Conran Singh on Luxury: Can money buy a better interface?

As promised, we’re following up Daljit’s Wired article on Monday with the first of Conran Singh’s thought pieces on how luxury and digital mix.

Conran Singh phones

Today’s question: can money buy a better interface?

Designing by committee

Received wisdom dictates that, in the digital design world, iteration is king. Tech needs to be built, tested, torn apart, and built again, and it it this process of iteration that makes good interfaces.

The same holds true for most design, of course – except that tech naturally lends itself to crowdsourcing. When Facebook wanted to translate its interface into every language, it used a crowdsourced development process: users could submit translations for the 300,000 words which comprise the Facebook interface. These submissions were voted on, and translation was done by consensus, in the blink of an eye and at negligible expense.

Much more than other companies, software makers design by committee: user feedback is collected, collated, and used to improve the product. It’s tricky to do the same with a toaster.

This is a blessing and a curse. A software company knows better than any other what its customers want – or at least, what they think they want. As Henry Ford probably didn’t once say, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. In other words, crowdsourcing may actually limit the possibilities of software design, pushing designers to refine the old, rather than to invent the new.

On luxe

Most areas of design have a luxury end: Bentley cars, Bang & Olufsen speakers and Hublot watches. These manufacturers design to the highest standards, making products that are not just sold on their name, or the expense of their materials, but also the beauty and refinement of their design.

Luxury design takes time, money and expertise, and the iterative R&D that typifies designing for the mass market doesn’t take place. Perhaps because of this, such manufacturers design groundbreaking things. Why doesn’t the same apply to digital design?

For digital, too, there is room for a high end – and, as computers become embedded into just about everything, doing digital well becomes an imperative for luxury brands.

There are two roads to a great interface. One is the mass market: designs honed by the collaborative will of thousands or millions of users. The second is less travelled, but no less valuable: deep investment of time, money and expertise to create truly sublime digital experiences.

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