With Moore’s Law receding, design is how we decide

For me, the best analogy for the current state of Moore’s Law comes from one of the first times I visited the Googleplex. Their incredible gourmet food program was expanding, and there was a new fruit smoothie shop where I was asked whether I wanted a small or a large. I asked, “What’s the cost difference?” The cheery attendee responded, “Oh, they’re the same. Free!”

I stood there frozen in time with an eerie existential crisis unfolding inside my head. Usually, when you’re always forced to choose, you balance your desire for “more” (because “more” is always “better”) with the cost you’ll have to pay. But in a universe with infinite smoothies and no costs, how was I supposed to make a decision?

As a consumer, we’ve come to count on the effect of Moore’s Law to help guide these kinds of decisions. Namely, if I just sit and wait for a little more than a year, I am guaranteed to get a *significantly* better computer at the same price, if not a lower one. It may do the exact same thing as the previous model, but it’ll do it faster, cheaper, and *bigger*.

And, just like we’ve been trained to “super size” many other things in our lives, I know that I will need a faster model, or else! Or else? Or else I won’t be able to watch your movie in high-definition on my big screen. Or else I won’t be able to store all of the music in my life with necessary gigabytes to spare. Or else my grandmother’s mobile phone can’t send me a raw-encoded image file that your mobile cannot read at all. The list of “Or else!”s runs just as long as Santa’s list of who’s naughty or nice.

Design thinking Moore's Law Macbook

But we are now starting to wake up and look at the “Or else!” list and realize it reads like a “Do I care?” list. Do I care if my iPhone has enough storage to hold every bit of data on my laptop that is already synced to the cloud? Do I care if my desktop computer is sufficiently powerful to edit a few hundred full-feature films at levels of cinematic quality? How much smoothie do I really want to ingest right now? Back in the day when we all felt like we needed more horsepower and storage to do all the wonderful things we dreamed of doing in the digitalverse, the answer was always, “H*ll yeah! More please!” But now, like many other areas of our lives, the answer is, “Well … do I really need that?”

There’s a signal inside our heads going off today — we instinctively know that we don’t need more storage or speed because we don’t have any real use for it. In absence of the normal cues of “better,” which used to be as simple as knowing the CPU’s clock speed, or how much RAM it has, or how big a screen to pair with it, we now are choosing based upon something else: design. Because Mo(o)re computing power no longer makes technology feel better — in fact, the pile-on of new features that Moore’s Law has enabled makes us feel confused. And in this new universe, we have come to count on design to cut through the clutter and make things feel better.

Unfortunately, since “good design” is defined by the user it’s intended for, it’s not just about creating more, and there is no algorithmic “law” for how to get it. It suffers from the phrase that all technologists and investors hate to hear, which is “… it depends.” Whether we want “more” or “less” doesn’t have a single right answer. An example I like to use is about doing the laundry versus eating a cookie. You always want less laundry, but more cookies. One person’s laundry is another’s cookie. And so on.

Good design is even harder to define in the digital age. The timeless “design classics”, the ones ensconced in the Museum of Modern Art, have always been rooted in the physical world, and informed by your five senses. With design for the screen (not to mention the complexities of which size screen), the effect on the user is not just physical but deeply cognitive. And with the virtual, physical, and social modes of design increasingly converging, we can expect the definition of design and how it is practiced to morph dramatically.

For as the marginal return on more computing power (a la Moore’s law) continues to diminish, a new kind of design will matter more than Moore. It almost makes us nostalgic for the days when we could just check the processor speed.