Thursday, July 24, 2014

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

Have you ever heard of “additive design”? Please don’t Google it. You’ll only get 7,000 results, and probably won’t find a serviceable definition anyway. In fact, I think I might have made it up.  ;^)

Anyway, it’s a pretty simple idea – and it also appears to be the way most websites and software are developed. First, you start with something nice and clean and simple. Then, when some important business partner wants their piece of real estate, or some high-profile client complains about some piddly little thing missing, or some marketing exec wants to add their special little widget … well, you add them. You repeat this process month after month, quarter after quarter, and year after year until the page or site or whatever basically sinks under its own weight.

Then, if you’re smart, you blow it up and start all over from scratch. (If you’re not so smart, you just keep adding, and adding, and adding.) It’s the difference between Google and Yahoo. Between an iPhone and Microsoft Office.  Between Swedish Modern and High Victorian. Between Mies van der Rohe and the Winchester House. Between Hemingway and the federal tax code. Additive design can also happen on that first iteration of your system too. Are you designing by committee? How many people are on that committee? Is anyone thinking of the user's holistic experience, or are they thinking of their own little fiefdoms and pet projects?

And, if they are thinking of the user, how are they doing that exactly? Are they doing that in the abstract only? Are they using themselves as stand-ins? Are they trying to be all things to all people? One thing I can definitely tell you for sure is that no user wants complexity. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that managing the impulse against additive design is easier for some members of the project team than for others. Graphic designers consider it a no-brainer. Content folks can often be talked into it (though I swear some of them are paid by the word). Techies and business/marketing types, however, sometimes seem not to get it at all.

Now, there are several things you can do to avoid an additive style. One is to try to get the whole team to buy into the overall, integrated, holistic user experience – instead of their own little silos. Strong direction from the top down can help a lot here. Personally, I’ve had a lot of luck with personas, the old 90/10 rule, and progressive disclosure. Ultimately, though, the most effective strategy may simply to be aware of the phenomenon of additive design itself – how nefarious it can be and how many problems it can cause.

M. de Saint-Exupery, an extremely unflattering photo. 
Yes, he’s the one who wrote The Little Prince
Et, oui, c’est un chapeau d’aviateurs.

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