This article was published on June 21, 2013

The importance of design in technology and the ‘Iteration Tax’

The importance of design in technology and the ‘Iteration Tax’
Alex Wilhelm
Story by

Alex Wilhelm

Alex Wilhelm is a San Francisco-based writer. You can find Alex on Twitter, and on Facebook. You can reach Alex via email at [email protected] Alex Wilhelm is a San Francisco-based writer. You can find Alex on Twitter, and on Facebook. You can reach Alex via email at [email protected]

What is design? There are two simple perspectives on design that are both worth keeping in mind in unison. Each is well encapsulated in a Steve Jobs epithet:

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

When people refer to design, they imply a full gamut of ideas. To some, the design on the back of their laptop means that they can’t use more than two USB devices at the same time. Design is also the upper chorus of a perfect user interface flow in a mobile application. And it’s everything in between.

In the past decade in technology we’ve seen what could be roughly described as ‘Rise of the Developer’, in that much power has shifted from management types into the hands of those writing the code. Most recently, however, a new trend has come to the fore: the ‘Rise of the Designer’ as a real equal to the developer and the business guru.

Why is this the case? In short because standards for design have risen, and we interface with more design in our daily technological lives than we once did. The office worker of ten years ago might have lived in Word, Excel, Outlook, and little else during their day. Now any smartphone owner can interact with a dozen applications before even reaching the office.

The consumerization of the enterprise, and IT in general, is good reference for this trend. When Box purchased Crocodoc for use in its enterprise file storage and syncing product, the company spent time explaining how it views design as part of its workflow. As TNW reported at the time:

A new theme is the idea that enterprise technology must be “consumer quality.” In the past, it was the other way around; now, often, consumer-facing technology is far more elegant than what large corporations purchase for their own internal use. “You have to build something that is fast and beautiful for the enterprise,” Box said, “or users will just go somewhere else.”

What the enterprise is fed by their IT overlords cannot be ugly; control has been ceded from the person in the server room to the person bringing in their own device. BYOD extends to software.

All of that, together, forms a single fact: in certain contexts where ugly was once welcome, it no can no longer live.

A prime example of that fact is PC design. Apple, for years has built beautiful personal computers. The traditional Windows-based PC market ignored that trend for year after year, shipping ugly, again and again. No more. The ultrabook effort is a direct push against bad design, as once the enterprise was cracked open, and the enforced hegemony of Windows laptops was overtaken, choice was introduced. And no one wants ugly.

Our fact as detailed above leaves us with a conundrum: why are some technology products either incredibly simple, or downright ugly, and yet remain exceptionally popular? Answering that question is the goal of this article. Let’s begin.

Apple’s gambit

Recently, Apple revealed iOS 7, a whole-cloth rethinking of its tablet and smartphone operating system. It brought new features, flow, and colors. Whatever iOS 6 was, it is now firmly the past. iOS 7 may have some of its more garish edges filed, but you have to find impressive that Apple’s seventh go at iOS is perhaps its most radical to date.

Why is that? Why might Apple, after kickstarting the smartphone market with its iPhone product, find requirement to rebuild from the bottom up what had brought it so much success? In a word, iteration.

Apple deals with yearly product cycles, and sometimes affords itself even less time between releases. Consumers buy iPhones on a roughly two year cycle as well, meaning that Apple has to come up with software and hardware compelling enough to be fresh to a current user five times per decade. That isn’t easy.

Iteration drives demand for change, even where it isn’t perhaps utterly necessary, and that requires constant, chronic design inputs. Recall, in Jobs’ eyes, design is how it works.

This is what I like to call the Iteration Tax. If you must, based on external more than internal pressure, rebuild your products on a regular basis, you have far higher design costs than you otherwise might if you simply only built new features when needed, and not on an artificially accelerated schedule – the market in this case is the accelerant.

The corollary to the Iteration Tax is that companies that do not have to revamp their products – hardware or software – don’t have the same issues, and thus might have more stagnant, or even unattractive user interfaces, as those elements matter less to their audience.

Google’s lassitude

Google’s homepage is an iconic piece of digital real estate. It’s been kept simple on purpose, but a key force behind that purpose is that the public doesn’t demand that it change; what functions about the Google homepage is that it takes you to answers, and little else.

Unlike a mobile operating system that must entertain you in new ways on the regular, Google has no such pressure for that part of its empire.

Another way, as much of the iteration of Google’s core search technology goes on out of sight, Google can update its product without updating the elements of it that face the public; no new paint is required, as the engine is constantly being rebuilt.

Thus, for a host of its products, Google doesn’t pay the Iteration Tax, and therefore leans less on designers than it might; naturally there are parts of Apple that fit that mold, and parts of Google that suffer from the Tax just as iOS does – Android is the blindingly obvious example – but we aren’t trying to compare the two companies. Instead, we want to delineate between products on artificial update schedules, and what that means for their design, and their designers.

To put this into context, contemplate Windows. For decades, Microsoft released new versions of Windows essentially when they were done. As the company set the market it wasn’t racing to beat someone else’s clock, or to fit to a different clock. Now, however, Microsoft has clear and real competition, and thus it is forced to iterate more quickly. And as such, its demands on its designers has risen, given the need to reconstitute the Windows user interface more quickly. Windows 8, love it or not, was a mammoth project. And in around 9 months the company is releasing a much-reworked version of it called 8.1 that contains a huge number of visual changes.

Reddit’s glorious miasma

Reddit is a fantastically ugly site. It’s bad. And it breaks down. But it remains exceptionally popular for the simple reason that its users love it for precisely what it is. I would honestly wager that there is no popular web service under less pressure to iterate its design than Reddit. Even Craigslist looks positively radical with its progressive – glacial – design updates compared to Reddit.

But as with Google’s search engine, nearly all work on Reddit goes on behind the scenes. And thus Reddit’s design upgrades are completely un-cyclical, saving it from the tax entirely.

Or to use the site’s on vernacular: Reddit has a hard time staying online. Good design? Ain’t no one got time for that!


Our conclusion – the tl;dr, you Reddit user – is simple. Products that are dependent on artificial release cycles must reform themselves more often than they would naturally. This leads to increased design costs, or what we have dubbed the Iteration Tax.

We set out to answer the following question: why are some technology products either incredibly simple, or downright ugly, and yet remain exceptionally popular? The answer is simple: Because they don’t have to be. The ironic cost of not paying the Iteration Tax, however, can in some cases be a firm beating with the ugly stick. But some companies pull it off with elegance, like Google. The next question might then be among companies that avoid the Iteration Tax, is simplicity the only way to avoid the ugly?

That’s for you to find out.


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