7 - Design in the World of Business

The author acknowledges that the theory of design remains theoretical because it fails to acknowledge the constraints of reality. In reality, most everyday objects are manufactured by businesses, who are constrained by the necessity to provide a product that a customer will pay for in a competitive market. While it's good to consider design in an otherworld in which time and budget are infinite and anything is possible, real-world designers never have that degree of latitude.

In this final chapter, the author means to come down to ground level and speak of the constraints under which design is really done, and then muse a bit about the future of design.

Competitive Forces

The market for consumer goods is competitive - now more than ever. With the removal of trade barriers, the low cost of transportation, and the global communications to spread the word, manufacturers compete with other firms the world over, not just among a small number of providers in their local market. Success means offering customers something better than the rest, which is no small feat.

The author suggests three methods of competition: price, features, and quality - and in some cases speed of delivery. (EN: This is a bit skewed and myopic, and leaves quite a few things out.) And naturally, there are trade-offs among them: a product that has all the features and can be delivered quickly may come at too steep a price for the market to bear.

(EN: He then begins meandering again. Large companies have more resources than small ones. People at different firms come up with the same idea without necessarily stealing from one another. The notion of design as a method of competition being too new for support mechanisms to be in place, and the like.)

Feature Bloat

There's a separate tare about the way in which firms attempted to compete by adding features to their products, creating monstrosities. A can opener than sharpens knives (or ruins them) and the like. The assumption that "more is better" led to some very strange and implausible products each trying to outdo the next, and firms adding features just because their competitor added them, plus one or two more for good measure.

The problem is even more pronounced with digital products, given that the additional features come in the form of software which can be augmented and modified ad infinitum without adding to the physical properties (or manufacturing costs) of the device. (EN: This rant goes on for a while.)

He suggests that the first versions of products are often well done - they are focused on providing an elegant solution to a single need. But then bloat sets in. Consider the product that turned Apple around, the iPod music player. This device did one thing: it played music. Now consider the abomination that is the iPod touch: it plays music and movies, and displays a photo album, and takes pictures, and has a calendar, and an alarm clock, and games, and provides internet access, and does videoconferences, and has the ability to install tens of thousands of applications to do other things. And it does it all very badly.

(EN: And this meanders and runs on as well.)

New Technologies

(EN: This is another long ramble - I'll attempt to preserve the salient points.)

How Long Does It Take to Introduce a New Product?

How long does it take for a product idea to result in a product that is available to the market? It can vary, from hours to centuries.

It depends in part on how you define "new product." On the short end of the scale, if the "new product" is a tee-shirt with a different design, a batch can be silk-screen printed in short order and the product can be listed on a web site before the ink is dry (or even applied). On the long end of the scale, Leonardo DaVinci came up with the idea for a helicopter in the late fifteenth century and the first actual one was not built until the 1940s.

In some instances, people have conceived products that the technology of the time did not support, and which would not be feasible for decades or centuries. Science fiction is replete with examples of futuristic products that were not built until decades or centuries after they were imagined because the technology did not exist.

And even though technology may accommodate an idea, people and culture change more slowly. They are generally satisfied so long as their needs are being met and will cling to patterns and habits even though some new gizmo comes along to do the same thing marginally better. Even a significant improvement will fall flat, and bankrupt its inventor, if the market is not receptive to it.

The fickleness of the market has also made companies timid. Most companies of significant size and age have seen good ideas come and go, and are reluctant to finance a new venture if it is too radical a departure and there is fear that the market will not accept it. This is the reason some of the most radical ideas are undertaken by small companies - as well as the reason most small companies fail.

He suggests that you don't get the sense of how many small companies pioneer ideas that bankrupt them, because the losers don't get as much publicity as the small number of winners. Also, many small companies "succeed" by being absorbed into bigger ones. Apple and Microsoft are two giants of the computer industry, each of whom has bought out hundreds of smaller firms that each had a good idea. He also mentions the manner in which people tend to conglomerate credit into a few places - Thomas Edison is often credited for inventions with which he had nothing to do, but people assumed any small electric device invented around the time he was alive must have been his work.

He mentions videophones, which were first imagined in the 1890s. Commercial products were created in the 1920s and 1930s, and failed to gain acceptance. Another major push in the 1960s also failed. And in the 1990s business attempted to adopt the idea as videoconferencing, which also didn't catch on very well at all. Even in the present day, in which videoconferencing software (like Apple's FaceTime) is built into most cell phones, tablets, notebooks, and desktop computers that have cameras, the notion of video conversation never did catch on.

(EN: The author implies that this is because it is still not technically perfect - but my guess is it's not a technical issue, merely that people do not always wish to be seen when they are conversing with others, or find text-messaging to be far more convenient than real-time conversation. Particularly among the Millennial generation, more of them communicate by IM than by phone. So it seems fair to suggest that video chat is a gimmicky idea that people never really wanted.)

Incremental and Radical Innovation

The author mentions that innovation can be incremental, in which small adjustments are made to a basic product or device in order to improve and evolve it slowly and over time, or it may be radical, in which an entirely new device or substantial changes to an existing one seem to appear in a short time.

Incremental innovation is far more common. A gradual process of testing and refinement slowly improves products, one feature or quality at a time, though over the course of years the progress can be substantial. It also represents a trial-and-error approach in which a change that does not cause an improvement, or even degrades the value of the device, can be removed in the next round of changes. The author offers the metaphor of "climbing a hill blindfolded" - a series of slow and careful steps that leads a process slowly to a peak.

Radical innovation often ignores existing products and instead begins with a clean slate, coming up with a totally different way to do things. Major leaps forward are made by radical innovation sometimes, though sometimes it also results in major catastrophes. Consider the graphical user interface (GUI) for computers - it was not just a slight improvement over text-based computing, but a re-envisioning of the way computers work.

There seems to be a great love of radical innovation as it is dramatic and inspirational - but most radical ideas fail immediately, and those that succeed can take years to be recognized and accepted in the market. Consider that the GUI was a failure for its original inventor, Xerox. And it took years for Apple computer to make a successful go of it.

The Design of Everyday Things: 1988-2038

The author first published this book in 1988, and remarks about how much has changed since then. Personal computers were not widespread, the Internet did not exist for most of the world, and the smart phone was unheard of. But on the other hand, the world has not evolved away from doors, switches, and faucets since that time. And frankly, even doors, switches, and faucets haven't changed very much over the years - and many are still designed very badly.

Even looking at the broader view of millennia, technology has undergone radical change but people remain largely the same. Their physical capabilities haven't changed much, and their needs and desires are still much the same as they have been for thousands of years. The evolution of biology certainly seems much slower than that of technology.

Given that technology is now beginning to tinker with genetics, as well as bioelectronics, it may give rise to radical changes in the human race. That sounds a great deal like implausible science fiction. People would likely have said the same thing about smart phones twenty years ago.

The global information network is a catalyst for change. People are gaining access to a world of information that used to be inaccessible to them, and to interact with people with whom they never would have met a few decades prior. This means that cultures are going to change.

Technology has always been an enabler to mankind - or at least, the technology that has been adopted and persevered has made man better in some way: stronger, faster, and otherwise able to accomplish ever more with less effort, overcoming the limitations of his weak body. And as technology today is also extending the capacity and capabilities of the human mind, its impact on humanity will become even more dramatic in years to come.

The author looks specifically to the input/output capabilities of portable networked electronic devices. They are currently quite clumsy in terms of input and output. Input can be improved if the device can read gestures and full-body motions. Output could be improved by improving the quality of auditory and visual displays that are superimposed (like Google Glass with an ear bud) rather than distractive. And the lot can be improved when artificial intelligence can make accurate decisions to deliver the exact information that is needed at precisely the right moment.

Does Technology Make Us Stupid and Useless?

He also acknowledges the argument that "technology makes us stupid." We are dependent on technologies and can no longer do simple things like addition and subtraction, reading a map, remembering a phone number, and the like because technology does all of this for us. And when the battery dies or the device is misplaced, we become pathetic and helpless.

But this is true of any technology: when industrialization made it easier to buy a shirt in the store, people lost the ability to weave cloth and make their own clothing. When we could buy meat in the store, we lost the skill of hunting. Even as far back as ancient Greece, Plato was complaining that written books would diminish man's memory and even his ability to think.

The question is: does our lack of the ability to do things that we do not really need to do really make us "stupid," or does it free us of the "petty tyranny of tending to the trivial" and allows us to focus our efforts on more critical matters? The suggestion that all people should devote time to learning to farm in an economy where food is plentiful and cheap is simply idiotic.

(EN: On the macro scale, we find is that the quality of life of a society can be correlated to the amount of time people spend producing basic necessities such as food. In hardscrabble societies, people spend 80% of their time just gathering food, whereas in industrialized nations, less than 5% of the labor force is devoted to food production - and the other 95% are devoted to producing other things.)

So the argument that we are dependent on technology is true, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Technology makes us more productive and gives us a better life. To fear the temporary hardship of a disaster scenario, and to let that fear cause us to abandon this power for the few times we are without technology, is foolish.

He also mentions the argument that technology will render man useless. This has never been so, as few machines are autonomous and all need human handlers. Technology enables man, but does not replace him. (EN: This is a bit general, and I would say that technology does make certain tasks unnecessary, and eliminates the jobs of humans who once did tasks that are not necessary. There is always a lag in culture and society to catch up, for the obsolete workers to retrain and assume positions in other areas.)

He refers to a professor (Brynjolfsson) who looked into chess-playing computers, as it was demonstrated that IBM's "deep blue" could beat a human grandmaster at the game of chess. What was also found, but received significantly less publicity, was that a grandmaster using a computer could defeat both a computer and a grandmaster working separately. That is, the best results are not achieved by a machine alone or a man alone, but when there is a man working with a machine - in a partnership that leverages the best qualities of both the organic and digital mind.

As human beings, there are things we do not do as well as machines. We do not have the strength and stamina of a forklift and we do not have the perfect memory of a computer. The way in which we leverage technology is to overcome these weaknesses to accomplish our goals - but the goals are set by human beings. There never has been a machine that can make an independent decision, and the repeated failure of artificial intelligence in spite of fifty years of effort of some very brilliant people suggests that it is a myth rather than a goal for machines to entirely replace men.

The Future of Books

It has long been claimed that digital technology will make previous communication technologies obsolete: the Internet and electronic books will render printed versions moot. So far that hasn't happened, though this is because the change has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary: the present state of digital books is merely to put the same words on a screen, which is no improvement at all - and in fact makes them harder to read.

He describes a more revolutionary change in books - to be dynamic and searchable so that users do not have to read entire books but can get only the information they need at the time. For there to be electronic glossary so that if the user wishes to have more information on a given topic can access it at a touch. This requires rethinking the concept of "book" as a non-linear experience - which may not be suitable for narratives, but should certainly be applicable to nonfiction books such as the present one.

(EN: all of this is a bit asinine, as these capabilities are already provided by hypertext and search capabilities. Hyperbooks were attempted and failed - and the author even admits that he attempted to publish an interactive book, and admits it was a complete failure, but arrogantly insists it was a "good idea that appeared too early." The fact is that knowledge is linear, with advanced concepts building on basic ones, and knowledge is better understood and retained in context rather than in random bits. In all, my sense is he's as wrong about this as he is about there being a desire for videoconferencing - which is to say there may be edge cases in which it is desirable, but it is highly unlikely ever to become the primary way people consume information.)

The Moral Obligations of Design

The design of a product affects the life of the person who uses that product, at least insofar as the way in which it affects them during the time that they are using it. And when products are mass produced, the designer of those products is affecting the lives of a great many people. The author feels it is a "moral obligation" upon designers to see that the effect of their work is positive.

The most basic goods are consumed: food is gone the moment it is eaten, and so keeping society provisioned of food provides constant employment for those who produce it - farmers, cannery workers, chefs, waiters, and the like all serve constant and ongoing needs. Other goods are durable: once a person purchases a product, he has it. When everyone who wants the product has it, there is no need for more. Sales and manufacturing will cease, and the companies that produce them will go out of business.

(EN: This argument is entirely unsound, as there never was a product that lasts forever. Most houses last fifty years, though some can be preserved for centuries. It is merely the difference in replacement cycles that determines the volume of demand and the number of items that need to be produced each year to satisfy the needs of new customers or the replacement needs of former ones. So this is entirely a flawed and false premise for what comes next.)

He mentions the notion of planned obsolescence, and the claim that certain products were built in a manner that would ensure that they will eventually break down and need to be replaced. He considers fashion to be some sort of conspiracy on the part of the garment industry to convince women to throw away perfectly serviceable clothes and buy new ones to replace them. He accuses digital device manufacturers of purposefully crafting products that are going to be obsolete in a short period of time.

(EN: All of this is poppycock. My sense is fashion is largely driven by consumers and the desire to distinguish themselves - once everyone else adopts a fashion it is no longer distinctive and the avant garde must then do something different to become distinctive. Products are built as sturdy as possible for the price paid, and predicting their obsolesces is not the same as planning it. Products use the most advanced technology of the time, but technology progresses quickly such that it is possible to build better devices in future. I would not go so far as to deny that some firms, at some times, have withheld innovations with exactly the intent the author claims - but that it is likely a rare practice and cannot be sustained in a competitive market, where the pressure is to rush a better product to market faster than competitors.)

(EN: In the end, what any of this has to do with the moral obligations of design is unclear - it's simply a conspiracy-theory rant.)

Design Thinking and Thinking About Design

The difference between art and design is that design has a purpose. Design is successful only if the product is successful: people buy it use it, enjoy it, and recommend it to others. A design that people do not purchase is a failure, even if the design team or the industry press consider it to be brilliant.

The measurement of design is whether it satisfies peoples' needs: it is both effective in delivering the value people hope to obtain by interacting with it, and efficient in requiring a minimum of cost and effort to deliver a certain level and quality of benefit.

But design of a product must consider more than just the user experience. It must be manufactured, stored, and delivered as well - and its cost must be reasonable for the benefit it delivers. If manufacturing cannot produce the product, it is too fragile to be stored or delivered, or any other factor prevents the product from actually being provided to its user, then the design is flawed.

And even once the product is in the hands of the customer, various aspects must be considered: how it is stored when not in use, how it receives power, how they learn to use it, how it can be repaired or upgraded, etc. All of this also factors into their appreciation of the product.

All of this considered, the design must consider the full lifecycle of products - from the purchase of materials, through manufacture, through delivery, through purchase, through storage, through use, through maintained, and even to the final disposal.

Design thinking must permeate an organization. The designer should not be the lone gunman, fighting others within his organization to get them to consider the customer. The entire culture should be built around customer satisfaction, and design should be a collaborative rather than contentious process.

The Rise of the Small

(EN: The last bit of the book is an unfocused ramble, with daydreams about the power of blogs, video sharing, open source, 3D printing, and a few other things to "transform the world" by enabling individuals to do things that they have already had the power to do for decades or more but have chosen not to. It's fluff and has nothing to do with the topic of the book, so I'm dropping it.)