Slightly Different but Much Better

A thoughtful piece written by Vaan's Executive Chairman, [Matty Wishnow]

In Vermont, where my heart resides, Subarus are the unofficial state bird. In Austin, Texas, where I mostly live, it's the Tesla -- a car I’ve admired but never driven. That was, until recently, when we splurged and rented a Model 3 while in Colorado as a surprise for my seven year old son. For several years, he’s been completely enamored with these futuristic birds he sees in every other driveway around our neighborhood. My admiration was more distant. I marveled at the entrepreneurial feat and their environmental impact. But I had much less interest in operating the machine itself. In fact, before driving the car, I was wrecked with anxiety about what would be required of me. I seriously knew nothing. Would I need a special contact lens? Joysticks? Would I be driving the car or would it be driving me?

As rental day approached, I watched dozens of “How to Drive a Tesla” videos on Youtube, but they only barely alleviated the angst. During the moments before I approached the parked rental, my heart was quite literally beating through my chest. With the help of those explainer videos, however, I successfully managed to unlock the car, sit down and put the vehicle into drive. It was then that I realized something profound: The Model 3 was just a car, like most cars I’d driven this century. It was only slightly different. It looked like a car -- like a Porsche designed by Toyota people. It had the same basic functions as every car I’d driven -- windows, AC, radio, navigation, etc. -- just digitized. The wheels were round and rubber, not spherical or metallic. It didn’t hover or fly. Honestly, it drove kind of like a modern Toyota or Subaru (the two cars we do actually own). Plus, I was once required to operate a fancy electric golf cart at a wedding. So, the Tesla’s charging function was not entirely unfamiliar. What I initially feared would be 99% different from anything I’d encountered, I began to think was more like 20% different. And the more I drove it, the more I rounded down to something like 10%. And by the time I was ready to return my rental one week later, I concluded that it was probably only 3%.

But, that 3% is everything

The late Virgil Abloh subscribed to the 3% rule, but his shorthand was equally a manifesto. When he talked about 3%, he was talking about design -- yes -- but also race and culture and politics and economics. And because I admire his thinking but because I am not Virgil Abloh, I’ll stick to matters of design. His basic thesis was that progress comes 97% from work that precedes it and 3% from new ideas, new context, new form or new function. Abloh deserves plenty of credit for the wide aperture of his perspective, but, true to the premise itself, he didn’t invent it. Or, at least, he didn’t invent 97% of it. The great Dieter Rams practiced “Less but Better” and “As Little Design as Possible” in product design for thirty years before Abloh was born. Similarly, Toyota has been designing through a process of continuous iteration and optimization (“kaizen”) for many decades.

As much as I appreciate minimalism, I have occasionally wondered: why not 5%? Why not 10%? Eventually, through constant design experimentation, my Clearhead family (and especially my co-founder, Ryan Garner) helped me resolve those lingering questions. Together, we learned that UX Design succeeds in direct proportion to “Net Problems” solved (i.e. Existing Problems solved minus New Problems created). Almost all design purports to solve problems. Right? And a lot of design does actually solve one or more problems. True. However, most design also produces unintended consequences which, in turn, create new problems. And when the number and impact of those new problems is greater than the benefits of the existing problems solved, the design quite literally produces a negative effect. We learned this the hard way, testing many designs -- small to large, conservative to cutting edge. The results were uniformly the same -- the designs that performed well were the ones that solved more problems than they created. The best solution was always as little design as possible necessary.

Based on this premise, we leveraged previous solutions which had been statistically proven to work while we also searched for new obstacles or defects to conquer. In doing so, we had to be mindful not to overreach. Each design needed to work as well as the previous one, and hopefully 3% better. The solution must be useful, should be delightful and, could, possibly, be novel or beautiful. Unfortunately, the most stunning and disruptive new designs often do just that -- they stun or disrupt. They create net new problems through unintended consequences. We found that the 10% or 20% different designs were muted or negative in their benefits. They overreached. In the same way that new cures for one disease must not cause a greater disease, new design solutions must not create more problems than they solve. Yes -- 3% was the answer. And, by 3%, I mean 3% different, but much better.

The things that we say. And then, the things that we do.

Now, I suspect that many of you are probably nodding your head because you either know most of this or agree with this sentiment and are waiting for some greater payoff. But I also know that companies filled with smart people that know some or all of this still do the opposite. They begin design projects with a bias towards the new, different and daring. They imagine themselves like a snowflake requiring a unicorn solution. They conflate aesthetic beauty or peer validation with successful design. I make these accusations as somebody who has been in dozens (hundreds?) of rooms wherein conversations like these take place. I make these accusations as somebody who got called after mistakes were made. But, mostly, I make these accusations as somebody who deeply understands these complicated design instincts and who has made these very mistakes more times than I can count.

“Innovation.” It’s probably the word that most plagues design thinking and leads to the greatest number of misfires and disappointments. I’ve come to hate the word. It’s the lazy vapor of consultants. It’s become, alongside the word “transformation,” a euphemism for bloated projects, guaranteed to cost more than it benefits. It also over-indexes towards the new and away from known facts, problems, evidence and previous success. It should be prescribed by doctors along with a long list of side effects. I’m all for change and improvement and iteration and optimization. In principle, of course, the process of innovation is crucial. But, in practice, it is frequently not a process, but rather a gargantuan project or product that has lost sight of the original goals and problems. It tends to lead to blindfolded, broad leaps when clear eyed steps forward were needed. It tends to lead to a set of presumptions, that my friend Dmitri Siegel, once described to me as the piling up of banana peels. Design innovation is exactly that slippery.

The beauty of the walled garden

It’s my bias for the 3% rule and far away from the banana peels that I have been enamored of Shopify since their inception. In contrast to the seductive limitlessness of open source or the infinite feature sets of most enterprise ecommerce software, I’ve always loved the guard rails, templates and feature hygiene of Shopify. I love the wisdom of their hive and how, like a walled garden, they balance constraints and boundaries with immense beauty and variety. I had used Shopify, casually, as a consumer and seller as early as 2008. But it was not until I was doing holiday gift shopping in 2016 that I fully appreciated the significance of the product and platform. That winter, completely coincidentally, I purchased several gifts from independent retailers who’d built stores on Shopify. I first noticed how completely, frictionlessly delightful the checkout was. Every important field was in the right line of vision. I barely had to move my eyes. The steps were logical. The forms and pages moved swiftly. The confirmation and next steps were validating. When I completed my purchase with the first seller, I was relieved by the ease of the experience. By the third Shopify checkout, I was marveling. And it wasn’t just checkout. It was listing pages and detail pages. There were differences site to site, brand to brand. But all of the big problems of ecommerce product and experience design seemed effectively solved. It made me want to avoid Amazon and Etsy and every brand dot com and exclusively gift shop with Shopify sellers.

Before I worry you further, I should probably say -- I am not a Shopify customer or shareholder. In fact, my larger point is only nominally about Shopify. That being said, as a shopper in 2016, I was delighted. As an agency founder and design practitioner, I was intrigued. For one, none of our clients -- most of whom were Fortune 500 brands -- used Shopify. Many of them tended to conceive of designs by looking at their competition (or their navel) or to the most charismatic designer in the building. Additionally, many were still designing around features and aesthetics and innovation at the expense of problem solving. As they chased “the new,” the stack of unsolved design problems festered and newer, bigger ones were just some JavaScript away. Meanwhile, Shopify sellers were improving 3% at a time.

Inspired, I wondered whether our design team at Clearhead should simply use Shopify templates as “variation 0” for all new design experiments, even for those clients who used other ecommerce platforms (which, to be clear, was all of them). Those templates had been born out of hundreds of thousands of users. They’d been road tested. The best ones ascended. But, equally, the best ones were so ubiquitous as to train customers on what “good ecommerce design” was. In other words, the best Shopify templates worked on the basis of previous data, but also because their prevalence began to condition customers as to what was “expected” and “easy” online shopping. What if we used Shopify search templates for non-Shopify stores? What about mobile navigation? Results and listing and category pages? Product detail pages? And cart? And, of course, checkout? I thought about it constantly. We tried our darndest to test out the hypothesis. Some open minded clients experimented with us and succeeded. Others stuck to their snowflakes.

Shopify was born as a small business and “mid-market” solution. Of course, it has since climbed the enterprise ladder. But its DNA is built on the premise of “Less but Better.” Fewer SKUs. Fewer features. Fewer options. A focus on speed and stability and trustworthiness so that smaller sellers could better compete. Over time, the optimizations came from the ecosystem of designers and app developers. But the guard rails of the platform stayed true. You can still generally discern a Shopify store from a Magento or Hybris or whatnot. And, even when the Shopify platform is pushed to its limits, there is still an elegant “rightness” about it that is born from the 97% of its genetic material that was designed to solve the biggest ecommerce problems for the widest swath of end users. The remaining 3% is what makes one walled garden different, and more or less lovely, than the other ones.

The obstacle is the way

I understand how the notion of a “walled garden” can feel constricting for some designers, marketers or creative directors. I get it. On the other hand, great design is always constrained by some assumptions and definitions: What is success? How will we know that the design succeeded or failed? What does the end user desire? How do we know that? What are the problems we are solving? How confident are we in our understanding of those problems? What are our design hypotheses? Specifically? The answers to those questions establish parameters for the design. Without them, the freedom is greater but the risk of failure is almost certain. With those walls as guides, the design opportunity is immense, but the likelihood of success is much greater. To my mind, an “artist” is, in part, somebody who can make something beautiful or meaningful without constraints. But a great “designer” succeeds with 97% previous assumptions and 3% new insight to the solution. The walls of the garden are not the obstacle. They are the way forward.

It’s for these reasons (in addition to a thriving business and gratifying people) that I love working with the team at Vaan. They have hundreds of thousands of cumulative hours designing for Shopify. And they have nearly as many hours designing agnostic of platform, including for Headless ecommerce. But they always understand how their formative Shopify work can inform the rest of their work -- how they can bring David to Goliath (and vice versa). They’ve been validating my 2016 holiday shopping hypothesis -- my belief that great ecommerce design is born from within sturdy, appropriately placed walls, and continuous, 3% growth.

And so, in the same way that some companies like to recruit from certain colleges or the military or from pools of former athletes or lawyers or whatnot, I believe in hiring designers and engineers who have graduate degrees in Shopify. Though this might all sound like a terribly veiled endorsement of Shopify, it is, in fact, moreso a recommendation for companies that do not use Shopify but want a point of view on how to approach product and experience design. Understand what parts of the 97% work or don’t work. Learn to love the walls of the garden. Then have at it.

Finally, I do often wonder why I still care so much about these problems. I suppose, some of it is wanting to correct the bold mistakes of my entrepreneurial youth. Some of it is born from the massive waste and overreach I’ve seen from great brands. Some of it is frustration that, in spite of the passage of time and better software and more data, we are still making the same mistakes we made decades ago. Simultaneously, as an entrepreneur, I know how stagnation and inertia can feel intolerable. And I therefore understand why we convince ourselves that the antidote is “innovation” or “transformation.” However, I’m not persuaded by those remedies -- at least not as they are presently implied. I tend to think that iteration and optimization are everything. And that snowflakes, while beautiful, either melt quickly or accumulate and cause accidents on the road.

Let's be 3% better in 2022.

About the Author

Matty Wishnow is a lifelong Entrepreneur, sometimes Designer and Advisor and the Chairman of the Board of Vaan. Previously, Matty founded Clearhead, the Experience Optimization Agency, acquired by Accenture in 2017, and Insound, the Internet's Indie Record Shop, which was acquired by Warner Music Group in 2007. Matty lives in Austin, TX and Waitsfield, VT with his wife and three children, and spends most of his days writing about middle-aged Rock stars and baseball statistics.