Influence & Best Design

As designers we draw inspiration and influence from a lot of sources around us. This helps us solve different problems with a unique approach and leaves its imprint on the products we build. I want to talk about influence today.

Influence is not inspiration; the same way it is not imitation. Inspiration and imitation (see Cameron Moll's Good vs Great Design), I think, are two extreme ends of a spectrum of stimuli for designers and influence sits somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. The other way to look at it is as the average response to inspiration and imitation. No matter what it means to you, I think it is safe to assume, for the sake of this discussion, that influence is an additive process especially when you look at its net effect in a product.

When we decided to create project management software, we knew Microsoft Project was the gorilla in the room. Instead of fearing the gorilla, we used it as a motivator. We decided Basecamp would be something completely different, the anti-Project. - 37Signals in Getting Real

When a product designer sets out to design a product there are a number of variables that they need to explore and find the values of before a problem, that the product aims to solve, is actually solved. To do so one of the many things we do is, look for what has been done before this. We call this prior work or "what do others do". Some might call it market research, some a SWOT analysis, while others may call it something else. It is essentially deciding where your product fits in the bigger affair of things in an industry. Somewhere during all this exploration, comes a choice to decide if the product you are building has to be innovative or it has to be simply incremental in design, still following the primary information architecture of "other apps" in that domain. It is a conscious choice in most cases. Another very important influencing factor in this equation is what the nearest competitor is doing (or the one competitor you really worry about). This is where things get a little debatable, interesting and tricky!

One school of thought believes that if there is a great way to do something, it must be done that way, irrespective of what competitors do. I fall in the other camp. I think there is no absolute best solution in design. Every feature's design is influenced by a central ethos that led to the ideation of the product - the reason for its existence. Thus the chances, that a solution/feature, that works for someone else's product, works in your case too, is not very likely, unless, the central ethos is exactly the same, in which case one of the two products is a ripoff. Foursquare and Gowalla were similar yet not same. Both had features and interaction, that was unique to one and only one. Word and Pages are similar yet so different. Readability and Instapaper seem similar but their approach to solving a common problem is different, as is clear in their respective product positioning so far.

Besides avoiding to fall into the grey area of being even vaguely misunderstood for copying a feature/design, there is another wonderful result of this self imposed restriction of avoiding solutions used by competitor apps. It makes you stretch your own boundaries of imagination. Let's take the example of a music streaming service like Spotify or Rdio. Obviously both in their recent incarnations are heavily inspired by iTunes. The similarity to iTunes probably helps new users understand the services better. However, do you honestly think that an interface that was designed 11 years ago for local MP3 files is the "best" or "only" interface or interaction model to follow for a music streaming app today? I don't. This is where such a self imposed bound really helps creativity. This is why I used to like the old Rdio so much because it showed the world that iTunes's interface was not the only "awesome" solution to managing music or listening to it.

I am really interested in listening how others go about this dilemma of influence and best design. Is it ignorant to make such a conscious effort? Is there a best solution in design? Do share opinions on Twitter.