May 9, 2013

Enduring design

The Loop > Magazine > Issue 1

By Matt Gemmell

If the word ‘differentiation’ makes you break out in a cold sweat as you remember high school mathematics, imagine how product designers feel.

To them, it means the delicate art of setting one product apart from another in the mind of the consumer. Clearly identifying what’s different, and ensuring that those differences are seen as desirable improvements. Differentiation even applies to the planning and creation of new products, which must of course be sufficiently new to entice the customer to upgrade.

It’s a difficult task. We exist in an industry filled with clones, knock-offs, and products specifically designed to be just different enough to avoid legal action. Imitation has become the science of the technology sector.

In a world of copies, it’s often instructive to look at the template being copied, and thankfully that’s very easy to do. Indeed, it’s hard to walk into any PC or mobile phone store without thinking you’ve spied an Apple product, then upon closer inspection realizing it’s from Samsung, HP, or another of the usual suspects.

Again, the essential question is: what’s the difference? The answer is equally simple: an approach to design. Apple’s ethos, and that of a few like-minded companies, is that no product or feature is sacred. You can readily buy PC laptops today that have built-in VGA ports, PCMCIA slots, memory card multi-readers, track-point joysticks, flashing status lights to indicate when the network is being accessed, and power cords which (when tripped over) will send your computer crashing to the floor. Not so with Mac laptops. I wouldn’t be surprised to still see a floppy drive even on 2013-model Windows machines, and internal optical drives are still considered essential.

Therein lies the problem with differentiation based on features: it’s cautious. You can’t give ground, even when it would be better to do so. Apple began to wash its hands of that tactic with the original iMac. They don’t design to differentiate; they design the best products they can make.

It’s an approach which has evolved to survive in today’s savvy consumer market that’s saturated with imitations. Apple is willing to change things, radically. The only thing that hasn’t changed about Apple in the last fifteen years is that the company is apparently perpetually doomed, regardless of their bottom line.

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