Illusory Follies Andrew Flanagan's Blog

19Feb/150

Style trumps functionality

I'm finding myself a little disillusioned by how completely and totally consumers have been trained to value style over functionality. The trend has especially hit home for me in the technical world. A demo using the latest glitzy technology automatically wins simply because of the special affects. What the developing team admits that the data is all fake and the interfaces are non-existent, the user ignores this huge gap in development simply because it looks cool. Requirement documents are better if they're visual graphs, charts, arrows, and flows rather than any real meat.

It's a reflection of our culture I suppose. We're interested in all things new, all things beautiful, all things that tickle our emotions, our senses, and our desires. 3D TV is now the rage (or maybe it's fading now...?) -- imagine, seeing movies that are a little bit more like real life. Our culture is one of vicarious, disconnected participation. Why climb a mountain when you can see an IMAX movie that shows a pro doing it?

There's also such an amazing degree of shallowness... Our conversation becomes riddled with catch-phrases, idioms, and cliches until we're hardly more than advanced, random, modern culture speech generators. We're a culture that consumes and consumes with a focus on functionality that will let us consume more -- more efficiently, and faster. We no longer climb a hill to enjoy the beauty and reflect on the Creator but to post the pictures on Flickr in order to fill out our Facebook profile with more pictures. We still create, but we create to consume again.

Is our culture purposeless beyond the next consumption high? Do we strive to make the world a better place anymore for any reason other than fulfilling our own dreams and aspirations? Where are those who will sacrifice their own good, their family's good, for a Higher Cause? Our we really as narcissistic as we seem?

We have tools available to us in life. We can develop those tools-- sharpen and refine them. Many find satisfaction in their jobs, not necessarily because of what we're accomplishing, but because it makes us feel good. We fight wars, not because there is wrong to Right but because rising oil prices will impinge our nation's ability to consume. We give our money to aid foreign countries because in the long run, it could help us. We abort humans before they see the light of day because it's messing with our plans for parenthood. We give to the church because, in our pride, we want our sect to prosper and show the world they're wrong.

So what does all this have to do with style vs. functionality?

A requirements document for any project defines the objective. It's the purpose of the project. What does it do, how fast does it need to be, what sort of interfaces need it support. It's solving a problem-- answering a need. Our culture looks at problems and finds ways, not of accomplishing them, but of making them less painful and more appealing through some spiffy styling. We let the requirement slip for speed because it really would be nicer if there was more graphical display to the user. Yeah, it will slow things down, but imagine how much more fun it will be to use! At that moment, the objective is being redefined. Our own pleasure, longings, desires, and convenience are now the focus.

For some projects, perhaps this was an objective in the first place. An iPhone's driving purpose is not to fill a previously unmet need but to make accomplishing a wide range of tasks more enjoyable and easier. In this case, the initial functionality was focused intentionally at ourselves.

The obvious question is immediately raised: What on earth am I suggesting functionality should be focused on if not improving ourselves? So what if we create to consume again?

I think the answer has to do with precisely one thing: How does one define "good"? Is something good if it makes us happy? What if it makes us happy but it makes someone else equivalently unhappy? Are "good" things, things that make everyone happy? What if happiness incompatibilities exist? Imagine there are only two people left in the world. The only thing that will make either person happy is to kill the other person. Are they both "bad" even if they both want exactly the same thing?

I think a more plausible explanation is that "good" is what is Right. Not just "right" for you or "right" for the majority, but truly Right. An absolute Right implies the existence of some sort of ultimate Requirement Document. We can take action to bring our life into line with the spec. or we can attempt to creep the Requirements here and there to make our life more comfortable.

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