Why Design Matters

by Kieran Healy on February 28, 2006

Microsoft redesigns the iPod package. Hey, it’s funny, so it “must be true”:https://crookedtimber.org/2006/02/28/if-its-funny-must-it-be-true/, right? (Actually in this case that’s correct.) Via John Gruber.

Looks like the site is getting killed right now. “Try this link”:http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4313772690011721857&q=microsoft+ipod.

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American Ingenuity » Blog Archive » It’s really got some shelf presence!
02.28.06 at 1:22 pm



CM 02.28.06 at 1:45 pm

And that’s supposed to be a bad thing?


CM 02.28.06 at 1:54 pm

And that’s supposed to be a bad thing? Some of us like details on the packaging. It’s bloody frustrating to have too little detail. Too much detail is not a problem as long as you sensibly organize it. This goes with Apple’s bothersome ‘don’t worry your pretty little head about how it works’ attitude.

Of course I’m not implying that Microsoft doesn’t have any problems, but those problems are unrelated to this issue.


des von bladet 02.28.06 at 2:02 pm

Apple are said to make some nice things, but they have a frankly distressing habit of turning their customers into Tyler Brûlée. People who resent HTML for not being Flash believe that “Design Matters” too, as do those who think Terence Conran’s net contribution to the universe is non-negative, and being unlike them is certainly a few jeers from time to time.


Kieran Healy 02.28.06 at 3:01 pm

I think you’re reaching, des.


des von bladet 02.28.06 at 3:35 pm

You’ve sipped the Kool-Aid, though but. Design of packaging simply _doesn’t_ matter. I have an official Cosmic Scheme of Things to prove it, but this comment box is too small to fit it in.


Kieran Healy 02.28.06 at 3:55 pm

Design of packaging simply doesn’t matter.

Of course it matters. I’m not saying it’s the _only_ thing that matters.


des von bladet 02.28.06 at 4:28 pm

Really? My last two (2) significant electronics purchases where an mp3 player (by Creative Zen, bought from Amazon) and a printer/scanner (HP, bought from the UK catalogue shop Argos). In neither case did I even see the packaging before purchase, and I can’t remember having formed an opinion about it at any time since.

Even in the Old Retail stores that I’m acquainted with in Yoorp the packaging as such isn’t on display. Presumably — since I do not actually believe you are mad — it is different in the US, but it would be overwhelmingly difficult to care about packaging here even if I was in the habit of wanting to.


David W. 02.28.06 at 4:55 pm

Heh, I was surveyed by Knowledge Networks about various software packaging schemes a couple of months ago, so I can personally attest as to the obsession software retailers have about what to put on their box.

I almost fell out of my chair at the “Let’s make better use of this space” bit, given the very effective use of negative space on the Apple iPod packaging, which does draw the eye quite nicely, thank you very much.


malloy 02.28.06 at 4:55 pm

You guys are missing the point.

Apple/IPod can get away with packaging their products like this because they don’t depend on people buying the product by just happening upon it on a shelf.

I’d wager that the vast, vast majority of Ipod users heard about the Ipod beforehand, from friends etc, and went to the store specifically intending to buy an Ipod. So, the packaging doesn’t have to hype the product. It can focus solely on distinguishing the Ipod from other products, and reinforcing the allure with which the potential buyer already views the product.

Other types of products, that depend more on shelf competition, have to provide more information. But I think the best part of this satire is that most MS products don’t fall into that category. MS could get away with more original packaging for many of its products. Do you go to the store to buy “an operating system” or do you go to buy the latest version of Windows? To buy a “word processing program” or Word? But MS is bound to its too-much-information, corporate-clip-part type packaging.

Not that I think it would improve sales for MS or anything, MS is doing pretty well on that end, but it would give MS more of a hip image on the shelf.


Daniel 02.28.06 at 5:56 pm

Say what you like about Apple, they do bloody good cardboard boxes. It’s a little known fact that about 40% of iMacs are actually just cardboard boxes and the people who bought them have never been any the wiser.


soubzriquet 02.28.06 at 6:16 pm

#3 has it almost backwards with respect to MS vs Apple. Yes, both of them have there problems, but the `worry your pretty little head about how it works’ attitude fits MS at least as well (and I’d argue better). Yes apple takes the approach of trying to make it unneccessary for you to know the details. But, if you want to know it is all accessible and they will help you (to some degree) figure it out. There is a pretty normal unix buried under all that graphical UI stuff, and you can poke around as much as you need (this may only apply to current OS, but…). On the other hand, MS can be quite misleading about interfaces etc., and make it very difficult to understand what is actually going on under the hood. They’ve made a bit of a cottage industry out of that.

Furthermore, I’d take the content of that video as a good example of where too much information becomes a problem because it is organized so terribly. The apple box, on the other hand, is probably closer to ideal for the contents (what do you need to know about a mp3 player, after all?).


Andrew 02.28.06 at 7:37 pm

“There is a pretty normal unix buried under all that graphical UI stuff, and you can poke around as much as you need (this may only apply to current OS, but…). On the other hand, MS can be quite misleading about interfaces etc., and make it very difficult to understand what is actually going on under the hood. They’ve made a bit of a cottage industry out of that.”

Microsoft’s documentation for developers is the best bar none. The only company that even comes close is Sun, and Apple is far, far short of that. Whatever you want to know, you can find in the knowledge base for Microsoft’s developer products. While I can’t see the code for Windows, I have complete confidence that I understand exactly what’s “going on under the hood”. I guess typical users may have trouble finding and understanding that information, but why would they want to?

As for the packaging, maybe I’m too much an engineer, but why do I care what box it comes in? I’m going to bin the box and keep the item, so their sexy packaging isn’t really that interesting to me. If I kept the packaging, that’d be a different story. That’s the biggest difference from the LPs I bought as a youth and the mp3’s and CD’s I get today. Then, I cared about the cover because it was huge and I had to keep it around. Now, if I buy a cd, I rip it to me computer and the case goes into storage. The cover no longer matters. I wouldn’t ever have bought that merciful fate record if it hadn’t been for that cool cover, but I don’t care what’s on the cover of any album I buy today.


soubzriquet 02.28.06 at 7:58 pm

andrew: That wasn’t quite what I meant. I agree that developer docs for MS tend to be pretty good, especially in their core interest areas (in which case they are often excellent). They do lie on occasion (in the sense that the documented behaviour either isn’t correct, or isn’t what they actually do) , and some of the API design is atrocious, but on the whole they are much much better than industry averages. MS has always been pretty good to developers.

But that is not quite what I meant. My comment was from the point of view of a user, albiet one who may be doing system level tasks. Both windows and mac OS X try and isolate the user from the grubby details, but I’ve found mac to be much less headache when things aren’t working at the GUI/wizard/whatever level…. my `cottage industry’ comment above was aimed not at developer level but more sysop level stuff….

As for your other comment, yes you are probably too much of an engineer. ipod’s domination of the mp3 player market is probably good evidence that design (and marketing, natch) do matter…. the PC market has been inundated for years now with boxes covered in loudly coloured marketing BS. For someone who knows what they want, this isn’t an issue really, but that isn’t most of the market….


Quo Vadis 02.28.06 at 7:58 pm

It’s a good thing for Apple stockholders that none of you pragmatists are product designers at Apple.

Apple took the MP3 player, a commodity product which had been on the market for years and turned it into a must have fashion accessory. They did it in a market where they had no brand presence while charging a significant premium over the established brands.

That’s genius.


soubzriquet 02.28.06 at 8:13 pm

quo vadis: that’s pretty much the last point I was making to andrew. Obviously design matters (at least in that market).


John Quiggin 02.28.06 at 8:34 pm

The design success if the iPod isn’t just fashion design. iPods are esier/better to use than competing products, thanks to a combination of hardware and software design.

The same is true of Macs of course, and hasn’t been enough to allow Apple to make big inroads in this market, but we’ve been over this ground many times.


Andrew 02.28.06 at 8:54 pm

I never said product design doesn’t matter but I’m saying the packaging design doesn’t matter. At least not to me.


Kieran Healy 02.28.06 at 9:35 pm

I never said product design doesn’t matter but I’m saying the packaging design doesn’t matter

The two are not uncorrelated.


MikeTheLibrarian 02.28.06 at 10:51 pm

Ok, I have to know or it will be bothering me for days. What the devil was that music?!


DonBoy 03.01.06 at 1:05 am

The music is from Danny Elfman’s score for Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.


CM 03.01.06 at 10:40 am

quo vadis,
Yes that’s marketing genius in the same sense that Repubs getting half the American population to vote for a complete failure is genius. Personally I’m a little concerned when people spend $250 on a 4GB iPod when they could get a 40GB Zen Touch for the same price. But then plus ca change,


Tim 03.01.06 at 11:31 am

The single best thing about Apples is their packaging: when you buy a iWhatever-the-hell-they-call-their laptop, the styrofoam insert has rounded corners so you can get the goddam thing out the box without shaking it out onto the floor.

Almost enough to make me a convert (if I weren’t as irrationally committed to keeping my 7-yr old clone laptop running and doing the 4 or 5 things I actually use a computer for).


Jack 03.01.06 at 11:32 am

The Microsoftised packaging is clearly less appealing and also less informative. The former is Microsoft’s problem and they can be expected to look after themselves. The latter is a minor problem or inconvenience for consumers but not in itself worth commenting on.

If there is content beyond it’s being funny it is the suggestion that this might be how product design works in Microsoft with box ticking committees and blanket policies keeping products as studiously mediocre as the packaging suggested. This is interesting because it is the reason that Apple is worth almost as much as Dell.

cm, there are significant differences between an iPod Nano and the Zen Touch that might well lead one to prefer the former. GB capacity is not in this case a good proxy for product utility.


Steve 03.01.06 at 11:55 am

I’ve never used Apples in my life (always IBM/Intl-well, except back when TRS-80 was around). But I’d be more convinced of Apple’s supremacy if Apple adherents didn’t sound like religious zealots.



Andrew 03.01.06 at 12:39 pm

If there is content beyond it’s being funny it is the suggestion that this might be how product design works in Microsoft with box ticking committees and blanket policies keeping products as studiously mediocre as the packaging suggested.

Well the only product I worked on at Microsoft was the Xbox 360, and I wasn’t directly involved in the packaging design, but that video is not like the true design process there, or anything like the end result. If you look at the packaging for the device (two links for two versions) you can see what it is like for yourself.

The video may be funny, but it’s not true!


soubzriquet 03.01.06 at 12:57 pm

Steve: I know quite a few people who use apples by preference (not as many as windows), but nobody who is a `zealot’. I’m sure you can find them (or for MS, or for unix, or…) but to claim that this is average behaviour is pretty laughable, if that is what your were doing. Apple makes a better total package when considered stand-alone, but you trade that off against interoperability with others, etc. Depending what you are doing, one or the other (or something else) may be compellingly better, or it might not.


soubzriquet 03.01.06 at 1:02 pm

andrew: wasn’t the point (well, sort of) that the video may be funny because it contains a grain of truth, as against being literally true? In any case, the wors offender in the PC shrinkwrap world certainly isn’t MS, granted. On the other hand, they have put out some boxes pretty heavy on the marketese and BS, too.

For that matter, the (original version, and canadian) xbox packaging that I have seen up close wasn’t particularly busy, it was just very ugly. I doubt gamers care much about that either, though.


Jack 03.01.06 at 1:06 pm

Is the Xbox360 typical of Microsoft?

No-one says that Microsoft can’t learn if business demands it, but sometimes, as with Internet Explorer, it stops when things are good enough for Microsoft. Some Microsoft things are great — their keyboard shortcuts are great for example.

Also it’s interesting that there are good reasons for nearly all the changes made by the pretend Microsoft in the film. The points apply to many less august institutions than Microsoft too. I think the Apple/Dell comparison is particularly interesting.

Apple doesn’t seem far from MS thoughts on the Xbox360:



anon 03.01.06 at 1:56 pm

Noone has picked up on the real reason MS puts all that fine print on the box…legal cya. They have to disclaim their violations of the principle of least astonishment or they’d be obliged to give up on most of their noxious license clauses.


Doug 03.02.06 at 5:47 am

The design process from the video will be scarily familiar to anyone who has been through rounds of client approval on almost any printed object. The path of least resistance is saying yes to everything, and it often ends up looking like the dog’s breakfast. The same client who wanted all the additions then wonders why it doesn’t look as nice and clean as the prototype.

And yes, little details in the packaging matter for people who haven’t completely made up their minds in advance on what they want; and for impulse purchases (though I doubt an iPod is often one of those), they’re crucial.

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