A few years ago, I started noticing two things happening with increasing frequency. First, my products were telling me how I felt. Next, I found myself being cross-sold in the most inappropriate places. These started as one-offs, but while any single experience made me slightly bemused or slightly annoyed, they were mostly innocuous. But considered broadly, these trends point to what I would call the "consumerization of software," which—while in retrospect, has been inevitable—is driving the final nail into the coffin of real, meaningful human-centered design. Here’s what I mean by the consumerization of software:
Bear with an observation that, at first, feels like an Andy Rooney: an entire industry of product designers is convinced that I'm all set.
My cable provider:
Even my hotel room:
While amusing to see the homogenization of content writing, this actually points to a real problem: a lack of understanding of context. Consider this one, from Gusto:
When I fire someone, neither I, nor they, are "All Set." It's a serious activity, one that demands respect from every service touchpoint involved, from the software itself to the person who has to communicate the decision, to the subsequent support provided to the former employee.
Gusto's team really wants me to be all set; I'm set when I fire, and I'm set when I pay, too. I like Gusto's animated pig, because I think it's cute. But I'm not sure payroll should be cute: it's someone's livelihood:
I appreciate the confirmation that my airbnb reservation for a vacation has been successfully booked. But when I drop a thousand bucks on a trip, I don't want that confirmation to be cute; I need it to instill confidence:
And when I'm going to the doctor in preparation for surgery, I want to know that I'm seeing someone who is a professional, not someone who will celebrate my appointment, evidenced by the "All Sets" I received from my doctor's automatic booking confirmation, the portal where I find my appointments, and the health insurance provider.
This last one is the most tonedeaf: imagine going to the doctor to have something potentially terminal diagnosed, and being told to kick back and relax:
I'm not just railing against that specific phrase, either; "All Set" is just the most common offender. Bank of America's changed their confirmation screen from “Your money is being dispensed” to "Here's your cash," my stock trading apps are telling me to "hang tight," and when you hover on Mexico in Mailchimp, it tells me that "5 opens occurred in Mexico—Bueno!":
These feel like someone yelling "get off my lawn," and I suppose they are, in some respect, what makes a Seinfeld funny: they are just observations of peculiarities in society. But they really speak to product decisions that aren't grounded in empathy, and designers lacking an understanding of the context in which an activity or purchase is done. Designers talk an awful lot about journeys, and emotions, and heart, and soul. But these types of decisions, particularly in high-stakes interactions, are just plain tacky. My wife likened it to being told to “smile more” by random men. Stop telling me what to do and what I am, and just give me the value you promised.
At the same time that I’m hearing that "I’m All Set," I’m also being increasingly Sold More Things.
If you've ever worked at a mid or late-stage startup in growth mode, there's a pretty consistent strategy shift that occurs. The initial team—likely heavy on engineering, design and product, and pursuing product/market fit and value delivery—is slowly augmented by—and then overwhelmed by—a team focused on sales and marketing. Funders put pressure on the executive team for hockey-stick style growth, and the executive team pushes that pressure down to the now marketing-driven product teams: find a new addressable market, and extend the (grossly named) share of wallet for existing customers.
What inevitably happens is a blitz of upsell during transactions, and cross-selling during usage. And the result is noise.
Enterprise product marketing teams seem to live for this behavior, and Quickbooks is the worst offender I've found. There are ads on nearly every page:
On my receipts page:
On my customers page:
On my invoices page:
On my deposits page:
On my banking page:
Just like being "All Set" when I have to fire someone, I'm now being asked to spend money just at the time that I'm trying to best manage and conserve it: while balancing my books. If you've spent any time in product, you can imagine the conversation as this one lands on the design team:
Product Marketing: We've got this great new bookkeeping service. We need to tell all of our existing clients about it. We've figured out that we can improve ARPU by 6% across the board with this.
Design: I don't think people want to see ads for services in the product itself. Can we put it on the homepage?
Product Marketing: Good idea—let's add it to the homepage, AND to the dashboard. Here are some wireframes I drew that show where it can go.
Design: (long sigh....) At least let me make it look good.
Product Marketing: Great! We also have this new Payments product....
I'm willing to bet that experienced designers try to push back on this, while less experienced designers simply take the idea as a "requirement" and get to work on it. When this type of thing creeps into the product, it speaks to the culture of the company more than the skill of the designer. Yet there it is, and it's not just Quickbooks. Microsoft has been exploring where they can drop advertising in Windows for years; turns out they think Solitaire is the most effective place to sell users more products:
This entire phenomenon is similar to the pay-to-play unlocking of features in a Tesla or a baby monitor—it’s leveraging switching costs in order to trade a value proposition for an advertising channel. It’s gross, and it’s becoming a standard “business as usual” product decision within product teams.
Our culture has been rooted in advertising for over a century, and advertising is hardly a new annoyance on the internet; those of us who are really old remember when banner ads found their way onto websites for the first time (and the true innovation from x10: pop-under ads.) It's no surprise that real business and productivity applications have become the next frontier for overselling. The casual, colloquial language that's creeping in, the cute animations, and the shameless product placement is evidence of a race to the bottom, and a likely permanent push away from the foundations of a human-centered design philosophy. When our profession really gained traction in the 80s, it was focused on taming the rigidity of engineering-speak and complexity. Now, the battle could—and should—be a pushback against product marketing. But there's no evidence of that battle succeeding (or even happening at all), and instead, it's just the opposite: design seems to have not only capitulated to this consumer blanding, but is now enabling it.
I hope we can find a way back to the fundamentals of human-centered design: focusing on making things more usable, useful, and desirable, and beating a drum for helping to improve life, rather than to "nerf" some serious experiences and improve sales.