Application design is like recording a cover version of a song

Let’s face it. 99% of our design effort is spent on developing applications that already exist in some form or another. We work continuously to build a better mousetrap, not invent some fundamentally unique and novel way to catch rodents.

This is not to belittle the difference we make but to recognise we stand on existing shoulders. Or if we don’t, that our users do and will judge our efforts (fairly or unfairly) against those pre-existing expectations about what our [insert class of application here] application should look and feel like.

This need to try and marry those conflicting needs of “identifying with the original” and “being different” led me to compare the whole application design issue with music, in particular cover versions. Here’s another area where you are developing something that has both to be distinctive (and your own) while still recognising the essence of what came before.

what makes a good cover?

So what makes a good cover version? And what can that tell us about application development? Probably two conflicting goals:

  1. be true to the original, but
  2. add your own individuality.

Also hidden before the above two is “choose a good song to start with”.  For software development that means picking an application that people are going to want to “listen” to.  Your application version of a cover of the Macarena might not get the audience you would like, no matter how hard you work.

Be true
At some level each song (and therefore each application) has an underlying essence. Any to-do list manager needs to cover fundamentals like adding/removing items from a list. Any photo library needs to be able to add tags to photos to classify them, etc. The trick is to use the concept of the cover song to uncover what is the essential for your new version. What needs to exist for your users to recognise this as one of the type? And importantly for them not to dismiss it for missing something fundamental?

In looking for original applications you can start to diverge from the whole “application = cover song” metaphor, since with applications it is possible for what is considered the original to change. In music the original version of Tainted Love will always be by Gloria Jones, nomatter how many people have (a) never heard of it or (b) prefer Soft Cell’s version anyway. With applications what is considered original can vary, with first versions disappearing from view (Visicalc anyone?). In fact it’s probably more accurate to talk less of the original application and instead talk of the definitive or archetype. And recognise that it can change. For example 5 years ago the original/definitive social website you’d need to study would have been mySpace. Now it’s Facebook. Unless you’re in Brazil where it’s Orkut (thanks Oxyweb).

In some domains, there might not be an obvious original. In such cases the essence may be determined by reviewing multiple examples and drawing out the commonalities. And in that regard you’re moving towards the same approach as per the backs of most software packages, each with their feature lists comparing themselves (favourably of course) with the competitors.

Be individual

So once you’ve determined your original, and confirmed what features/functions are needed to be true to that original, now is the time to add your own spin. To add your personal creativity. To make the cover version.

And like musicians you’ll play to your strengths. In the same way that a Metallica cover of White Christmas is likely to include a few guitars, so a cover of the to-do list manager you create will reflect your own preferences in design, usability and approach. As long as the underlying essence remains evident, go for it.

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