Episode 21 – Memorable Work



October 21, 2016

Hello everyone, and welcome to episode 21 of Front End Center!

Have you ever heard of the phenomenon called “Unboxing” videos? For those of you who don’t have a list of top-ten unboxers to quickly reference, let me explain:

Various internet celebrities either buy, or are directly gifted, products from companies of all sizes. Sometimes these celebrities are well known in their own right, and are somehow related to the field a product comes from. Other times, they are the Kardashians of the Unboxing world, and people just like to watch them.

The Unboxing video itself is literally… them UNBOXING whatever the product is. Depending on the unboxer in question, there may be some examples of use, or a cut to a few days later where they give a full blown review.

So what in the world created the opportunity for unpacking boxes to fund full-time careers for some lucky YouTubers? It all comes back to memorable products and experiences.

In unboxing’s case, the roots trace back to one of the most monolithic examples of modern products: Apple mobile devices. Any time someone discusses product design or user experience, the whisper of Apple is never far away.

Part of setting up the high expectations for Apple products has always been leveraging the full experience of a consumer. From the aesthetic of the Apple Stores to the packaging of the product itself. The earliest boxes and casings for the iPhone and iPod products were master works in this topic. Above and beyond just a plastic shell to cut open, or a cheap cardboard box, Apple devices had a literall process to them.

Opening the device could actually surprise and please you as you discovered instructions, cords, accessories, and finally, the device itself. The boxing itself was high quality and worth notice in-and-of itself.

Obviously, memorable products and services can have a hugely moving impact. Steve Jobs never expected to spawn a profitable subgenre of online video dedicated to taking stuff out of boxes, but here we are.

What got me started on this line of thought? A couple days ago, Nintendo announced their new console, the Nintendo Switch. Even if you aren’t a gamer, go check out their launch video. It’s only 3 minutes long, and a gorgeous piece of work from a product advertising and showcasing perspective. I’ll link it in the transcript and below the recordings.

After watching the video through a couple times, I realized I was excited for a new piece of gaming hardware ITSELF for the first time in YEARS. Not a brand-exclusive line of games, or a weird new camera peripheral destined to gather dust.

For the first time since the original Wii console (also a Nintendo masterpiece), the hardware of a game platform has my interest. The Wii added something very new for the time, motion controls! It was an innovation that breathed life into games for dedicated gamers, and opened the door for new experiences with casual players who didn’t otherwise game.

The Switch is NOT so much a new innovation on how you play. Rather, it’s a synthesis of a lot of parts of Nintendo’s core ethos.

It’s all about gaming on your own terms. It can be docked to a TV station and played with a full controller in your living room. Got somewhere to be? Pop the console out of the dock and split the controller in two! They slide right onto the sides of the console, which is now its own screen! Take it with you and play where you want. Got a friend along? Slide the two controller sides off and use one apiece! They even appear to pair up so you can have 4 players all playing across two mobile screens.

So what does this all have to do with front-end development and design?

It’s all about how we approach our work, and the innate boundary of what we do. Most products, interfaces, or experience survive on one of these two traits: innovation or polish. Both can result in memorable and enjoyable user experiences. Only once in a blue moon do the two combine to create a singularly innovative and yet polished experience.

Often, innovation means being on the cutting edge or in completely unfamiliar territory. Usually early adopters of innovative products happily overlook a lack of polish in exchange for something new and unique. On the other hand, a mass audience is often well pleased with something polished to a fine glow. It’s sleek, comfortable, and understandable. No rough edges or unexpected surprises.

Front-end work largely fits inside this latter category of polish, rather than innovation.

This isn’t to say there’s a lack of innovation in our field! Just in the time you’ve been listening to this episode, there have been roughly five new JavaScript libraries released, two new CSS preprocessor engines, and probably a handful of published and redacted Material Design guidelines from Google.

But all the internal innovation in the world doesn’t change the fact that our work is valuable because of the polish we add. From a customer perspective, there is very little innovation on the front end. Most of that innovation is shaped around design trends or the somewhat rare creation of a new or improved interaction method. Those will hopefully become more common as we adapt to new interfaces like optional audio control or virtual reality environments, but they are not a permanent flow of innovation.

Rather, on a perfect day, the front-end is all about adding on the polish to a function that someone else has worked on. It may be a sizable, but not-so-exciting Business-to-Business application. Maybe it IS something genuinely innovative and you have the weight of balancing the polish on an exciting new moonshot opportunity!

Either way, understanding the role of front-end (and product design in general), goes a long way towards becoming more effective at it. We’re not responsible in most cases for coming up with the weird, complicated new motion controllers of the Wii. We’re here to put together the ideas and desires that led up to the Switch announcement. We figure out what our users want across a variety of platforms, and ensure they’re meshed together well.

Nintendo took this lesson to heart with the Switch. The core innovation in the platform, of being able to transition between multiple formats, still comes through as polish and brand. The satisfying click of the hardware slotting into place is carried right through to the logo and how it animates. Even if the console itself somehow ends up not following through on its promise, you BET I’ll be remembering that satisfying click and the immense potential of such a polished product.

Thanks for listening everyone. This has been Chris Landtiser, and Front End Center.

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