The Most Frustrating Thing

It’s Friday, so I’m going to take a few minutes to describe the most annoying concept I see espoused by 95%+ of blogs I read, people I talk to, and friends I have. The problem is until you let go, you’ll never be able to build something truly useful to a non-trivial audience.

Technology doesn’t matter. Design doesn’t matter.

There, I said it.

Before you get the pitchforks and invoke the almighty Zeldman, consider these statements:

Most popular newspaper/news/classified sites suck. They’re not part of the conversation at all. They need X.” (Where X is better design, comments, trackbacks, more links, voting, social filtering, fewer ads, etc.)

“X is cool, Y is cool, I bet if you combined them they’d be even better!” (Where X or Y is Flickr, a cell phone, Craigslist, a remote control, Digg, Delicious, Google Maps, a MP3 player, Writeboard and Wikipedia…)

“We need to focus on usability more so we can reach a mainstream audience.”

Chances are if you are geeky enough to be reading this blog, you’re like me and you’ve said the above dozens of times. We are technologists, designers, and we love technology and design. In our heart of hearts we believe better technology or design will win in the end.

If you build a better mousetrap

Every few months someone notices the top 20 sites on the internet are butt-ugly, thinks they’ve discovered something new, and sparks an argument with one side saying “design doesn’t matter” and the other side pointing to the innumerable examples of design mattering and having measurable impact on signups, clickthroughs, ROI, whatever.

It doesn’t help that we have Myspace, the perfect storm of everything you can do “wrong” on the web.

Both sides are right, but their fixation on the surface aspects of design, usability, and technology are completely wrong. It shows the blind leading the colorblind.

Of course design matters. Technology matters. But they have no causal relationship with success any more than the color of a logo does. Don’t focus on the wrong thing!

There is something that is truly important to the success of what you do, and the most successful examples in your field are going to do everything they can to point you in the other direction. This is why Google is constantly talking about their food and Labs — it has wannabes constantly scrambling to copy the wrong thing. That’s the real magic—sleight of hand.

I can’t tell you what you should be focusing on, no one can. I can only tell you it is not design or technology. It’s different for every company, service, and person. There’s no perfect Pepsi, there are perfect Pepsis.

If you are lucky enough to ever find the core of what’s going to make you rock, latch on to it with every waking breath. The worst thing that could happen is you’re wrong, and it’s better to find that out sooner rather than later.

Design and technology (and VC money) are like rocket fuel, they can propel you very fast. Just not always in the right direction.

Update: Nice response on Bokardo. Update 2: Do users matter?

19 thoughts on “The Most Frustrating Thing

  1. Yup, you’ve pretty much just summed up my theory of everything πŸ˜‰

    Be it design, tech, code, sports, or whatever – the specialist will never be right. Generalists and generalism are the key to working well. Which is why generalists tend to drive things -and hire specialists to work on them.

    A perfect example is Steve Jobs and the Apple Mac.

  2. Yes, and it’s a deceptively-easy-to-hear-but-hard-to-really-get thought; so I’ll repeat it:

    “I can’t tell you what you should be focusing on, no one can. I can only tell you it is not design or technology. It’s different for every company, service, and person.”

    But Coltrane used to stand in the corner of the studio for hour after hour ‘practising’ his improvisations! He probably got so good and into it that it was whispering to God but it was also playing the saxophone: his design and technology. And remember, beyond the metal and air of those moments, he was practising his improvisations (emphasis on that unlikely combo of words). So at that level too he was making his design and tech work, no, re-work… no, re-work…

    And what did he have to say to the other musicians? I’m sure you know the great line when Davis said to Trane that his solos were sure long and Trane said he just couldn’t figure out how to stop and Davis said, “Try taking the horn out of your mouth.”

    That’s the kind of advice that means something, in my opinion. I think there’s a ‘causal relationship with success’ in that kind of advice, yes? Because it understands success in terms of all those hours standing in the corner with the horn in your mouth trying to figure out how to do something that will make people happy and mean something.

    Based on that, we can just forget a lot of websites.

  3. “Content is King”

    It’s been said before.

    I try and add a little “Code is Poetry” (I saw that somewhere πŸ˜‰ )

    A good balance of the two seems to do pretty well.

  4. Wow. I was having this very discussion in the office with one of the Flash designers today. We strive to find that coexistence between design and usability, between the newest technology and accesibility. Just being able to talk about it opening and freely without anyone fighting over it is great. But we’re all focused on the same thing: making the best space for our visitors and making it enjoyable to visit as well as well as functional.

    It’s a never-ending process but we love what we do so it makes it all worthwhile (it doesn’t hurt that the people I work with are incredibly talented and forward-thinking and willing to listen to alternative views, either).

  5. Don’t sweat it…I’ve been having variations of this conversation with Business Owners for almost 15 years. It’s why people buy self-help business books (The E Myth, as an example) and why people actually doing something…man, I hate this word…authentic and useful get paid lots of money IF there or lots of willing buyers for their output.

    To me, you just have to be true to yourself and do only what you do best, pursue it with passion and discipline, and above all else, make sure there is a willing buyer for it before you get too far down the road.

    If it useful and there are buyers, who cares how it looks? That (design) may be part of the buying decision but that decision isn’t yours.

    And above all else, enjoy the ride because we’re not on this big ball all that long.

  6. Much of the incipient, neonatal Blogosphere is navel-gazingly self-referential, or else derivative, repetitive, and uninspired. To be fair, that’s to be expected in a medium so new, unstructured, and seemingly limitless. Even so, while the Blogosphere is beginning to impact politics, hardly any of the intellectual, cultural, scientific, and artistic potential has been tapped yet.

    But it will be. The power, flexibility, universality, and user friendliness of the New Canyon are too enormous. All the Blogosphere lacks now is (sufficient) creative content. When the quality of the content rises, the Internet will change the way we learn, teach, think, and ultimately, the ways in which we view and interact with the world.

  7. Amen, brother.

    Matt, we need more of these rants.

    Now, I need to go and figure out how to upgrade my kubrick theme I installed back in sept 2004.

  8. It doesn’t help that we have Myspace, the perfect storm of everything you can do “wrong” on the web.

    LOL. So true! But I think it’s kind of scary that no one sees its multitude of problems and keep asking me if I have a MySpace. I just haven’t been around those parts during a full moon, I suppose.

  9. I was looking through my old archives the other day and found a post about RSS feeds. It made me think of a time when you said you didn’t like the feedreaders because they kept you from seeing the end design of a blog. Interesting only to see how our feelings change over time.

    I’ve always thought that content is king. Design is nice, usability is important – but it is all about the content.

  10. Not to be a brown-noser or whatever, but that’s the most sensible opinion I’ve heard on the timeless “Design is more important than Content” (or vice-versa) debate.

  11. I read in some of the above comments that content is king. To me it isn’t. Neither is design. The writer is king while design and content are his ministers. A Geek may write a nice post explaining the intricate workings of a network but only geeks will understand that. A writer, who may not be able to explain in detail as the geek will still be able to connect with the regular users because they will easily understand what he is saying.

    It all depends on the person. He chooses the design, he chooses the content and he chooses how to write it. Unless and until he doesn’t know how to connect with the people, to keep them entertained so that they do not skip the post midway. There are many bloggers around who have great content but cannot put it across the board.

    It all depends on the person. πŸ™‚

  12. Good points, as most of the Top 20 sites looks the same ( same Design store? ), but even myspace can look good, if you consider the 5thirtyone layout for myspace.

  13. What’s really fascinating to me is the underlying, understated ubik-quity of the limited regular selection of fonts on the web: I was keyed into’s use of Georgia, and started using it more. Unless you’re doing something like using graphics or Flash or embedding them (who does that nowadays? It doesn’t seem very popular), the center of the world is often Verdana, on Yahoo! News I zoom into all the Arial, and there’s not much else. I notice a lot of Japanese sites still have Times New Roman has a serif font, and I wonder why that is.

    There’s an old adage that a steak isn’t as tasty when you eat it from a landfill. One of the funniest (and saddest) things is unbridled myopia, where certain people will zoom close into a certain stylistic trend that it becomes a form of idea-illogical incest, and it isn’t bred outside of itself. It almost becomes a cliche like 303 acid lines in techno music, before time turns it on its head, likely a few pioneers mix it up, and it all comes full circle again.

    Reality is that there’s almost always a counterpoint to something, and it doesn’t matter whether something is right or wrong: all the matters is the actions you take as a result of how much you believe in it.

    You’ll hear it over and over again, “If there was a formula for building websites to sell to Google, there wouldn’t be a Google!”

    So, if content’s king, who’s the queen who’ll watch over and groom him, and bear their children?

    This is what I lay awake at night wondering about… often.