Business and Design: Profits Over Customer Needs

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Design of Everyday Things" by Don Norman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How are business and design related? How does business affect design choices?

Business and design are interconnected. Business drives some design choices, but it can also create a focus on profitability over user needs.

Read more about the relationship between business and design below.

Business and Design

In an ideal world, every company would implement a human-centered design approach using a research-intensive, iterative design process. In the real world, this is far easier said than done. Producing well-designed products requires keeping the company afloat, which often translates to making concessions in the design process. 

The Pressures of Business

To keep profit margins high, manufacturers typically focus on price, features, and quality (in that order), so a lengthy and expensive design process that drives up the ultimate price of the product isn’t practical. So the relationship between business and design isn’t always beneficial. Even with the perfect combination of those three factors, products (and companies) can still fail purely due to timing. Successful products capitalize on the zeitgeist (German for “spirit of the time”), hitting the market at just the right moment in the cultural and economic climate. On top of all that, businesses also need to identify and market to the “real” customers—not the end user, but the distributors who decide which products to sell in their stores. Each of these pressures has an important impact on the design of the final product. 

“Featuritis”

Business and design are connected through competition. Competitive pressures can create unexpected consequences. For example, “featuritis” is the “disease” affecting product development, characterized by what Norman calls “creeping featurism,” or the temptation to add more and more features to an already well-designed product. There are several possible sources of creeping featurism, including: 

  • satisfying existing customers’ desires for new features;
  • keeping up with competitors who offer similar products; 
  • enticing customers to upgrade. 

The problem with creeping featurism is that it often degrades the overall quality of a product. Instead, Norman recommends companies focus on their strengths, and develop them even further. Rather than winning over customers with new features, it’s better to do one thing better than anyone else on the market. 

Turning Ideas Into Successful Products

Technological change happens quickly, and new product designs are developed quickly enough to keep up. But turning an idea into a successful product happens much slower, if it happens at all. Early models of new technologies are often prohibitively expensive, as was the case with digital cameras. Apple’s 1994 QuickTake digital camera was one of the first on the market, but it failed quickly, as consumers found the new technology confusing, expensive, and unnecessary. 

Another cause of delay is the risk-averse attitudes of large corporations. Radical innovation has a high failure rate, and most big companies would rather stick to a proven product. Smaller companies are more willing to take these risks, but often don’t have the resources to withstand initial struggles. This is why most start-up companies fail, regardless of the quality of their ideas.

Because most of the product development process happens out of the public eye, many of us don’t realize just how long it can take to turn a product idea into reality. Looking deeper into the development of video calling technology and the QWERTY keyboard can help illustrate this point. 

Case Study: Videophone

Here is an example of the connetion between business and design. The idea of communicating via two-way video was first proposed in 1879, just two years after the invention of the telephone. The first working videophone was created in the 1920s but did not become commercially available in the United States until the 1960s, where it quickly failed. It wasn’t until the 2010s that technology finally caught up to the 150 year-old vision, and video calling exploded in popularity. 

In the 1879 cartoon that first publicly imagined videophones of the future, the invention was credited to Thomas Edison. But Edison did not invent the videophone. This is an example of Stigler’s Law, where famous names are attached to products purely by reputation. We associate videophone technology with the names of companies who finally successfully popularized it, not with any of the actual inventors or original distributors. The lesson here is that being first is not always an advantage if the timing is not right. 

Case Study: QWERTY Keyboards

Keyboards are another example of the long and winding road of product development, another examples of the connection between business and design. The modern QWERTY keyboard was first developed in the 1870s for mechanical typewriters. On these machines, each key was connected to the interior typebar by a metal lever. Using keyboard designs with more logical layouts (alphabetical, for example) often resulted in these levers crossing and jamming the machine. The QWERTY arrangement was created for the specific purpose of spacing out these levers to make them far less likely to jam. 

We no longer need to worry about jamming metal levers, and many updated keyboard designs exist that make typing easier and faster. So why do we still use a keyboard layout designed to accommodate outdated technology? This is a classic example of the legacy problem. The QWERTY layout was adopted by Remington, the first company to successfully produce and market mechanical typewriters to a wide audience. An entire generation learned to type on Remington typewriters, and thus on the QWERTY layout—a powerful legacy.

By the time modern computer keyboards were invented, the existing keyboard layout was so universally ingrained that introducing a new design was nearly impossible. It doesn’t matter that alternate keyboards are faster and more efficient, or that extensive use of the QWERTY layout can contribute to symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome; the cost of updating technology and retraining entire generations is too high. The keyboard is just one example of how business and design must work together to be truly successful.

Business and Design: Profits Over Customer Needs

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Don Norman's "The Design of Everyday Things" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Design of Everyday Things summary:

  • How psychology plays a part in the design of objects you encounter daily
  • Why pushing a door that was meant to be pulled isn't your fault
  • How bad design leads to more human errors

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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