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Details don't matter*

In a recent post, Mills Baker argues that there’s been a dangerous tide of well-funded startups with prominent designer input that have put out apps that are at best useless. While I’m slightly more optimistic about Paper than Baker is, I’ll go further than him on Jelly and Path (and Color before it)—I think they’re masturbatory experimentations in technique masquerading as products meant for human adoption.

There’s nothing wrong with UI experimentation. I love Taptanium’s Temporalium, and the gorgeous Sooshi, both of which are more or less experiments in app design with some functionality dropped underneath. At one point, I had 14 different weather apps on my phone. But when interface experimentations become the primary output of companies soaking in tens of millions in funding, and they don’t even realize it, something’s gone horribly wrong.

All the apps we’re talking about here are beautiful on some level. They show expert technique, with excellent graphic design, use of color, and animation, and are incredibly intuitive and low-friction to use. These are, uncoincidentally, the only parts of UI design that are easy to quickly compare between dissimilar apps. By hiring and rewarding designers based on quick one-overs of how portfolios look, we’ve built a culture in which polish and form stand in for a holistic sense of good design.

It’s become accepted gospel that if we remove the things we know make an app frustrating and make things bounce a little, the app is well designed. That’s crap. VCs are funding massive pig-makeup operations, and it’s time for designers to step back from easing curves and buttons for a moment, and think about purpose.

(There’s a reason we talk about worrying about things, ‘down to the smallest detail.’ The bigger things are still more important, and if you neglect the central aspects of the experience, it doesn’t matter at all how good your details are, the design still sucks.)