What if someone paid you thousands of dollars to design a user interface or an application for just one person?
Most design work is done for audiences: whether designing mass market products or niche objects of desire, we seldom have a single, real person in mind when we work. We think of audiences as groups of people with diverse needs and expectations. Even highly specialized equipment like NASA space suits are designed to fit a range of individual needs.
In the world of design very few endeavors revolve around a single person. Interior design and architecture are exceptions that come to mind, where often the final product is a private space for an individual, such as an office or a bedroom. And fashion design, too, where tailored suits and “bespoke” garments can still be custom-commissioned as an expensive alternative to the standard prÃªt-Ã -porter options we find on department store racks in sizes S, M, and L.
But very few other design practices, from graphic design to industrial design, ever require such a narrow focus. This is especially true for user interface design.
Perhaps, however, this is changing. Perhaps a new sort of interaction design client is emerging, users who desire and are willing to pay for bespoke user interfaces, interactive products designed for the exclusive use of one person.
John King and his “magic wall” at CNN is the de facto case study of the bespoke user interface. As any political buff knows, CNN has been flying high in the ratings for election-specific coverage, no doubt due in part to King’s compelling and dazzling maps. It’s hard to watch more than a few minutes of CNN’s prime time election coverage without seeing John King zooming in and out of the map, manipulating voting projections and simulating election outcomes, all with a few swipes of his fingers.
The magic wall emerged in the beginning of the 2008 primary season. Built by Jeff Han’s Perceptive Pixel, the magic wall has over the past 10 months introduced dozens of new features, allowing King to do more and more complex simulations, present deeper examinations of polling numbers, and reference encyclopedic historical data going back many decades.
And every time a new feature is introduced, King is already a master of it. Rarely does he tap the wrong state or switch to the wrong page. The map was made for King, and clearly he “trains” on it for each new feature. Now that’s user-centered design!
Extending the User Base
Actually, there is a second user. Last week Perceptive Pixel created a “remixed” version of King’s magic wall for Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen. The results: pure comic genius.
I should point out, however, that there are several kinds of bespoke design philosophies even among designers who design for larger audiences. For one thing, user personas permit designers to envision their target audience more narrowly, to view the user experience challenges on an individual basis rather than imagining their design being used by an amorphous faceless demographic group.
But there’s another kind of bespoke design approach.
The One True User
There is a single user that we all design for all the time. Some of us try hard to avoid talking about or even thinking about this user. Others, however, openly admit or even embrace discussions of how important this user’s opinions are.
I am speaking, of course, about “designing for yourself”.
Sun’s Tim Bray recently wrote:
Everything Iâ€™ve done over the years thatâ€™s worked out wellâ€”software, standards, writingâ€”everything, without exception, was something I did for myself. Iâ€™ve done the other thing too: built things based on guesses about what people out there might want or need. Never worked, not once.
John Gruber (who provided the link above) agrees:
The most successful thing Iâ€™ve ever made is Markdown, and the one and only user I had in mind for it was me.
Jason Fried, too:
Designing for ourselves first yields better initial results because it lets us design what we know. It lets us assess quality quickly and directly, instead of by proxy. And it lets us fall in love with our products and feel passionate about what we make. Thereâ€™s simply no substitute for that.
Weâ€™re like chefs. We make food that we think tastes good and that we believe in. We make it for customers who have the same sensibilities that we do. It might not be for everyone. Thatâ€™s ok. But for people who think the way we do, and appreciate the things we appreciate, itâ€™s perfect.
And if enough customers tell us our food is too salty or too hot, we may adjust the salt and the heat. But if some customers tell us to add bananas to our lasagna, weâ€™re not going to make them happy at the expense of ruining the dish for everyone else. That doesnâ€™t make us selfish. Weâ€™re just looking out for the greater good.
I find both perspectives rewarding: When designing for a client whose users are pretty different from me, I firmly believe that user research helps us design for the user-who-is-not-me. On the other hand, when designing for those users who are like me I definitely have a lot to bring to the table. What’s more, I would argue that the best interaction designers possess a great deal of self-knowledge about how they behave, react, and feel during user experiences, self-knowledge that improves their design abilities.
Put it this way: it’s better to have a designer with deep self-awareness and no end-user knowledge than a designer with no self-awareness and mountains of user research.
The two approaches can and of course should co-exist in any healthy project. It is, in fact, inevitable: No matter how much user research you do, there will be thousands of little design decisions for which you have no user to reference but yourself.
In the future, I can see bespoke user interfaces happening more and more. Wealthy executives will want personalized “dashboards” for their desktops. Presenters seeking dynamic displays for board meetings and public speaking. As design tools become simpler and more cost effective, this might be financially reasonable for reasonably successful individuals in business and in their personal environments.
It’s Already Happening
Finally, I thought I’d throw in this little case study on bespoke user interfaces.
You don’t have to be a celebrity to have a customized user interface built for you. Back when Behavior first started, we worked on a project for a successful former colleague who was spending some of his dot-com spoils on a new house. Part of his domestic vision was a home automation system — a system of touchscreens installed throughout the house to control the temperature, the lighting, and the audio on a room by room basis. A “smart home”, if you will.
Because our client was a designer himself, he found the out-of-the-box interface design for his new home automation system appalling to his good taste. Like many remote control devices, it was a manifest usability atrocity. But it was also a graphic design nightmare: beveled faux-marble textures, Times New Roman everywhere, and those ancient Windows 3.1 green check and red X icons we still occasionally see on shareware apps.
So he hired Behavior to redesign the UI, just for his house. We researched the technology behind the system, and working with the installation team we provided a new set of stylish screen assets that could replace the ugly default set. It wasn’t a huge job in time or dollars, but the results were, for him, profound: If you’ve can afford it, why not spend some of those interior decor dollars on a domestic user experience you are likely to use many times a day?
In fact, we’ve done a few other similar jobs. We did an animated (though linear) Flash presentation for a single P. Diddy press conference. We’ve done interactive Flash presentations for executives at IAC and Allen and Company to present data in a compelling way to management and investor meetings. In short, there already is a market for this kind of work.
I’ll put up screenshots if I can dig them up. They’re here!