“Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable” Software Design

Ever had a refreshing ice-cold Mexican Coca-Cola in that sweet glass bottle? The bottle just looks and feels right. Now close your eyes. Imagine the Shell Oil logo. It became so iconic that the company dropped its name from the displays at their filling stations. What about the fuselage of Air Force One? It pops instantly into mind, right? Anyone who has ever been to Johnson Space Center in Houston will also remember the interiors of Skylab and the Apollo moon mission capsules. All these objects are the work of one man: Raymond Loewy.

Loewy is a French-born designer who emigrated to the United States in 1919. There, he created a successful career spanning seven decades, and in the process, he “radically changed the look of American life” (New York Times, 1986). Loewy created so many parts of modern American life that, although you may not be acquainted with the man, you already know his work.

Revolution or Evolution?

How did Loewy manage to revolutionize the visual and tactile language of the nation of his day? The answer is simple: He didn’t. He evolved it.

One of Loewy’s lasting contributions to the design community is his MAYA theory. He posited that when designers are creating something new, they should go with the “most advanced, yet acceptable” (MAYA) solution. People inherently desire new things. They want the future. But they also want something familiar and known.

Success in design is a fine balancing act between the new and old. Designers must find new ways to solve old problems, but they must do it in a way that is recognizable and familiar to the users of their solutions. That’s why I believe Loewy didn’t bring a revolution in modern design, he brought an evolution.

In software design, we see Loewy’s approach to innovation working for many of the world’s most successful tech brands. The most apparent case of MAYA success is the 10-year-old iPhone. Do you recall what cell phones looked like in 2007? They were extremely expensive devices with software that was very frustrating to use–so frustrating, in fact, that most people only used them to make phone calls and play a terrible game called “Snake.”

In 2007, Steve Jobs presented the iPhone to the world. At the time, it felt like a revolution. It was such a departure from what existed currently. But do you remember how he presented it? It was an iPod. It was an internet communicator. And it was a telephone. He took this new device and very clearly tied it to things we already understood.

The form factor of the original iPhone was not at all unlike the iPod of its time. It was the most advanced product Apple could have released at that point in history, yet it was acceptable to consumers across the world because it had a familiarity about it. It was full of functionality we already grasped and understood. It was an evolution of mobile communication devices, not a revolution.

As software designers, what can we learn from Loewy?

Create Novel Forms

We can feel good about making novel forms. Creating a novel form can be magical. Pushing toward the “most advanced” part of MAYA is exhilarating. The designer frames an old problem in a new way, finding a new solution that eases pain, increases efficiency, or gives users the ability to do things they would otherwise not be able to do.

In the process, we surprise and delight users with new solutions to old problems. This is one of the best parts of being a software designer. It is very easy to fall into the rut of looking at what already exists in the software world and using those solutions for problems. They are easy to implement and will simply get the job done. But they might not surprise and delight end users. They might not participate in the evolution of the industry as a whole.

Create Valuable Novel Forms

However, these novel forms must be constrained by the necessity to deliver value to the end user. The drive to create novel forms mustn’t come from the desire to “be creative” or “differentiate oneself.” The creation of novel forms in software design must come from the desire to make users’ lives better by solving problems in a way that allows computers to do the heavy lifting.

Creation for creation’s sake isn’t design; it’s art. There’s nothing wrong with art. It’s a wonderfully fulfilling practice that I encourage for everyone everywhere. But when creating software products for humans, it’s best to leave art at home and concentrate on design. As Loewy said, “Style for the sake of style alone will have less meaning to the consumer than value.”

Empathize with Developers

Novel forms must also be constrained by the production process. When designers are creating a novel form, they should have enough technical ability to know whether or not the idea they are birthing into being mentally is even possible physically. In the same way that architects should have some cursory knowledge of the materials that will be used to build their designs, software designers should be educated in the materials to be used in the creation of their designs.

That may be HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It may be Swift. Or maybe some good old fashioned Java Swing. Regardless, the designer should be aware of what is hard, what is easy, and what is impossible.

Loewy stated, “A designer must always think about the unfortunate production engineer who will have to manufacture what you have designed; try to understand his problems.” So, designers, think about your development team. Understand the problems inherent in the manufacture of the novel form you’d like to create for end users.

It may be that there is a business case for an exceptionally difficult-to-implement novel form. Great! Is what you’ve envisioned “most advanced, yet acceptable”? Detail your case, and sell it to your development team and stakeholders. Get it approved and ensure that your team has adequate time and money to create it. Share in the pain the novel form will necessitate for the dev team and possibly your stakeholders.

In doing so, you’ll gain a new understanding for what it took to create that novel form. You’ll come out the other side of the process with new knowledge about what is “acceptable.”