Dieter Rams is the head designer for Braun products and a master of functional product design. There’s a wonderful exhibit of his portfolio at the SFMoma at the moment. As I walked through the exhibit, I passed a wall with Rams’ Ten Principles for Good Design: innovative, useful, aesthetic, understandable, honest, unobtrusive, long-lasting, thorough, green and as little design as possible.

These principles are widely used in product design – Apple design ethos is the extension of Rams’, but entirely missing from software. How many of the software tools we use on a daily basis are poorly designed? I’d argue most of them.

Some of Ram’s works at the Moma

At Google, we had universal style principles. Every product launched had to use the same fonts, grid, colors and overall look and feel. This rubric simplified product design and decreased user learning time. The Google design standard is now 10 years old. It favored large amounts of white space and the maximization of data density, or useful information per pixel. Ultimately, Google eliminated irrelevant content on the page.

But these style guides don’t address product coherence or functionality. I tried to create a slideshow for this blog post using WordPress and Picasa. It was a disaster. I had to read the FAQ to make a slideshow.

Picasa’s sharing functions are found in 3 different places with 3 different privacy settings. After I pieced together the slideshow, I copied the link into WordPress. No cigar. The slideshow failed to materialize. More FAQs. WordPress doesn’t support Picasa Slideshows, even though it’s just the display of a Flash file (security related I guess). I tried making a Gallery of photos instead. The photos didn’t intelligently rotate on WordPress. After 30 minutes, I threw up my hands.

Picasa and WordPress, like every other bit of web based software, collect data on user flows. With analytics, we have data on the most used features, time spent on a task, task completion success rate, query volume on help forums. Hardware designers don’t have this data aside from focus groups, whose death is now forecasted. Rather than eschewing user based design in software, we should champion data based design. To build great products, we have to understand these flows and refine them until the steps become effortless.

We’re starting to see beautiful software that embody some of Rams’ design principles. New reading experiences like Flipboard and Float. Mobile apps like Expensify and Square. I’m excited to see the web become more beautiful, more effortless to use.

You never realize when you use great tools. A fork is merely an extension of your hand. Great software should be the same.

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