What is better, being different or following convention when designing products and services? This is a question fraught with emotion, and I truly do not know if there is a simple and correct answer. In the past few weeks I have been deep in design sessions where we were debating this very question. On one hand, convention and standards have a very strong position, especially when designing software used by a mass-audience. People are used to certain conventions. Following conventions and standards makes it easier to use software. There are distinct advantages to producing software that functions just like other apps in the market. They are easy to understand and easy to use. However, being different is important too. Sometimes breaking convention not only produces novel results, but also can lead to true innovation. Being different than everyone else makes it easy for a product like a mobile app to stand out and shine. The argument is “I don’t want to be comparable to others.” In highly commoditized products, this is also a very compelling argument.
Pick Your Battles
Standards are there for a reason, especially when it comes to the usability of a mobile app. Some very big companies have spent big bucks figuring out what end-users really want, and how best to ergonomically create apps that are the easiest to use. In areas such as the core way we navigate around a mobile app, conventions allow us to make sure the end-user is not confused or befuddled. Standards are a good thing. As a very distinguished design expert told me recently, and this is someone I truly respect, pick your battles around differentiation carefully and don’t battle convention around building blocks such as core navigation, find other areas to differentiate. Millions of end-users cannot be wrong, and standards truly make mobile apps easy to use.
Different Wins Over Marginal Improvements
Ah, but at times being different is truly important. As a creator of products, I strive to be different than everyone else. And in fact, being better is not always a winning solution. Several times I have seen “better” lose to “different”. It is a sad fact but true indeed. The incremental advantages of being better while a great goal in and of itself, does not create enough strategic advantage. The “better” is usually only marginally better. And if everyone else is following a standard, than commodities are created at a very rapid rate. So the battle is usually over marginal improvements or truly being different. And differentiation is what builds sustainable market advantage.
I vote for being different. Consider it a contrarian perspective, which innately seeks differentiation. The real goal is to achieve both- being better and different. That unique and rare combination can create the rocket fuel that drives great products and great companies. But for me, being different is enough. After all, are we not individuals, rather than one part of a larger body. In our souls, we seek to be individuals, and the products we build should also be different.