Picture of a pocket watch on Flickr

Whilst presenting earlier this year, I caused a mini-storm amongst some members of an audience by saying that branding of intranets is a vanity project. Some read this to be against visual design. It wasn’t. Designing to improve usability can lead to significant business benefits and should be part of any Intranet project. Corporate branding is about making a visual statement. In my opinion, that makes it a vanity project.

Vanity projects are not bad, I just get concerned when they take priority. I’ve been in meetings where people have wanted to create a bespoke design for the Intranet just so that ‘it doesn’t look like <insert product name>’, regardless of the costs or benefits and showing little interest in the purpose or content of the Intranet. This most often occurs when someone in the room fancies themselves as an amateur Steve Jobs.

Today I stumbled across a post by the wonderful Kevin Kelly from April 2011. It wasn’t the post so much that reminded me of this debate, but a rather brilliant comment:

As someone solely responsible for maintaining a very large hotel, here are a few other other things I’ve noticed about the nature of maintenance — There are mostly two types of maintenance — interior systems (plumbing, HVAC, electrical, lockware, audiovisual, web access) and exterior surfaces (carpet, paint, wallpaper, tile, upholstery) Maintaining interior systems requires special technical knowledge while exterior surface repair emphasizes craftsmanship. Interior systems speak to convenience and comfort while exterior surfaces address aesthetic desirability. In terms of the individuals who carry out these repairs, it is a rare soul who is equally skilled in the interior and exterior, as most seem to specialize in one or the other, i.e. with regards to expertise, there is seldom overlap.

If you look at just about every device, virtual or physical, this observation rings true.

Great products have thought through both the interior and exterior design. Good products usually have a strong interior let down by a clunky exterior, or over-complicate the interior, but ‘good enough’ may be sufficient if the desired outcomes are achieved. The label ‘lipstick on a pig’ is reserved for those with great aesthetics masking empty promises. Desirability is only possible if convenience and comfort are satisfied.

Image used in this post via Flickr, courtesy of Michael Hanscom

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