Design First, Engineer Second.


A lot of the time folks write off Apple customers as simply being MacTards, fans that are so pre-occupied with Apple and less about the products they make. In part that can be true, I’ve meet some extreme ignorant fans, but in general that’s not true at all.

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I’ve meet a lot of fans of Apple who can’t stand the company, but embrace the products they design. I’ve asked many creative souls who in Apple they worship the most, Steve Jobs isn’t on the list as much as Jonathan Ive is.  It’s interesting to note this, as competition isn’t important as much as why folks CHOOSE to compete. I’m a fan of Jonathan’s work, as what i’ve read about him is that he seems preoccupied with design first, competition / politics last – seems healthy in a positive way?

Industrial Design is fast becoming the differentiator in today’s technology markets; it’s not just about the magic of software it’s also about how the software experience is presented outside the binary owned domain. Everything from the packaging through to the device it’s housed in all play a collective role. Short change one component to this formula, the rest can suffer.

first generation iPod A second generation iPod (2002)third generation iPodfirst generation iPod Touchsecond generation iPod Touch

It’s not easy either, if you look at the first generation of iPods compared to today’s iPhone, there is a radical change in not just ergonomics but visual design inside the software. Evolution is something that you have to fight your way through when it comes to products, it’s not about V1 or V2, but often V3 can be your sweet spot. I like to call this the “Goldie Locks” effect in that as a child I was told the story of “Goldie Locks & the Three Bears”. Basically by her 3rd attempt at eating the porridge, it was “just right”. Its amazing how often this formula seems to happen not just in Microsoft but all brands really.

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I look at the Zune from where it’s come to where it’s heading and I’m at peace with it. I feel our Zune team get design, the shame here is it’s not available outside the U.S (something I hope will change).

I look at the XBOX Team and Project NATAL and it again, I’m at peace with it all as they are looking to focus on the experience and less on the technology per say – games are funny incubation of innovation at times.

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I look at the next version of Office and am amazed at how clean it’s fast becoming.  Same with Windows 7.

The point is this; we have become used to judging “new” from how it looks not so much how it acts. If we see a new product come out that’s based off the old, it’s main focus is on how it looks and less what it does new – that comes later and is of equal importance.

We do judge a book by its cover, and as such we really need to tackle the design first and focus on engineering second. If you target where you want to head and then focus on how you get there, at least your goal is more weighted towards innovation and less on limitation.

I think Apple has taught Microsoft a valuable lesson in the past 3 years; it’s a healthy amount of competition as well. Adobe is also teaching Microsoft valuable lessons as well.

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We are a company that has had a lot of engineering culture ingrained into our DNA – yet in the past 3-4 years I’ve seen the design discussion change from being this quiet blip on the radar to being a more focal point in discussion.

I’m not a fan of the the new Bing logo, it just irritates me at how the proportion is off, yet I’ve seen a healthy debate internally on the subject that has made me extremely proud of how Microsoft is changing its approach to design. I’m not happy with the outcome, but will happily accept this given the result was we approached a conversation differently to what I would of ever thought years ago. In the end I concede that Bing will be measured by how well it helps folks search not so much on what the brand looks like.

Engineering only gives you so much of a head start, as it can usually be matched, design however is something that if you copy becomes obvious as well the initial moment had already passed.

Design can interrupt you in a positive way. Its downside is that it’s not open to “rinse & repeat” formulas.

It’s better outlined here:

http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/a_new_map_for_design/

Comments (19)

  1. Will Hughes says:

    There’s a key difference here in the term design though.

    Industrial Design is more than just "making it look nice" – they are actually (or should be) going to the effort of making sure that whatever they’ve designed can actually be built. That includes consulting with engineering/architectural folks to figure out what the limitations are.

    So, it shouldn’t quite be "Design first, Engineer second" as "Design and Engineer at the same time".

  2. scbarnes says:

    Not entirely true. Industrial Designer understand the mechanics of engineering (knowing limitations is key) but it always usually starts with a sketch, prototype, idea etc.

    The point in my post is that work towards a design and make it your main focal point. Don’t engineer first and then think about how it should look afterwards. Bottom up design is a form of product retardation.

  3. Sanat Gersappa says:

    Great post. Nice to know that MS is taking design seriously.

  4. you hit the nail on the head, Scott.

    Microsoft is the consummate fast follower.  It may take MS a long time to see opportunity, but once they do, watch out.

    Seems like folks at MS (not just you Scott) realize that design isn’t a nice to have anymore, but a minimum ante in the game now.

  5. 4DThinker says:

    I knew there was something different about Microsoft lately. Design.  About time!   The ironic part about following design with engineering is that most engineers I know actually welcome the challenge ot making a beautiful drawing into a working product.  MS should have been doing this all along.   4D

  6. Dale Smith says:

    Wow,

    You are clearly delusion if you think that anything developed in Redmond possesses quality design. That thing you call the Zune HD "touch", has EXPOSED screws. I would not  buy a car that has exposed screws in the interior, yet you think that Microsoft has suddenly acquired "taste". The cut off fonts on the screen are a complete joke.

    Engineering and Design go hand in hand, they are the same.

    By the way Bing SUCKS, it returns less than 20% of the results of Google. I am 100% Microsoft free, and very happy.

  7. DaLE Smith says:

    My comments regarding your lousy design and your refusal to post it will be why you fail.

  8. scbarnes says:

    Dale,

    Firstly, the comments go to queue as i have a lot of people use sites like this to soapbox their anti-Microsoft rants that have nothing to do with the context of my posts (go do it on your own blog) so if ease up on the impatience.

    Secondly,

    I disagree with you around the Zune HD. It’s a great design improvement from its past product lines and if you can’t see that so be it. How you judge design is purely based on what prejudices you may or may not have prior to critiquing the said design. The ultimate proof is how people connect with the said device and whether they buy it.

    Thirdly,

    Nobody said Engineering & Design don’t go hand in hand, I simply said one should lead the vision and the other should support the vision in that explicit order. Reversing the two imho is a form of product retardation.

    If you’re 100% Microsoft Free, so be it choice is a freedom we should all celebrate more :) and if our brands aren’t for you, shame on us for not making them more attractive towards your needs.

    Now if you can identify why Bing sucks in more detail, we can then put that into our customer feedback buckets and work to make sure it doesn’t continue to suck in future..so you can either be part of the problem or part of the solution – choice (again, great huh)  is yours.

  9. Dale Smith says:

    Scott, Sorry for being grumpy. I am so tired of this endless argument regarding Mac v. PC.

    Regarding the Zune HD, It just doesn’t look well made. It looks as though someone tried to take the first version of the iPhone and make it look "hip". I just wish that the folks from Redmond would stop copying what is done in Cupertino. Do something different.

    I actually like the "look" of Bing but the results from searches are just not comparable to Google. From my point of view it looks like someone is filtering the results. If I can’t trust the results, why would I use it?

    As you can gather I am a Mac and iPhone user because I can accomplish my work with a minimum of hassle and interruption from the machines that I have to use. That is the essence of the combination of engineering and design. Engineers are relentless geeks but the people that use the stuff that they create are not. Unfortunately, I think Microsoft has forgotten this, much to your long term misfortune.

    Pick up an iPhone 3G S and discover what I mean. I bought a first generation IPhone and it changed the way I live.

    Sorry for the rant.

    Dale

  10. scbarnes says:

    Dale,

    Perfectly understanding and absolutely have been there. I find the entire compete situation boring to be openly honest, and i’m not a fan of it in teh slightest – this from a guy who’s oftend been in the thick of compete. I find the moment when two companies bicker about who’s better, it’s like watching two parents argue in front of their kids… not good, especially if the kids start picking sides..bad things happen.

    I can agree with you on the exposed screws, i hadn’t noticed until after I read your comment and wondered as to why we did that (email has been sent so put it that way).

    Bing disappointed me as well to be openly honest. I wanted more from the team, i voiced my opinion internally as i felt we have the raw talent to do so, but i feel we’re playing a little to close to "safe". I have a high bar of expectations from this company, and I actively work to agitate folks to meet that bar… 2 years ago, it was much worse, so for me i feel progress is in place. We still have much more runway to clear first though, so patience is a virtue i’m slowly growing accustomed to. That being said, I expect us to get more rapid in our successes here though.

    Check out – http://blindsearch.fejus.com/ this kind of challenges the Bing vs Google in a way I think is really healthy. Makes you stop and think for a bit is what i think it does well.

    I have 2x Mac Pro’s, 1x iMac (Desktop at work), 1x iPhone, 2x iPods and an Apple TV. I definately use Apple products and i find neither to be an outright winner to be openly honest. Each have strengths and weaknesses and I often gravitate towards Windows simply due to the software on offer (Games, Business, Development tools etc). For 3D / 2D design i often spend time inside OSX as a lot of the composition work seems to be well tuned for the OSX OS (Maya excluded, it works much better on Windows 64bit than on Mac).

    I’m luke warm towards my iPhone. I find it has positives and negatives. I love the UX, its by far the easiest to use phone on the planet right now. The functionality though in terms of Email is 2 steps back from Windows Mobile (I’ve made a post on this blog about that experience).

    I think its got a balanced Function vs Form, but i expected more functionality than form though.

    Keep the feedback like this flowing, yell at me if you think we screw up as i have thick skin and can send emails on your behalf to the relevant teams to make impact where we need to.

  11. Dale Smith says:

    Scott,

    Thank you for your response. Frankly it is painful as to how far Microsoft is behind in the mobile area. The ability for developers to access the connector on the iPhone is going to open an avalanche of products and apps for the iPhone. I don’t think anyone (either in Redmond or Cupertino ) understood the impact of the App store. I know at least ten people with IPhones or Touches and we are constantly talking about apps that we use on the device. No one is talking about "neat" apps on Win mo.

    I  know that it sounds trite but people want to fall in love with their devices. I actually go back to work when I forget my iPhone.

    I just wish that with all of your resources that Microsoft would feel the same.

  12. scbarnes says:

    Dale,

    It’s felt internally believe me. Your anguish here is tame compared to some of the internal debates i’ve seen go on. Keep in mind a lot of Microsoft staff don’t graduate out of college straight to Microsoft, a lot of our staff are ex employees of Apple, IBM, Adobe, Oracle, Sun, Google and so on. There’s a lot of people who get it and we often target our next bets not on matching our competitors but what we can do beyond the expectations of not only our competitors but our customers. All to often it happens at time when our competitors are strong in one particular vertical and we’re busy building.

    Think of it as a wave, when we are down, our competitors are up. When we are up, our competitors are down – it never seems to balance out. Impatience sometimes gets in the way so I often find myself looking at some of the internal work and going "We have to release this, the world needs to see this now!"…but i’m impatient, so I have to sit idle while folks trounce and declare us "behind", knowing we’ve already got the answers but just aren’t ready to show them.

    Folks declared Ninteno Wii the knockout punch to XBOX, given its new experience around the control devices. Meanwhile NATAL shocked folks to the core at how advanced we leap frogged that discussion – proof is always still in the pudding, but i’ve had a lot of industry UX folks praise us for a good job on this one (especially the guy behind the Minority Report UI)

    So chalk that one up to success, now to work on the Mobile….. :)  

    Its a slow marathon at times! ..

    Scott.

  13. Dale Smith says:

    Scott,

    I am not a gamer so I don’t know what NATAL is or does. What I do know is that the new iPhone has the capability for two kids in the back seat of my car to play a game together and not bug the crap out of me. It’s solutions to every day problems that is important. That is what engineers need to concentrate on. Please lead your group to solutions that ordinary people face. Technology is useless if it doesn’t solve a problem.

    Dale

  14. scbarnes says:

    Done. I hereby promise to be the biggest internal pain in the butt to ensure that happens. I already am actually, and will either get fired trying or succeed… so i am hopeful for the later.

    As you’ll hear no disagreement from me on your feedback.  The day I convert you from the iPhone to whatever it is we do next, is the day I’ll be more at peace than I am today! :)

  15. Dale Smith says:

    Well you’ve got two years to do something since I am picking up my new iPhone next Friday at the Apple Store in Natick Ma. LOL

    Thanks for the discussion tonight. My interest is that both of these companies push the hell out of each other and do wonderful things.

    Regards,

    Dale

  16. Lawrence Ward says:

    I had an iphone and it was the one of the most boring experiences I’ve ever had. Im no fan of macs either. I love the fact that i didnt have to go to a 4 year program to upgrade my pc. I love the feeling of having something and it feeling like its mine. Not a fan of winmo at all. But i just purchased an n97 and all i can say is im amazed. I hate being locked into a service.

  17. Sam says:

    Not just engineering is important but also design? Well, Duhh. Why is Microsoft only now waking up to this basic, simple fact? Rather than applauding Microsoft for finally embracing this idea, you should all be condemning it for taking so long for recognizing something that has been so  obvious to others.

    Also, concerning Apple’s evolution of the iPod, yes they have been willing and able to make significant design changes. But also note how much things have stayed the same. They pretty much nailed the basic design correctly with their first iPods. The familiar click-wheel and navigation screen design is still used on their iPod Classic. I think that that says a lot about how good their design team is that they can come up with excellent v. 1.0 designs.

  18. scbarnes says:

    Sam,

    It’s alwasy been here but it’s been somewhat dormant or not a lot of light has been cast on it. It’s only recently since Windows Vista did the company begin to start building that muscle in a more refined matter.

    Keep in mind when Steve Jobs came back to Apple he pegged the entire companies future on Industrial Design, so even then it took a few years for that ball to start to roll in a more uniform way. Apple has grown stronger by the year in this and it shows, so i guess designing Rome didn’t happen over night.

    We’ve always been the butt of jokes around design (i myself at times have laughed at our sillyness at design – paperclip anyone?) but its gratifying to now see a more widespread change in culture and approach to design inside the corporation.

  19. Dale Smith says:

    Scott.

    I actually admire your willingness to admit that Microsoft has not been focused on design. Although I am an admitted Apple fanboy, I would be delighted to see someone from inside Apple become as open as you are. I really think in the parlance of a New Englander that you are "pushing a rope" at your company. You have talked about your company and the fact that it is populated by people with experience out side of Microsoft, unfortunately your leadership is not. Unless your company solves the issue of "pocket computing" you are dead. I just don’t think that the senior management of your company has that vision.

    Sorry,

    Dale