Choosing between comfort and control

I was reading a great article over at The Guardian, Why too much choice is stressing us out, and it occurred to me that what a Product is, in one sense, is a set of choices that someone else is making for you.

(Forgive me if all of this is obvious to anyone who does branding and product design – I’m coming at this as a developer)

Think about brands, political parties, sporting teams, major institutions, hedge funds – they’re all proxies for a set of choices some large group of other people, usually experts, are making on our behalf, as well as the choices they choose to allow us. We couldn’t go through life if we had to vote on every bill, design our own cars, or choose the delivery route for packages coming to our house. In order to achieve comfort we need to give up control, and giving up control is much more likely when you trust the brand.

Comfort – the choices we take away

Control – the choices that remain

Brand – the name that stands for our philosophy in the minds of customers – how we choose between comfort and control.

Oh, Brand. Almost nobody buys the latest iPhone after extensively road-testing it. They buy it because Apple makes it, and Apple has a certain reputation – one honed through many years of carefully trading off comfort and control.

I’ll tell you right now, as a developer, I could not have built Instagram, a company that grew to a billion dollar evaluation in 2 years. Not because I couldn’t scale it or make the right technical decisions, but simply because I wouldn’t have let myself believe that people would be happy with just posting photos and commenting on them. I would have come up with a bunch of other things you could build on top of that and never realised that by adding them I was taking something away.

One of the things that has blown me away at Automattic is the quality of the design team and the respect they get. This is a big deal for a company founded by a developer, and a lesson that many other engineering-led companies never learn (or learn too late), and it’s one of the things that allows us to scale as a fully remote company without the user experience becoming fragmented.

When I work closely with a great designer it gives me confidence that we can find that balance between comfort and control, that we will live up to the promise our brand is making to users, and ultimately we will be more successful in the market.


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