Less, but better

A philosophy for design, development and buying popcorn

I’m an infrequent visitor to London, so I try to make the most of my visits. I’d travelled for the British Unversities Film & Video Council Learning on Screen awards – in which I was a finalist – but had also managed to take in Damien Hirst at Tate Modern and Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery. As I had an hour before my train home I popped into Selfridges’ food hall. For those who haven’t been: it’s fantastic; great fresh food, the finest chocolate. They also stock items you won’t find in your local supermarket, such as Joe & Seph’s Gourmet Popcorn. I’d not encountered Joe & Seph’s before, but was on the lookout for something a little different, and their caramel, pepper and chilli popcorn caught my eye.

The following day, I was at home watching TV and eating the gourmet popcorn. Now, I’m not a massive fan of popcorn, in cinemas I find it underwhelming and don’t usually finish the smallest of boxes. I start off grabbing small handfuls and then get progressively bored of it. The gourmet popcorn was different though. I found myself savouring each kernel. As I ate, a thought that had been forming in my mind for some time suddenly crystalised: I’d rather ‘pay more, get less, but better’. The gourmet popcorn is more expensive than run of the mill popcorn, such as Butterkist. As it’s more expensive you’ll probably buy it less frequently.  You also get less for your money, but, crucially, what you get is so much better. The quality massively compensates for the smaller quantity.

The intersection between popcorn and design

As I thought about ‘pay more, get less, but better’, it occurred to me that not only had I been doing this sub-conciously for a while with regard to purchases, but it was also influencing how I thought about design and development. In all of my recent projects I have been focusing on the core features that the user will need, rejecting or ditching anything that detracts from the accomplishment of the user’s main goal. The original scope of the Virtual ECG project (incidentally, the reason I was at the Learning on Screen awards) envisaged a tool testing the recognition of heart conditions from ECG scans and the complete process of ECG capture, including skin preparation. All of these things detracted from the core problem: teaching the accurate positioning of electrodes and connection of leads to produce accurate ECG scans – and so that’s the only thing the simulation does. It’s also in a current project – a room finding/mapping service for the university I work for – where I’ve been impressing upon people how important it is that the service does “one thing, but does it really well”.

A day later I was reading the ‘Design Principles’ chapter of ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson. Within was the design philosophy of the German industrial designer for Braun, Dieter Rams: “Weniger aber besser” – “Less, but better”. It turns out that Apple’s Jony Ive is a big fan of Dieter Rams, and subscribes to the “less, but better” philosophy. I was unaware of Rams before reading that chapter. It’s probable that I have been absorbing this creed by osmosis. I’ve only ever  bought  Macs, and have been using them since 1997. If you are going to have a design philosphy (and you probably should), then arriving at the one which informs the design of the products of the world’s biggest company is not a bad one to have.

You could see ‘less, but better’ as a version of the ‘Keep it simple stupid’ idea. But the way I see it is that it isn’t simply about rejecting complexity or reducing and restricting features for the sake of it. It isn’t about a simple rejection of feature bloat or feature creep. It isn’t about keeping things simple just to make your life easier. It’s about focusing on the things that matter most to your users and refining and improving them to deliver great experiences for your users. Doing this might make your life as a designer/developer more difficult, but you don’t matter, your users do.

So, there we have it, the route to satisfaction. If you’re buying popcorn, ‘pay more, get less, but better’, and if you’re designing/developing simply remember ‘Weniger aber besser – Less, but better’.