Lately I have spent a lot of time thinking about how the '90s were a lot about technical innovation, how the '00s were about social innovation and how the '10s will be focused on innovation in the field of "Experience." I think some of the most amazing companies of the coming few years will be businesses that understand how to wrap technology beautifully around human needs so that it matters to people. In fact these insights are not new and was already well documented in Pine and Gilford's The Experience Economy from 1999. Its a bit surprising how few technology products and services actually take this into account. If we believe that the emotions of an online user are similar to how the feel offline, then great technology will, by itself, just not be enough; not even if it's designed in a clean and functional way--you will need to architect a great emotional experience for your users and then make it fit their daily flow to be a winner of tomorrow.
Here are a few things that I think that Google (and all technology-focused companies) could learn from Apple. That's not to point a finger at Google; it is clearly an amazing company with great minds that is doing very well. However, at a time when Google is moving into new services in which users have more options and are used to more experienced design, it might want to try to pick up a trick or two about human product experience design from the best in class on this subject: Apple.
1. There is a difference between good usability and a great experience
A traffic light has good usability--but using one isn't really much of an experience. It's a utility that allows us to navigate quickly and safely when driving. Many tech companies thrive on making Web sites that allow users to figure out easily what to do on a site. It's a tendency to have a big focus on clean and functional navigation, and, done really well (as on google.com), it also becomes a great experience. However, most often, experience is far broader than just clean usability. It includes navigation, a visual look, the language used, the movement, the system's attitude toward users, the flow and so on. It all adds up to the feeling users have when they enter a site or service. What is important is that there is no such thing as a "non-branded" services. A user cannot have a "non-experience." This digital packaging is important, in the same way that a car with an innovative engine needs a great body to match it. What Apple has managed to do is to add a great and, importantly, consistent experience around even their most nerdy innovations and services. Apple has managed to add a strong design attitude and a personality to its product development.
2. A tool doesn't have to be boring
Now, some argue that certain services just need to be tools: pure utilities with none of the fluff. While I agree that some cases call for minimal experience design, I can't really think of any reason why you wouldn't always try to put a bit of an experience into your product. Even something that needs to be very professional can still have a bit of attitude. Take the example from earlier, about a traffic light: lately, I have seen traffic lights in Denmark appear with nicer iconography, nicer use of the nuances of lights, informative countdowns to when the light will change, and so on. It's still a great utility, but now also a better experience. The same goes for my funny new South Part voices made for my TOMTOM GPS navigation systems.
Reeves and Nass' classic book, The Media Equation, demonstrates very nicely that every time a person interacts with anything, emotions are evoked for them. The book claims that people interact with computers as if the computer were a person. In that perspective, when working on a new service, Googlers should perhaps ask themselves, what if our service was a person? What would that person be like? Would it be the nice, all-knowing, friendly guy next to you, helping with an IT problem, or the factual IT manager who solves your problem remotely with no interaction? The solution/utility is the same; the experience is different.
3. No-one needs a screwdriver
Most smart tech entrepreneurs I meet are in the process of making either scalable platforms or generic tools. The thinking is that if you can make a great solution for one problem, you can often make that into a scalable solution for many problems. This makes perfect sense from a business and from an engineering point of view. The problem here is that people don't feel they need tools; they need solutions to problems in their life. People never lack a screwdriver; they need to hang a painting on the wall. However, if you focus in on an amazing tool you just created, then you will naturally construct a narrative around the tool's features. Not only that, you might even stare yourself blind at all the things that the tool could be used for. Need to open a can of beer? No problem, the screwdriver can do that ...
What Apple has managed to do is to package their products around the user's needs, not around all the features of the tool itself. Sometimes they even package the same tool into various products/solutions for their users.
In that respect, it is very interesting to see how differently Apple and Google have presented their phone operating systems. Here are the two videos:
I'll leave it to you to guess who I think focuses on the utility and who focuses on experience. (One of them might even be a bit over the top :)
Reprinted from Hello Henrik
Henrik Werdelin was named one of Fast Company's Most Creative People in Business. He is the entrepreneur in Residence at Index Ventures, and adviser at Sunstone Capital. Before that, CCO of Joost & VP of MTV Development--check his bio link for more details. Follow him at twitter.com/werdelin.