Image: iStockphoto/karnoff

Most of us have a favorite product, software tool or place that we visit where there’s a special affinity that’s difficult to articulate. You might have a favorite toothbrush that “just feels right,” or a favorite workplace, airport or shopping center that’s intuitive to navigate or just a pleasant place to be. 

From a technical perspective, that favorite toothbrush or physical space probably has the same technical features as similar products. Pretty much any airport worldwide has gates, security, waiting areas and signage. Yet that difficult-to-articulate difference likely comes down to design. 

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There’s a similar phenomenon in the digital tools that we buy, build and implement. The most technically capable tool may fail miserably if it’s challenging to use, unintuitive or overly complicated. As a tech leader, you’ve likely had several surprises during your career. The laughably simple application that was a smashing success or an expensive and technically excellent tool failed to gain adoption by users. Both outcomes were likely the result of design. 

I recently had the opportunity to test a couple of products and speak to representatives from Mudita, a Polish company attempting to put design before digital, starting with relatively simple products like alarm clocks and decidedly “non-smart” mobile phones. Several standout lessons from the company apply to the subtle design challenges we technology leaders face. 

Less can be more 

Mudita consciously removed features from its products, even making the somewhat surprising decision to use a black and white e-Ink display rather than its competitors’ typical brilliant color screens. Similarly, its clocks have no Wi-Fi or companion apps and instead incorporate meditation timers or other “mindfulness” features. 

Philosophically, the company claims that it wants to eliminate the distractions of modern life and allow people to focus on what matters. While that may seem a bit ethereal, it’s not a bad design philosophy whether you’re creating the “perfect” bedside clock or a new accounting system. 

The tool should provide the minimal features to “disappear” versus the job at hand. If your accounting system is saddled with a cumbersome user interface or looks beautiful but requires six hours of training and a complex manual to operate, the tool gets in the way of the objective. 

Rather than the typical tendency of “digital-first” thinking that asks what neat technologies can be thrown at a problem, take a design-first approach and look for how you can simplify and allow the task to shine rather than the technology. 

Solve basic problems 

An interesting aspect of Mudita’s alarm clock is that it’s rechargeable through a USB-C port. This eliminates the need for the cord that clutters most nightstands and removes the hassle and waste of replacing a disposable battery. 

While a relatively straightforward and seemingly obvious solution to a fundamental problem, the typical bedside alarm clock or smartphone stand hasn’t solved this cord problem. 

There are likely dozens of fundamental problems in your digital tools, from convoluted policies to interface elements that could be quickly fixed with existing technologies and provide an outsize impact on the overall tool. 

Invest in the important things 

As one might expect from a company that claims to be design-focused, Mudita’s alarm sounds are far superior to the traditional beeping noise. The clock has a high-quality speaker and several original recordings that cover a range of styles and tempos. Mudita used a real musician to compose and create these recordings, likely at much greater cost and complexity than just using some synthesized tracks. 

However, the core function of an alarm clock is, of course, the alarm. Investing in a system’s one or two critical features and using technology to enhance its delivery can be smart when done well. Most tech leaders intuitively identify a feature or two that’s important to their programs. However, they don’t always spend the resources to make that critical feature as good as possible, elevating the quality of the rest of the tool in the process. 

While clocks and simplified phones might not immediately leap out as instructive products for tech leaders, Mudita’s philosophy of putting design before digital technology is highly relevant. Sometimes simple examples are best, and next time you’re building out even the most complex system, take a moment to consider how the design lessons of a bedside alarm clock might be relevant and helpful. 


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