Googling the exact phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover” returns nearly 13 million results. That’s an astounding number of reminders that we shouldn’t judge a person by appearances, which is what the phrase means. While I think that’s absolutely true, that we shouldn’t make snap judgments about the people we meet, the continuous use of that phrase for nearly 150 years reflects the fact that we often do just that.
Judging by appearances is something we all do with the products we encounter as well, and that has a significant bearing on the importance of design in product development.
We’re now in a period in which software must look good and attract, not just function. Windows on the desktop made good digital design a near-impossibility, as “good” meant adhering strictly to Microsoft user interface standards. HTML and web browsing, and then smartphones and tablets, smashed that model in a wonderful way, giving rise to information design. As a result, our screen-based interactions are now infinitely more satisfying than they were years ago. Can you imagine finding attraction in an Amazon, Twitter, Pinterest or any other online resource if it had a Windows 95 interface?
Consumer expectations of a satisfying user experience translate to physical products as well. We seem to be emerging from a long Walmart period in which the constant demand for lower prices produced an overabundance of unfortunately low design standards. Not long ago, you had to search hard or turn to Europe for cookware that made you feel good about purchasing it and eager to put it to use. Premium brands like U.S.-based All-Clad now enjoy rising popularity among home cooks who respond to quality design, materials and workmanship.
And then there’s Apple. In a recent Forbes article, a branding expert and professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business cited design’s major contribution to Apple becoming the world’s most valuable brand, saying “Design is how a product works, how it looks, how it feels. It’s functional and aesthetic. Apple has embraced that in the fullest sense possible in terms of making products simple, but also good looking and attractive.”
That sums it up: “Good looking and attractive” products are key to brand value. Leaders in the post-Walmart era understand that we do in fact judge books by their cover, and they leverage that fact to gain competitive advantage. Yes, there has to be substance under the cover, but to overlook or compromise design in the digital and physical products we create is to miss one very necessary ingredient for success.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go buy one of those awesome new NEST thermostats.