The Secret Yardstick Driving Innovation At AOL, Beats, And Microsoft

What does innovation look like? For one thing: It should be discernible at 15 feet away.

"When you look at any other email product from a distance—if you’re at a Starbucks or on the train, and you see someone reading Gmail or Yahoo—they all largely look the same," says Bill Wetherell, a senior director of UX design at AOL. "One of the key things from a design perspective that we wanted was to do something different. And we wanted it to pass what we call the 15-foot test."

The "15-foot test," as Wetherell refers to it, is the threshold for differentiation he holds his team to: Products must attract attention even yards away from the computer screen. It’s the idea that in order for a product to stand out in such a crowded market, he says, "it needs not only to function differently but also look noticeably different from afar." That standard was arguably the driver behind Alto, AOL’s radically redesigned email service that launched in October—which looks more like Pinterest than Gmail—but it’s also a sentiment I’ve heard from a slew of designers in the past year—a sign that products can no longer live or die by tech specs and up-close product inspections. In fact, AOL killed a past iteration of its email service, called Phoenix, because Wetherell says, "it didn’t pass the 15-foot test."

AOL’s not the only company sticking to this threshold. Many topflight designers are imagining products for at-a-distance consumption. Luke Wood, president of Beats Electronics, recently told me the new capsule-shaped Pill speaker was designed to look significantly different from its competitors, namely Jawbone’s Jambox. "Like a car that you immediately know—like, 'Oh that’s an Audi or a Mercedes’—you know it right from across the parking lot," Wood says. "You can just tell this reads Beats, even before you see the 'B.' The form factor is that unique."

Microsoft, too, sought a similar visual advantage for Windows Phone, the company’s mobile operating system that has received glowing reviews for its refreshing user interface. "It looks nothing like what Android or the iPhone looks like," Jeff Fong, one of the lead Windows Phone designers, told me not long ago. "It wasn’t acceptable to simply mimic," Windows Phone VP Joe Belfiore once told me. "We wanted our visual design to be different than everything else. Most technology has gravitated toward these 32 by 32 [pixel] icons, with a gleam in the upper left. We did not want to do that."

While it was once endless tech specs that drove tech reviews—RAM and processor speeds and graphics cards—companies now more often design products that pass the so-called 15-foot test, either in hardware or software or both. The larger point here is that aesthetic must be markedly different—in form factor, color, UX, and so forth—in order to attract consumers.

No doubt product quality remains important. But one reason so few Android tablets have gained market share is a lack of at-distance differentiation and an over reliance on under-the-hood specs. Last year, for example, we saw the failure of the "15-foot test" in the much-hyped court battle between Apple and Samsung. During one courtroom hearing, a U.S. judge held up two devices, an iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab, and asked Samsung attorney Kathleen Sullivan if she could tell them apart. "Not at this distance your honor," said Sullivan, who reportedly stood just ten feet away.

Still, not all companies are following this standard. When I ask Scott Croyle, HTC’s VP of design, whether he’s concerned that the company’s new 8X smartphone looks too similar to the Nokia Lumia 920, he pauses for a moment. "From 30,000 feet, I think I see it—I don’t disagree [with the comparison]," he says. "But I think when you pick up the phones, it’s an easy choice for consumers. When you pick up the 8X, and you pick up a competing phone, I think without a doubt that you’ll walk out with our phone."

And given the success of copycat products like some of Samsung’s smartphones, it’d be hard to argue that success derives from differentiation. (The same could be said of many new Windows 8 PCs, which seem to be designed differently simply for the sake of being different.) But that design direction (and distance) is an idea more and more product managers are embracing.

[Eye Test Image: Robertlamphoto via Shutterstock]

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5 Comments

  • Ambrose Li

    If the AOL offering succeeds, will it not go downhill too? Google gets worse by the day because it stopped listening to users a long time ago.

    When online email is on par with features from text mode email clients, then I’d say that’s some real product differentiation. You’d think graphical email clients must be able to do everything those old text based email clients that date from the 90’s (e.g., displaying the MIME type of attachments, handling cryptographic signatures, etc.). They still can’t.

  • krzystoff

    it IS still in beta, and though it worked (slowly) a month ago, it's not anymore.  I guess the AOL hamsters are taking a break from the wheel for the festive season.

    whatever the design philosophy, it was radical enough to shake up Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft with their very outdated offerings.  Yahoo was pretty good about 10 years ago, and Google's following minimalist approach was better, but both have gone downhill since then.  hopefully soon they might rethink their approach, even if AOL's site never makes prime time.

  • OwerrC

    "Products must attract attention even yards away from the computer screen."

    Are you serious? Did they hire this guy straight out of one of those crash course 1 yr "design" schools? There's a difference between making something look cool than a usable, functional, robust product

  • Ambrose Li

    Are you guys kidding? Gmail and Yahoo “largely the same”? Yahoo is by far literally THE worse, the most useless of all email apps (online or otherwise) I have ever seen in my whole life. Whoever said that has not actually used Yahoo.