One of the major threads in the substance of style by Virginia Postrel, which I blogged about on October 31, is about understanding why a rational buyer would invest in purely decorative assets. How can it be that spending more on a black iPod than a white one is a good decision?
The answer comes out to a riff on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which oversimplifies to the point of being wrong or at least deceptive. The Maslow perspective on buyer goals is that they are prioritized according to how primitive they are. Breathing is more primitive than friendship, hence it gets more priority.
Maslow’s idea suggests that it’s a bad idea to put money into esthetics before you are completely done attaining more primitive goals. So if you haven’t bought dinner yet, don’t get that shiny red ribbon in the store window.
Postrel’s rebuttal is that (in my words), esthetics are a value like anything else and you will choose to invest when the economics are favorable. You need a new car and you want a red ribbon, but one costs more than you have and the other is pocket change.
She has an illuminating example about the looks of computers. Personal computers got a lot better looking in the past ten years, specifically beginning with the Sony Vaio and Apple iMac. (Tangent: blobjects). At the same time they reached a certain parity with consumer needs: the relentless progress of Moore’s law stopped making a practical difference to buyers. Buyers don’t particularly need further increments in system performance, or at least their need isn’t on par with the cost. On the other hand, they do need more attractive living environments, and the additional cost of a more attractive box on their desk is reasonable.
Consumers started to emphasize shallow looks over meat and potatoes performance because the return on investment in looks started to exceed the return on investment in performance.
What it means to web developers and makers of music products is that you should consider chrome as part of your overall value proposition. Hiring a graphic designer might do more for the user than hiring a database administrator. Visual customization to match their profile page might be a higher priority for the user than functional customization with an API. A fashionable look might matter more to them than a fast load.
You have to weigh the relative importance of looks from the user’s perspective. They may be happy to squint for the sake of a sexier font choice, but then again squinting may drive them away to a site which is more readable. There’s no one answer.
The takeaway for me is that users needs are not a strict hierarchy, and sometimes the best thing for them is to put development time and money into sex appeal.