loads of new things coming in and this is why you've got to go back to really good design, like simplicity – think about who you're designing for, and really that's going to keep us straight.”

Looking to the post-over-designed era

The enticing tech elixir that is all of this “stuff”, in Walsh’s eyes, is making way for the brave new world that is decidedly more clear and sane.

“I feel we’re coming out of [the stage] where we, as an industry, [were] over-designing. We’re now starting to see simplification.”

Generational evolution may have something to do with it as well, with Walsh noting that the vocabulary and understanding of strong design was something they were born into, as opposed to having to learn.

“The generation that’s coming up have grown up with good design,” noted Walsh. “Before [this generation], not everyone understood good design. It was, ‘It does what I need it to do, and of course it's a machine that's smarter than me’. And, actually now, what we're starting to see is, ‘No, the machine is in service to us, we're not in service to the machine.’ So the next generation I think will not compromise on design because that will be just what they know.”

Added Williams: “I think it will be a differentiator. Design will become the differentiator for a lot of businesses, products and services.”

Interestingly, where both see ample opportunity is in the voice space with virtual assistants, especially Alexa.

“I think Alexa does a good job of simplification with the eye towards scaling for complexity,” said Williams. “The idea that we're going to layer the complexity with the services and all the stuff we're going to plug into it – and voice is just going to get more complex and the commands it can understand are going to get more and more complex.”

What’s telling, though, is, like the Nike FuelBand, a signature R/GA project, Alexa started simply, without going too over the top.

“They could have put so many things in there,” said Williams.

That said, Walsh believes that, in the not-too-distant future, five years or so, voice-activated systems and especially bots will see greater levels of maturity that, in essence, will most certainly optimize the mundane.

“I think we’re going to have armies of bots,” said Walsh. “You’d have one bot, that is ‘your bot’ then you’ll have bots behind that. For example if you said, “Alexa, go and organize my birthday party and find me locations in LA for 14 people and we want to have a swimming pool,’ she will go off and find that information.”

Along the way, both Walsh and Williams see a shakeout where, eventually, there will be just a few bots in play.

“I think it will all start to consolidate around Amazon, Apple and maybe one or two others,” said Williams.

“It will be interesting to see what happens in the market,” added Walsh.

If the past is any indication, both Amazon and Apple are already doing the hard work – laying the foundation with simple design and training their customers – and may have a brighter moment in the sun as they race to take the friction out of consumers’ lives.

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