Karaoke Creativity: the trap all good product designers should avoid

How many times have you been in a meeting to hear “Company X has feature Y, so we should too”? Or it may come in some other variation thereof, copying enviable companies like Apple and Google, or pricing models like 37Signals, or “cutting edge” concepts like game mechanics and LBS, or whatever your industry’s leader du jour is doing.

While it’s wise to explore many other products, and to employ best practices and good ideas, the blatant copy & paste of designs from one context to another is a really bad idea. It will undoubtedly result in a poor imitation of the real thing…just like the average person signing karaoke: you can sing the right words to the tune, but you’re not going to perform like Bon Jovi. Moreover, as with karaoke, the performer (or in this case the designer / architect / developer) may think he’s doing a bang up job, but to the audience is often subjected to an awful experience.

Here we’ll look at Karaoke Creativity and some examples, as well as some steps you can take to ensure you don’t fall prey to it.

Types of Karaoke Creativity
Karaoke Creativity is porting salient design features without thinking through many of the issues of authenticity and consistency. The result often manifests itself in one of the following forms:

  • 1) High Investment Knock-off: when a company or organization makes a large investment trying to recreate the mojo of another company, and results in a cheap imitation of the original. Some examples come to mind such as Microsoft’s Zune, the RNC’s Michael Steele, Airlines Ted & Song, and many, many others.
  • 2) Foolish Consistency: channeling Ralph Waldo Emerson, this type refers to the group-think that results from copying successful examples, and results in tired cliched designs, that all resemble one another…some companies, like in the auto business, even do this intentionally.
  • 3) Cargo Cult: is the most egregious form of “imitation without understanding”. This type seems to be more prevalent today than ever due to the proliferation of accessible, commoditized design tools and how-to tutorials. For instance, how many corporate websites are littered with meaningless stock photography? A better take than I can ever write can be found here in Smashing Magazine.

Internal consistency is the key to avoid Karaoke Creativity
Karaoke Creativity is a shortcut to the presence of real skill and hard work, so there are no easy answers beyond those; however, here are some things to keep in mind along your journey.

  • Characterize the problem, and your audience, in detail
  • Have a vision for success, and a value prop that speaks uniquely to that audience
  • Deliver a solution consistently addressing the constraints you actually have, not those of others
  • Innovate along lines that reinforce your core value, or address specific areas of need (especially the ones that stop you from making money)
  • Recognize it’s OK to be wrong – having a point of view is much better than “playing it safe” and going nowhere as a result

We can do better
While I recognize this is a little harsh, the complacency and uninspiring nature of Karaoke Creativity is the antithesis of innovation, and therefore irritates me deeply (hey, look at the title of this blog). Let’s not be lazy, and realize w’re capable of so much more.

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