Much like in fashion, the internet has few innovators and many imitators. It isn't that innovators create new features and imitators copy them. Because everything is remix. What separates the two groups, as in fashion, is a difference in taste level. Innovators design products that feel elegant and editorial, while imitators' products are poorly executed - a mashup of features that don't hang well together. In the fashion world, one legendary innovator possessed good taste beyond compare. Defined by her taste level, the fashion house she founded has stood as a paragon of luxury for a hundred years.
Her name is Coco Chanel. Most people know her as a fashion designer. Less widely appreciated is the fact that Coco Chanel herself was a philosopher of taste. I'm serious about that. Having extensively researched the intellectual history of taste, Chanel's aphorisms stand out as actionable philosophy you can live by. It has informed my life and design practice tremendously. In fact, if Coco Chanel were a product designer in consumer internet, I bet she would do amazing things, because taste is what matters most. Think along the lines of NOTCOT, Gilt Groupe, and Twitter.
A striking many of Coco Chanel's maxims and precepts speak to product and user experience design. The following are what I've gleaned to be her greatest teachings:
On feature quality vs. quantity. "Luxury lies not in richness and ornateness but in the absence of vulgarity." Translation: An elegant product doesn't necessarily need a lot of features (ornateness), but the features it does have need to work fluidly and be well thought through (absence of vulgarity). There can't be gaffs.
Naked prototypes. "Look for the woman in the dress. If there is no woman, there is no dress." Great design (dress) can bring out the best in a product, but it can't mask the lack of underlying substance (woman). For these reasons, it can be useful to start with a "naked" prototype - functional and undesigned. Get a group of people using the naked prototype regularly to see if it adds value and feels substantive. For example, before developing the Palm Pilot, Jeff Hawkins carried around a block of wood for a week and pretended to use it as if it were built out.
Too many accessories. "When accessorizing, always take off the last thing you put on." After a website or app has built its core features (the dress), the temptation is to pursue auxiliary features (accessories) that maybe an early user has requested. These features are green-lighted because product designers often feel the need to be hyper-responsive to users, rather than being the bad guy. The head of engineering also favors auxiliary features because they offer good visibility from a planning perspective, and this person usually measures progress by lines of code completed, not by product efficacy. This is how accessory features sneak into products. Chanel warns against this outcome. She assumes that no matter who you are and what your taste level (indeed many of her clients to whom she gave this advice had very good taste), you will overdo the accessories. So, consider editing your non-core features hawkishly. Don't be afraid to remove ones which add little value and instead distract from the core substance of the product.
The myth of user-generated content. "Those who create are rare; those who cannot are numerous. Therefore, the latter are stronger." A lot of social media sites assume that a lot of their users will be heavy contributors. They then proceed to design a product geared only toward heavy contributors. This is wrong-headed. Less than 0.5% of a site's users (often FAR less than) are heavy contributors. Many successful UGC sites were built on the backs of a handful of marquee users. Twitter, a site that has disproportionately many heavy contributors, has a passive user base that dwarfs the base of users who tweet regularly. In April 2010, Twitter had 100 million registered users, but almost twice that number in daily users. The vast majority of Twitter users tweet infrequently, or simply read the site without registering. This proportion of tweeters to readers makes sense because one of Twitter's core value propositions is distribution. Thus, their app must work well as a read-only app.
Heavily trafficked sites. "Nothing is ugly as long as it is alive." Once in a while I get into an argument with product designer friends about Craigslist. Some really disagree with its draconian look and call it "ugly." They see it as a missed opportunity for something great. I tend to think it's unfair to criticize a site (it's not ugly) that has been consistently and heavily trafficked (it is alive). Maybe users feel comfortable using Craigslist as they would their old newspaper classifieds precisely because it looks like their old newspaper classified, and nothing more. As Chanel also said, "luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury."