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What makes great a software product? Is it about how well the user interface represents a company’s scheme of colors and its brand; or is it how it lets users interact with it in a seamless way? That’s a no brainer, you’d think — most of us would say the latter. Yet, what we see with a lot of the modern software of today is an increasing focus on design, and a visible branding glut, all at the expense of user centricity.

Elon Musk remarked that “the path to the CEO’s office should not be through the CFO’s office, and it should not be through the marketing department. It needs to be through engineering and design”. Engineering and design lie at the core of a successful product. But what we see today is design and marketing predominating engineering principles to overemphasise on design appeal. What it does is that it complicates things for users by imposing visual clutter over fundamental functionality.    

I have always been of the belief that design should be good enough; because it undoubtedly matters. But it matters to a point. Beyond that point, it becomes a distraction and simply results in a loss of productivity. It creates confusion and frustration. It amounts to lack of integration and impairs usefulness.

  “Design has run amok in       Think of using such an approach in an automotive  factory.
software.So many clever         It would be like if every engine piece had to go  by the
designers and marketers        marketing and design team first and get their  stamp of
create hell for the average user.”        approval. It would be wasteful and chaotic.

That is what is happening in software today. Design has run amok in software. With designers and marketers playing increasingly dominant roles in software product development, it’s almost creating hell for the average user.

Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini, who lead projects at Apple in the early 1980s, recently published an article in which they claim Apple is failing to live up to their legacy of user-centered design principles. Norman and Tog present an interesting perspective on Apple’s gradual inclination toward emphasizing appearance to the great detriment of the communication component. They point out how “the solutions Apple has adopted create yet more memory load on the poor users.”

Back in the early 80s, renowned British industrial designer Dieter Rams began to feel concerned about “an impenetrable confusion of forms, colours and noises”  that surrounded him. He decided to lay out ten principles for good design. Rams’ design principles basically tell us that the less a products requires us to learn to use it, the more we could do with it.

Design is an inextricably essential part of product development. Marketing plays a crucial part in understanding what the market needs out of the product. But we’ve reached that tipping point where design and marketing need to take the backseat and let engineering take the wheel. It reminds me of A. N. Whitehead’s famous quote about the growth of human civilization.

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