Jackson Fish Market
Posted on November 13, 2012 by hillel on Making Things Special

Standing Out

It used to be enough that a piece of technology existed. It used to be enough that now we could do something we couldn’t do before. Whether it was adding up a column of numbers, or WYSIWYG editing of a document, or listening to music, or editing a movie, or the web! But creating new categories of software is a hard task. It’s happening less and less. And the number of entrants in each category is only increasing. This is the sign of a maturing (and saturated) industry. What to do with the 72nd app in an existing category? How will anyone notice your new to-do list app? Or your amazing new word processing software? Will anyone pay attention to yet another social network?

Have no fear. There is a weapon in your arsenal that you can use to attack this problem. That weapon is design. And don’t worry, using the weapon effectively is hard enough that merely knowing that design is the answer is no guarantee that of success.

The key in distinguishing your software experience is expressing focus through design. And the first step is answering the question of “why”. Why are you making a new app in this already overpopulated category? What makes you so much better? You don’t have to prove that your better empirically. You don’t have to have a longer list of features. What you need to do is believe in your heart that your solution makes the competition look like antiquated garbage, and then convey your belief through the magic of focus and design in your experience.

Does your product do something better than the competitor? Then build your entire identity around that advantage. (e.g. the iPod vs. every other MP3 player in existence when it was launched. And what did the iPod do better? It played music better. It did this by eliminating features and distractions and focusing on the main reason you bought the device in the first place.)

Does your product turn their liability into your advantage? Then lead with that. (e.g. GMail’s near unlimited storage vs. the constant hitting of storage limits on Hotmail and Yahoo Mail.)

Does your product simply look ten times better than the competition? (e.g. Flipboard vs. every RSS reader that was out there.)

Let’s take a look at Flipboard. Flipboard had less content than the competition, less customization than the competition, ran on fewer platforms than the competition, and yet made the competition look terrible. And even in terms of design, Flipboard had less. A few standard templates, simple clean typography, and one simple animation. The flip. It’s not fancy. It’s not technically challenging. It’s not even necessarily coherent with the visual design. It’s just simple and to a certain degree — arresting (because nothing else did featured this animation so prominently). And yet, the reaction to it is visceral. Because it was different. And what did Flipboard do? They made it the centerpiece of their identity. It’s in their name. They even counted “flips” and claimed it was a meaningful statistic to show off about.

What is the flip? The flip is Flipboard’s “signature moment”. We’ll cover these in detail in another chapter, but you should understand, this simple animation done in the context of all their other focusing decisions makes Flipboard stand out.

Having a hard time knowing how to differentiate yourself? The answer doesn’t seem obvious? Break the rules. Reverse your assumptions.

This doesn’t always work, but it’s a good method for getting your creative thinking going. Want to make a web encyclopedia that competes with the printed versions? Don’t have a huge expensive staff? What if anyone could edit it? Anonymously!

Want to compete with a relatively simple to use blogging platform with millions of users (Blogger)? What if you made a blogging platform that was even simpler (Tumblr)? Or how about one that was even simpler than that (Twitter)? Or how about one that’s way more powerful (WordPress)?

There are no right answers here other than to avoid the assumptions that govern the current winner in your category like the plague. The things that made them successful now constrain their growth. They have an audience that likes their focus. Your job is to come up with a truly different take to peel off users for whom their solution doesn’t quite work.

Visual design is another area where you have an opportunity to say something different. And again, some of the best distinctive visual design is a result of the kind of thinking we discussed above. Let’s take an example for the consumer products world – Smartfood Popcorn. At the time, retail snacks simply didn’t come in black bags. Period. “It just isn’t done.” When someone utters those words, that’s the smell of blood — and you’re a shark. It’s not that you should recklessly pursue things that aren’t done. Because sometimes there are good reasons they’re not done. But, often, there’s some small notion you can cultivate from those assumptions to help you stand out. Smartfood shipped in a black bag. The world didn’t end. People bought it. People ate it. Smartfood succeeded.

Think great visual design needs to be expensive? Take Minecraft or Doodlejump. In an age of videogames costing tens of millions of dollars to produce… In an age where video game graphics look almost like Pixar films. These two games were produced with relatively low-tech graphics. Minecraft went super low-res with pixelated cube graphics representing every object in their world, and Doodlejump was literally that — a bunch of hand-drawn doodles jumping around on your screen. They looked like anyone could have drawn them. Both are hugely successful, both stood out, both were not considered state-of-the-art visual design.

Applying great design in the context of tight focus is what makes things stand out. Getting specific and niche is not a liability, it’s a tool to let you distinguish your product in a crowded marketplace.

And don’t worry, if you succeed, you can always expand your focus later and become the sprawling all-encompassing market leader that you’re now trying to unseat.

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