Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Lot of What Passes for Style is Quite Superficial

Joel Spolsky gives an illuminating seminar about the difference between the market leading product and its number two competitor. True art, or what passes for art, will only be proven over time, but a lot of products that people like are long on aesthetics and superficial style and often short of substance. The iPod has fewer features, is more expensive, and you can't replace its battery for less than $69, while it's competitor has more features, costs $100 less, and you can change the battery yourself. He shows that people prefer SUVs because the perception is that an SUV is safer than a car, when in fact, SUVs are less safe (twice the mortality rate) because SUVs are considered trucks, and by law, trucks don't have to meet the more stringent safety requirements that cars do. Also, SUVs have higher centers of gravity making them more prone to rollovers, and therefore, less safe anyway. The perception is that since I am higher off of the ground, I can see more, and I'm in a position of greater control, but I am more prone to rollover and since the SUV is a more massive vehicle, it's more difficult to control and stop due to center of gravity and inertial effects. Perception and reality don't converge in this instance. Mr. Spolsky points out other misperceptions. In terms of software development, people prefer the prettier applications to the more functional ones. Often for programmers, functionality trumps aesthetics. It's more important that the program functions than whether it looks pretty, but to users, the opposite is often the case. He points out that users generally never see the inner workings of the program, they only see the interface and the results, and procurement people will usually only see the pretty and aesthetically pleasing interface. Another example of this divergence of perception versus reality is the Russian observation that "Complexity is easy, but (making something) simple (and reliable) is difficult".
I'm still surprised that image beats functionality so often. I see a combination of herd mentality and lazy decision-making (looks are obvious, assessing functionality is difficult) among the "image" people. Image is undoubtedly faster and easier to determine. Perhaps it's personality type or cognitive style.
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