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Why good design and open design often conflict

Product design fact:
A small number of features are used a lot, and most features are never used.

This idea comes from one of my favorite books, Designing Interactions, where there’s a discussion by the original interaction designer for one of the first/best mobile OSes, PalmOS. He talks about the idea that users’ interaction with products follow a Power Law distribution- a small number of features are used constantly by users, and then there’s a long tail of features that most people don’t interact with at all. This is an important idea, because it helps define what good functional design should look like.

Good design
Good interaction design means giving features prominence based on their usage level- this means some features are basically hidden, whereas some should be in your face. Using Palm as the example, you’d want to make “Add contact to addressbook” prominent but “Remove contact” should be very subtle- possible, but almost hidden. This means users will be able to pick out what they want to do, most of the time, and occassionally can pick out the corner case.

Open design
On the other hand, designing your product to be “open” and a “platform” means that you want to make anything possible. This often comes with its own design risks, because features aren’t shown to the user at the priority level associated with their usage. That’s why I find that open systems like Android, Windows, and the Facebook platform can have very messy interactions as a result.

An open platform means that a lot more is possible, but the best experiences are watered down by its desire to support an infinite # of possibilities. A more curated experience means that the best experiences can be meticulously designed, but it becomes harder to make all the combinations possible. Constraints start to dominate, but if the constraints are picked well, the experience is better off.

Different POVs
You can read this post as a discussion of Apple versus Google versus Microsoft, or you can think of it as different design philosophies for how to build products. Both are great, and can lead to fantastic things, but open versus curated can lead to very different outcomes.

PS. There’s also a “lean startup” corollary to this- If you can identify which features are part of the long tail, maybe they should never have been built, or should be removed altogether, since it required an upfront investment in time yet doesn’t do a good job actually generating engagement.

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