You know excellent design when you see it and when you touch it. The solidity and simplicity of those early iPhones flipped our understanding of what a mobile phone was meant to be. When a product or service does what it truly ought to do, it reaches beyond customer satisfaction. It is as though it somehow reads our mind.

All products and services have a quintessential aspect, an essence that distills what they are meant to do for us. If you really stop to think about it, there are products and services in your life that have that quality. Using them, you find that you are not irritated. They allow you to easily do what it is you want to do by using them. No fuss. No manual. They just work as you would expect. Like a fork or an Oreo cookie.

Design is the skill that builds quintessential products and services. Talented designers know how to make software and hardware be of service with the obviousness of an Oreo cookie. That’s not easy because most of today’s devices do a lot more than a cookie.

We are going through a kind of renaissance in design. There are many reasons, of course. Feedback is chief among them. Designers now regularly check their assumptions through A/B testing and learning to “fail fast.” They are, in short, becoming smarter by learning how to more effectively listen to end users.

Much of this blossoming of better design is driven by rising expectations from end users, especially among young people:

“Younger generations intuitively understand this dynamic and, accordingly, show a lower tolerance for bad design. When I was a kid in the ’90s, and I couldn’t figure out how to program our VCR, I blamed myself and cracked open the instruction manual. Today, kids and young adults who can’t figure out how to change episodes on HBO’s streaming service blame the product, not themselves—the onus is on companies to help us intuit their products.” ­­

– Aaron Rasmussen, co-founder and former creative director of MasterClass

I have a more fundamental explanation for the growing investment in designing superior user experiences, however. It is part of a much bigger shift in the nature of work.

The services sector automates by enabling end users to serve themselves. That means thousands, millions, and in some rare cases even billions of end users interacting with user interfaces into varying types of technology. Training that scale of people to use particular technologies is simply not possible. The design must be remarkably smart and intuitive. It must be drop-dead obvious.

It’s not just a question of ordering socks on Amazon though. Some of the most compelling new designs are in the dashboard of your hybrid car or the way you interact with a smart thermostat. Products are turning into services as they connect us to their companies through an Internet of Things. The “service tethers” that connect our devices make them smarter. But they also make the companies behind them smarter­–thanks to the flow of usage data they enable.

That data will help designers further tune their designs based feedback from us. But by transforming their products into services, companies are also moving from one-off transactions into ongoing relationships with us. Ongoing relationships can be much more valuable. But they can also be much more expensive when they run into trouble. Design–good design–is what helps keep that relationship healthy and full of goodwill.

We are, in short, engaging with extremely complex technologies and doing it more and more by serving ourselves. Design is the interface that enables us to do that. And the key to great interface design is making it as simple and intuitive as an Oreo cookie.

About the Author

This article was written by Gideon Rosenblatt of The Vital Edge. Gideon ran an innovative social enterprise called Groundwire for nine years. He worked at Microsoft for ten years in marketing and product development, and created CarPoint, one of the world’s first large-scale e-commerce websites in 1996. The Vital Edge explores the human experience in an era of machine intelligence.

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