Design Principle #12
Always create space between you and the competition

Glen Lipka, 2019

Whether you are building a tech product or writing a resume or giving a presentation at a conference, it is important that people remember you. The only time you don’t want to differentiate yourself is when you are trying to blend in, like a spy in a crowd.

Differentiation in User Interface

One good example is when I was designing Marketo in 2007. The function was to build a workflow engine. We called it a Smart Campaign. The standard way to do that was a Visio-like flow chart. The big player at the time was Eloqua and they did it this way.

I didn’t think it looked very good when the flow charts got big. It became very complicated and looked like a bowl of spaghetti. When I talked to users, I realized that many of their “flows” were smaller and could be handled in a different way.

The design I came up with was more of an object-oriented approach where several different flows could trigger at the same time. It was more linear in visualization than a Visio chart. I won’t go into details, but the point was that it was different.

What happened was that half of the audience for marketing automation thought I was wrong. The other half thought I was right. As a new startup, this was perfect! We had cornered 50% of the market just by being different.

Differentiation in Sales

In general, you do not want to do what everyone else is doing. If you do, then it’s just a question of what is cheaper or more convenient. Sometimes it’s just luck. If your product is identical, then brand marketing and salesmanship are your only hope.

However, if you make your product, service, presentation different, you can claim uniqueness and make it more expensive. It’s not fun when you lose business because the competition is cheaper.

“I just want to say to a prospect, ‘If you don’t have [different thing we do], then you are screwed. And we are the only ones who do it.”

Bill Binch, Head of Sales, Marketo

This is also relevant in Marketing. How you describe yourself, how you write your emails, how you communicate…everything is a chance to differentiate. All of the great marketers I have know always tell me that any clever marketing has less than a year of novelty before everyone else starts copying you.

Differentiation in Job Seeking

When you are looking for a job, you can think of yourself as a project you are trying to sell. You want to get in front of viable prospects (hiring managers) and you want to stand out. Your resume and your website are the primary ways to stand out. Don’t just write to blend in. Differentiate so that the hiring manager has a reason to pick you.

Most designer websites (like 95%) are nearly identical. Here is my caricature of a designer website. It has:

  • Hi! My name is [name]!
  • Monochromatic background – usually white
  • Half dozen or so projects – they are squares with no design – just squared pictures.
    • Often, the pictures aren’t even clickable – you have to find the link
  • Project pages (case study) are one super long page. If there is navigation, it is small and unhelpful.
  • Pictures of stick notes on a wall (no zoom)
  • Pictures of designs (no prototypes, can’t zoom)
  • Picture of a double-diamond process
  • Lots and lots of text that no one reads

Look at your site, did I get it right?

Here is the question: Do you want to look exactly like everyone else or do you want to stand out? If you look the same, then you have to be lucky. If you look different, you can attract specific hiring managers.

The same goes for your resume. Put a little effort in to make it better, not just the same.

The Zebra and the Peacock

I’ve mentioned this before. Zebra like to blend in. They do NOT want to be picked. If they get picked, they get eaten. The Peacock is a different story. They want to be picked. They want attention.

When you are looking for a job or selling a service, do you want to be the zebra or the peacock? Do you want to stand out or not?

Why do we want to be the same?

It’s our DNA. We are just tall, hairless chimpanzees. It’s a miracle that we wear clothes and have microwave ovens. Most people just want to be safe, part of the pack. Most people do not want to stick their neck out and risk ridicule. Most people assume that if everyone does something, it must be right.

It’s difficult to break out from the pack. It’s difficult to stand up to the “norm” and say “This isn’t the right way to do this.”

If you happen to be applying to work as a design on my team, think about what I am saying here. Think about your site and resume. Think about what kind of person you want to be.

Think Different. (Thanks Steve Jobs!)


2 responses to “Differentiation”

  1. Can totally relate to this. With little embarrassment I must admit! While I like to advocate about being a peacock, I am guilty of wearing a zebra mask often. I really laughed out loud today when revisiting my website πŸ™‚

    Going back to editing with a smile…

  2. Best lesson I learned so far in my job seeking process, literally! Most junior designers like me tend to FOLLOW rather than CREATE. It’s an embarrassment>. < Definitely gonna redesign my portfolio in my own way now. I feel so lucky and thankful for getting a link to your website in your email. Keep inspiring and empowering young designers, Glen!

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