March 12, 2011 at 5:58 pm

SXSW: Razorfish VP Urges App Designers to Learn from Fashion

razorfish_sxswOne might expect an executive from a leading interactive design firm speaking about app creation at South by Southwest to expound on the benefits of incorporating the latest technologies into anything and everything. But Razorfish vice president and mobile practice lead Paul Gelb, in his address to a packed audience at SXSW Interactive, took a surprisingly conservative approach.

The main point of his “Behind the Curtain: Secrets of Mobile Application Wizardry” presentation: Designers shouldn’t add the latest bells and whistles just because they can. Instead, they should model their embrace of new technology after the world of fashion, where the new clothes that go on sale each season are always similar enough to the old one to be recognizable, while new enough to attract a fresh crop of customer cash.

“It might sound strange, because the context here [at SXSW Interactive] is technology, but… we never focus on a technology solution and start with that,” said Gelb. “We start with our consumers —  the people who are using the app — and then look at the technology.”

Following that advice, he said, helped Razorfish’s app design team — once a one-man operation staffed by him alone, but now a large department within the firm — create top-ranked branded apps for Audi, OnTheShow Gear Guide, longtime client Victoria’s Secret, and Papa John’s pizza, whose mobile pizza-ordering app he said increased that company’s sales dramatically. (Incidentally, he also said Razorfish can tell with a high degree of accuracy whether a man or a woman is browsing the Victoria’s Secret app.)

The secret, he said, is to make app users feel comfortable, and never confused by features, while offering them something new — just not that new.

“What we learned from the early web development companies in [the] online [space] is that in the early stages, if you rely on best practices, you’re not really pushing the envelope and staying up with where you need to be. At the same time, you can’t just completely rewrite the book. So we take on this little process that fashion designers do, interestingly enough. [We design apps] so that there are some similarities [with previous apps] that people are familiar with [them] don’t feel too uncomfortable, but at the same time, differentiating ourselves so that people this is a unique and original experience.”

Who would have thought hemlines and mobile apps would have so much in common?

As for augmented reality (AR), one of the more advanced features with which most app users are still not familiar, he says he’s a fan, but only to a point.

“What we’ve done is prevent a bunch of customers from doing AR,” said Gelb. “We just don’t know if everyone is going to have their phone out while they walk the street.”

However, he sees the Apple iPad 2, with its large screen and forward-and-backwards-facing cameras, as providing a big boost to AR apps, because their screen presents such a large canvas for adding contextual information from the cloud.

(Photo: Eliot Van Buskirk)