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Sexy design won’t save your crappy product (sorry)

I recently worked on a project for a very large client. They had spent more than a year and millions of euro developing a mobile app before we were called in, but when me and my colleagues at AJ&Smart took a look at it, the app was a complete mess. It was a daunting mishmash of current trends and design patterns, and despite designing apps for a living, I genuinely didn’t know how to use it. Neither did the dozens of test users they had brought in.

There were animations everywhere. The different screens were suspended in a sort of 3D environment, and, naturally, everything was customisable. I have to admit: the app looked glorious. But, like a beautiful house built on a swamp, it didn’t have a solid foundation (and unusable due to the swamp creatures surrounding it).

His colleagues agreed. These apps were, in fact, cool.

4 weeks passed, during which we ripped apart, restructured, and redesigned the app. It was now apparent to us what had happened, and why the app was doomed to ultimately return to its original state. Nevertheless, I presented the new version to top man and explained as best I could all the tradeoffs that had to be made and the features that had to be killed for the app to make sense.

His reaction? The app was now boring.

The big boss took out his iPhone and showed me other apps, cool apps – ones that had, in his words, the ‘sparkle effect’. This is what they wanted for their app.

His colleagues agreed. These apps were, in fact, cool.

This wasn’t the first hint. I had spent the last 4 weeks fending off visual designers who were intent on using the navigation pattern from one app and the unique animations from 3 others. Nobody cared if the app was useful, or even usable. They only cared that it was cool – if it was cool enough, people would use it.

In fact, because they were releasing the app into a crowded market, the only differentiator they could come up with when I asked is that it would be ‘much cooler’.

Sure, this is an extreme example, and this case was also skewed by a the huge budget the team had to work with, and their relative inexperience with product design. But this isn’t an isolated incident.

These kinds of products are everywhere. There are plenty of startups who believe that ‘sparkle’ will make them stand out from millions of other bland, similar products, like a diamond ring someone dropped in the toilet at a festival.

And there are definitely some examples of that working. But take a look at the top apps in the App Store: WhatsApp, Twitter, Snapchat, even the 7 Minute Workout Challenge – I’ve seen accounting apps with more sparkle. But do people love them? Go look at the number of downloads and find out. (Spoiler: Yes they do.)

Have you ever tried putting lipstick on a pig?

Good product design is about giving people something that makes their lives easier or more enjoyable, and they’ll figure out if it does that pretty quickly. Sparkle might be good for attracting a few eyes, but its charm soon wears thin and your app’s usefulness will have to stand on its own. So take your hand out of your pants, stop focusing on cool animations or design patterns, and make your app do something good.

This is also useful to bear in mind when validating your idea: If you feel like you need sparkle in the first place, maybe you need to rethink your product. Have you ever tried putting lipstick on a pig that’s just not into it? You’d be surprised how hard it is.


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