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Motofone Review

Motofone Review

A few weeks back, I posted about the Motofone, a truly innovative phone designed for developing countries. My friend Constantinos, who lives in India, offered to get me one, but unfortunately it won’t work on US frequencies. Since I couldn’t get my hands on one, I instead interviewed Constantinos about his phone. Below you will find a full account of the Motofone, from real user experience in its target environment. Enjoy!

This interview cross-posted on cneophytou.com

Nick: How is the packaging, the new user experience? What’s included in the box?
Constantinos: The phone came in a cylindrical container, aka a tube. Opening the box revealed inside the device itself (without any protective plastic bag/screen cover), a battery in a nylon bag, the back cover of the device, a charger, a user’s manual (in Telugu, Kannada and English), and the standard warranty papers. The package is a cardboard tube with plastic tops, which makes it feel a bit cheap. However the finish is good, and if it’s sitting on a table it looks better than expected, so it might actually work in places other than India, like Europe or the US. Most phones come in solid & glossy cardboard boxes with the phone securely tucked away in polystyrene or a plastic casing, but the Motofone’s case is different enough that it stands out.

Nick: Tell me about the physical design of the phone. How does it feel?

Constantinos: The phone is extremely light. The face is completely flush, with no nicks or grooves for dirt to get into (not even around the screen, which is simply a transparent piece of plastic as far as the outer shell goes). Even the keys are completely flat, which I love. I read somewhere that the phone was built for the weather in countries like India, where there’s a lot of rain and dirt in the air. I have not tested the rain claim, but I will take Motorola’s word for it. As for the dirt, the only place I can see dirt getting into is the speaker, but even that seems hard. Everything else is either completely flat or sealed with rubber. There’s still tactile feedback through the protruding rubber lines above and below the buttons. Both the buttons and the click wheel in the middle feel very natural. The clickable area is quite large, and you can easily feel the button being pressed.

The only input slot is the charger/headphone jack, which is smaller than any other charger jack I’ve seen. However, the fit of the plug is extremely snug in the phone (it will not fall off if you dangle the phone from the cord, but at the same time it does not require much strength to push it in/take it out), and it seems that it uses the same plug for headphones, which I have not tested. The thickness of the phone is about the same as an Apple Remote.

Nick: How about performance? In practice, how long is the battery life? How is reception?

Constantinos: Motorola claims 300h of stand-by battery life which, for the less mathematically inclined, translates to 12 days. That might be true if you turn on the phone, leave it on a table and never touch it or receive any calls. The screen consumes absolutely no power when it’s not changing the contents of the display, so on stand by the only power drain is the signal reception and updating the time every 60 seconds. However, I would not expect the battery to last anything more than 5 days under any circumstances where the phone is actually being used. I did let the battery run down completely, but I did get a solid 4 days of constant use from it before the 5-segment battery indicator dropped to a single line (just barely dropped below 2, where the last line can easily go for another day).

As far as reception goes, I only have one word: outstanding. I’ve been using this phone for 2 weeks, and I still have not seen the reception indicator fall below the full 5 lines (and no, reception is not generally this good in my area). In line with this, the excellent speakerphone is a feature I did not expect. Voice clarity on this device is up to par with any phone I’ve ever tried, including land lines. I have no problems understanding anything anyone says to me on this phone.

Nick: How does the screen perform in different light conditions? How does it compare to regular screens?

Constantinos: The screen is definitely the most innovative power saving feature of the device. I already knew that the E-ink technology used for the screen requires no power to keep the screen on, but it’s a different feeling when you take out the battery without turning the phone off, and the screen keeps displaying the last characters on it! (Yes, it does reset without any trace when you turn it back on). The contrast is excellent and the characters are clearly visible in any light condition from any angle (unless there’s complete darkness).

This being said, it’s not all rosy. The character display is exactly like the old 16-segment LCD displays of yesteryear. 2 rows of 6 characters, that’s it. What’s even worse, only the first row is used for actual alphanumeric characters, which makes reading messages a big pain. I do believe there’s a valid reason for doing this (read on about the user interface), but it doesn’t stop it from being extremely annoying. Also since the characters are constructed from segments, there’s no notion of upper/lower case. You will see an upper case letter or a lower case letter depending on which one will make the most sense when formed by the segments.

Nick: Describe the user interface? Is it immediately intuitive, or does it take getting used to?

Constantinos: The interface is by far the most interesting aspect of the device, even more so than the screen. The phone has a language setting, but not in the traditional sense as none of the menus have any text in them. Instead, any action you might perform on the phone and might need some instruction, comes with a voice-over, in the language chosen by the user. As this phone is targeted for the low-income family, there’s a good chance that a user of the phone might not even know how to read. For this reason, I believe the choice to preload the phone with voice messages in the native languages of the region it is being launched in instead of simply having text in different languages is an excellent choice.

The first time I turned on the phone and entered my PIN, I was greeted by a man speaking in a language I did not understand. After a few seconds, the same man said, in English, “For English, press 3″. Since I bought the phone in the Karnataka district of India, the phone comes with 3 pre-set languages: Telugu, Kannada, and English, where the first two are the official languages of the district. These options come up whenever the SIM card is replaced in the phone, which makes sense. Once the language is selected, if you wish to change it you must either change the SIM, or go through the ‘advanced menus’ (read on).

As soon as I pressed 3, the same voice asked me if I wanted voice prompts while using the phone. 1 for Yes, 2 for No. I pressed 1 just out of curiosity. This option is presented to me every time the phone is switched on. Note that wherever I make a note of what the “friendly voice” says, this is always dependent to whether or not voice prompts are enabled. If they’re not, then the voice will never be heard from again (at least not until you turn the phone off and back on).

Since I had just powered on the phone, I was presented with the option for setting the time on the phone (with the voice telling me “Enter time”). After telling it the time and date, I was pretty much done with the setup.

There are exactly 6 menu choices. The menu can be accessed by pressing right or left on the click wheel. Pressing up or down while on standby changes the volume of the phone. The menu itself contains no characters, just icons. The same friendly voice tells you the menu you are on, which you can access by pressing the action key (top left). These choices are (as narrated by the friendly voice): Send a message, Read your messages, Call history, Change ringtone (7 possible pre-defined choices), Set alarm, Change time. Scrolling to the menu you wish to use you can press ‘up’ or ‘action’ and the menu will be selected, where the voice will tell you what you can do (”Write your message” for example).

There are a few other (advanced) options you can mess with: change language, select time format, set voicemail number, keypad tones on/off, auto keypad lock on/off, set SIM pin, SIM pin on/off, restricted calling – phonebook only, prepaid balance display, set balance inquiry number, and the obligatory reset factory settings. All of these options are accessible by pressing *** [3-digit number code] * [action]. These settings obviously require the manual which lists all the 3 digit codes, and are generally the kind of thing you would only set once and then forget about it. I haven’t tried to see if there are any easter eggs in there.

All in all, it took me about 10 minutes to get used to the interface. It did not immediately come to me (I spent a few seconds being utterly confused), but I believe the reason for that was because I’m so used to the standard interfaces that come on every phone. After getting the hang of this one (which was very fast to do so), it became almost second nature.

Nick: How does the address book work?

Constantinos: There’s a phone book button (top right) which takes you directly to the phone book. There is no memory on the phone itself for an address book, so it uses the SIM memory which is limited to 12 characters per contact name, and one number per contact entry. Pressing the phone book button will bring up the phone book, which you can navigate with up/down, or press a letter to jump to that point in the phone book. To scroll through the 6 character limit of the display you must press right. Pressing right multiple times will display the phone number of the contact, and then an option to delete the contact (shown as a trash can, you must press ‘up’ to delete it when the icon is shown). Furthermore, each contact has a number associated to it (the SIM card memory location), which can be used for speed dialing. If an unknown number is on the display, an icon appears above the phone book button which indicates that pressing it will let you add that number to your SIM.

The Call History menu has a memory of the last 15 dialed/received calls (the menu icon indicates whether the number was dialed or received, depending on the direction of the arrow).

Nick: How does text messaging work?

Constantinos: There are two ways you can send a text message. The first way is to start writing a message by using the “Send a message” menu (first choice), then entering the number or going through the phone book. Alternatively, whenever a number or a contact (either through the phone book or through the Call History menu) is visible, a “Send a message” action is available and accessible through the action button, which will take you to the same “Send a message” menu. Writing the message and pressing send will send the message to the number you already selected.

Texting I already mentioned that only the top row is used for text, and that this makes reading messages extremely annoying. However, you do get used to it. If a word is less than 6 characters long, it will definitely be shown in its entirety. I.e. if you receive the message “hi how is california?” then “hi how” would be on the first screen, “is” would be on the second and “california” would span two screens, split at the ‘o’. The reason behind all this, in my opinion, is consistency. Browsing anything (messages, contacts, call history, etc) is a top to bottom action, and reading a message is a left to right action. If the message spanned two lines, it might be a bit more confusing, but the initial confusion might be worth the convenience. On the up side the response time of any action is next to nothing, so reading a message on this phone is NOT considerably slower than on any other phone, provided you’re not using T9 or any other sophisticated input method. The only way a message can be composed is by typing each letter in the standard way. Furthermore, there’s no ‘back’ button in the sense that you can navigate your message. If you make a mistake, you have to erase all the letters from the end of the message to the mistake in order to correct it, and then type everything again.

Nick: What do you like best about the phone?

Constantinos: I’d have to say the large characters that display the time, the visibility of the screen, and the intuitiveness of the interface (after you take 10 minutes to learn it, mainly because we’ve all been conditioned to expect a lot of counter-intuitive interfaces from phones). Oh, and the price. You just can’t beat a $40 price tag on a phone that looks this good.

Also, I was surprised by the alarm. It’s quite loud, annoying, and must have a very well constructed sound loop because when it starts “chirping”, it appears as if the frequency/tone of the sound is slightly randomized, so it’s not a constant beat. Let’s just say it has more success waking me up than most other alarms I’ve tried (with the possible exception of The Matrix soundtrack CD starting at full volume).

Nick: What do you miss most? Is the simplicity a blessing or a curse?

Constantinos: I think what I miss the most is the ability to synchronize my contact list with my mac, and slightly less I miss being able to connect my mac to the internet through the phone from wherever I am. However I still force myself to not carry my bluetooth enabled phone everywhere with me, because I believe having that kind of access to the internet should be reduced. As a computer scientist I spend a LOT of time on the internet as is, and having the ability to connect to the internet from anywhere at any time is just distracting. Feel free to disagree with me on this.

Beyond that, I do not miss the camera, the color screen, or the mp3 capabilities (I even have an iPod that I never use). If anything, I’d say the simplicity is a blessing. I never really used any of those features on my phones for any reasonable purpose, and simply having them there caused me to take ugly photos, waste time with 100px color photos, and suffer through low quality songs. Granted there are a lot of smartphones out there that get a lot of these things right, and maybe it is convenient to some to have a low quality 2MP camera in their pocket at all times. As far as I’m concerned however, if I believe I’ll want to take some photos, I’ll take a real camera. There’s just no way a phone can be designed to do all those things, and at the same time be small, light and usable. It always takes away from the primary purpose of the phone: making calls; which is why I believe the simplicity of this phone is a step in the right direction.

Nick: What are the greatest flaws of the phone? How would you improve it?

Constantinos: I’d have to say the way the screen displays the characters. It seems that e-ink technology is able to create finer text, though I don’t know how that would affect the stand-by battery life (not that it matters much in real-life terms). Reading/Composing messages is troublesome at best, which is a problem concerning a lot of cellular communication now occurs via texting. I realize that a lot of the marketing around the phone is targeted to people who potentially don’t know how to read and/or write, but it’s a mistake to not consider the vast number of people who do and will be using this phone for that purpose. Other than that, I couldn’t be happier with it.

Nick: How popular is the phone in India? How is it marketed?

Constantinos: I have not seen any ads for it, nor have I seen anyone else carry it or use it. That being said, I had a hell of a time finding a unit, as it was out of stock in every shop I went to. On the flip side, one shop owner I chatted up said they only brought 20 units total which sold in a couple of weeks, but they have no plans of bringing more. A few other stores hadn’t even heard of the device. I was finally able to locate a store that was having some stock brought in, and I reserved a device from them. The store attendant seemed to be very curious as to why I would choose a phone that had no features, and kept trying to get me to buy something else. Then again I’m in Mangalore, which is a city of 800,000 people in a country of 1.2 billion, and is also considered by many as a backwater village (i had to go to 4 different computer stores to find a 6-pin to 6-pin firewire cable). It’s extremely likely that Motorola has just not focused any marketing efforts in my parts of India, but I can’t confirm that.

Nick: Would you use this as your primary phone in the US?

Constantinos: Probably. I’ve definitely given up a Nokia 6230 and an Ericsson K700i for this phone. Both of the other phones are turned off and stuck in my closet. That being said, I would not get rid of secondary phone with some more wireless capabilities, because I often find myself needing some mobile access which a simple phone cannot provide. I don’t know if I’d give up a blackberry for it, as I’ve never owned one (re: my comment on the simplicity of the phone).

Nick: Well that’s it for our interview. Thanks Constantinos for taking the time to answer my questions. For more information about the motofone, check out my previous post.

Can designs be too clever?

Can designs be too clever?

The History of the Button blog has a really interesting post on a seemingly smart, but ultimately confusing elevator design. Is it possible for designs to be too clever for their own good?

Dealing with the user’s ingrained expectations is often a dilemma when trying to innovate: do you create something that is novel and potentially confusing, or do you conform to the user’s expectations? Often, an idea will be a clear improvement on paper, but the user’s habits will in practice prove an overwhelming barrier. This is particularly true when the interaction is almost subconscious, as in the elevator example linked to above.

When a novel design provides significant new value, users may be willing to invest some time and mental effort to learn new behaviors. Many people are willing to learn how to use a navigation system, as it makes life so much easier. Nevertheless, designers should work to minimize these switching costs by providing adequate explanations (preferably in context, not tucked away in an obscure manual), adhering to usability conventions as much as possible, and using methods such as progressive disclosure.

Of course, the most revolutionary designs are those that innovate in a way that is so intuitive that they behave exactly as the user expects them to — even though the interaction is completely novel. Automatic transmissions are a good example of this — they are clearly simpler to use than their alternative. Not to use a tired example, the iPod’s scroll-wheel also springs to mind. It remains to be seen if the iPhone lives up to expectations, though usability expert Bruce Tognazzini has high hopes.

I’ve touched on this subject before: elevator algorithms

Design 2.0: Closing thoughts

Design 2.0: Closing thoughts

This is it, we’ve reached the end of my Design 2.0 write-up. To conclude, let me offer up some of my own thoughts on the conference. I’ll start by saying that this was the first design conference I attended, and I had a great time. I particularly enjoyed Diego’s and Steve’s talks, and got a chance to meet some really cool people during the mixer. Overall, the conference was definitely a success as far as I’m concerned.

Nevertheless, I think we all missed an opportunity to explore a very interesting topic. While the talks were entertaining, I found them overly broad, and only tenuously related to the theme. I wish there had been more parallels drawn with the natural world. I touched on this in my audience question about the fragility of ecosystems, but I had dozens more in the same vein. I wanted to be told about predators and parasites, evolution and natural disasters. How can our knowledge of natural ecosystems inform our decisions in product ecosystems? And how do product systems differ from natural systems?

I would also have liked to hear more real world examples and applicable lessons. Tell me about challenges posed by specific product ecosystems, how a given product succeeded within its ecosystem or how another one failed and why (and please, please don’t ever tell me about the iPod again). Also tell me about the research methods of people studying ecosystems: biologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and so forth. Expand my design toolkit, teach me how to think about my product in context. Many of these points were touched on, but ever so briefly and with very little substance.

If I had to sum it up in one sentence, I’d say it was a fine conference but that it didn’t really address the topic – and that’s a pity given the potential of the theme.

PS: If I hear one more vague question about “the social role of designers”, I’m going to have a hissy-fit. Consider yourselves lucky that I filtered the Q&A for you.

Design 2.0: Q&A

Design 2.0: Q&A

After the four speeches, the Design 2.0 panelists spent some time answering questions from moderator Jessie Scanlon and the audience. I’ve summarized the best ones below. All questions and answers are very roughly paraphrased and to a large extent reflect my interpretation of the dialogue.

JS: Peter, you contrasted Apple’s success with Rhapsody’s clunky integration. Does this suggest that more vertical integration is the way to go?

PR: In the short run, yes, but in the long run everyone benefits from openness. The iPod for example would never have been successful without the benefit of years of openness leading to the mp3 format. Rhapsody, while compatible with more devices, isn’t actually more open per se – it’s just differently closed.

JS: How do you create context for a product if there is none?

SP: The trick is to create hooks upon which a community can build a new context. Google and Amazon have APIs that allow outside developers to create mashups. In’N'Out Burgers has a very simple menu, but it also has a subculture of ‘secret’ items not listed on the menu, that spread virally via fans. In a way it’s bad design because the feature is hidden, but it’s also good design in that it creates passion.

JS: How does power flow through ecosystems?

PR: It’s cliche, but technology both empowers and disempowers. For example, Tivo has changed how people think of TV and given them control over this aspect of their life.
DR: True, but it turns out that the average Tivo user spends 18mn/day just using the Tivo interface, so for every step forward, there are also setbacks. How do we regain those 18 minutes? The question of open vs. closed actually depends on where you are in the power curve: at the beginning a closed system like Apple’s makes sense to get an integrated experience, but as usage norms get figured out, the system eventually opens up.
RW: Another way to empower the customer is mass customization, which is what the car industry is doing with the Scion xB and the Mini Cooper.
SP: Agreed, but in most cases there’s still a terrible lack of power on the user’s side. People are stuck – we have a long way to go.

JS: The left brain is linear and analytic, whereas the right brain is creative. Yet it seems that the design process outlined by Robyn is strictly linear. Is this really the path followed by most projects?
DR: It’s really hard to explain the creative process. You can’t just tell a client that it’s a ‘non-linear fur-ball’, so we describe it as 1->2->3->4 when in reality it’s much more complicated. As the client learns more about the process, they become more comfortable with the more exploratory approach.

Audience question (my question, in fact): Speaking of ecosystems brings up metaphors with the natural world. But natural ecosystems are often described as fragile, easily disrupted environments. Do you have to take care to not damage the ecosystem when introducing a new product, or are product ecosystems much more resilient?
DR: Basically it comes down to whether you want to stay in business after you introduce your product. You can introduce a product with a big splash, but it has to fit into the ecosystems to be successful in the long run. Go in small, learn what goes on, iterate and evolve to achieve fit.

Audience question (by Luke Wroblewski): There seems to be a tension between the fruitfly approach and the ecosystem approach? For Apple and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, it was necessary to create a cohesive ‘elephant’ experience. Comments?
DR: It all depends on the frame of reference. You pick your battles carefully to include as much context as necessary but not so much that it becomes unmanageable. Apple outsourced the internals of the first iPod so it could focus on the big picture.

Anyway, we’re nearing the end of my Design 2.0 coverage. Tomorrow I’ll post some general thoughts on the conference, and then I’ll return to my regular link blogging for a bit!

Stanford Design Thesis presentations

Stanford Design Thesis presentations

Tonight I got the chance to attend the thesis presentations for second year design students in Stanford’s Product Design program. It was a really fun time, with the projects ranging from playful solar-powered lights to commercializable fitness equipment. I was also impressed by the variety of the presentations, which used all sorts of mediums including video, live music, and physical product demonstrations. Unfortunately this was a private session, so I can’t write in more detail about the concepts for now, but I’m going to track down some of the students in the coming days to get their permission to write about this stuff. There’s also a public presentation this Saturday June 17th at 2pm in Annenberg Hall (I think this might be the location: http://campus-map.stanford.edu/index.cfm?ID=03-010).

Design 2.0: Peter Rojas

Design 2.0: Peter Rojas

Peter Rojas is the founder of popular gadget blog Engadget, which he started after serving as editor for Gizmodo. As the last speaker, Peter was courteous to keep his talk short to leave ample time for Q&A.

Gadget ecosystems

What goes into creating a successful gadget nowadays? It used to be that a TV was a TV, and that was it. Today it has to interact with half a dozen different devices, from the DVD player and the Tivo to the stereo system and the custom remote. Gadgets are part of extremely complex ecosystems that need to inform the design.

Consider the different parts involved in creating a successful mp3 player. You need:
* hardware
* embedded software
* PC software, maybe Mac software
* a method to deliver music, e.g. iTunes Music Store or Rhapsody

This last step in itself involves getting the labels signed up, setting up a delivery infrastructure, a DRM mechanism, etc. Of course, a music store could in theory be spread across many different players, but more on open vs. closed below. Not to beat a dead horse, but Apple was successful because it offered a seamlessly integrated experience.

Cellphones are even more complicated: manufacturers, carriers, consumers, phone OS folks, chipset manufacturers, third party software developers and regulators all have to coordinate to bring a phone to market, and unsurprisingly it takes a very long time. Combined with haphazard integration across products, this causes a lot of frustration in technology.

Open vs. closed

Analysts have been babbling about convergence for years now, and yet we’ve seen very little progress in this domain. The trouble is that each company wants to control their system, with the end result being a balkanized ecosystem. Think of Intel’s Viiv platform, and AMD’s similar but incompatible effort. Companies won’t be able to change user behavior until they themselves change their behavior to enable simpler technology.

Stay tuned for the Q&A summary tomorrow, which has some interesting content.

Design 2.0: Robyn Waters

Design 2.0: Robyn Waters

Robyn Waters is the founder of trend consulting company RW Trend, and before that was the VP of Design for Target. She believes that “good taste and great design don’t have to be expensive”. Target’s strategy of differentiation through design has allowed it to compete successfully against behemoth Walmart.

The 3H design theory

HEAD need
HEART love, want
Most people go to Target with a $10 list, yet people end up spending more than $100. That’s the effect of the Heart.

Trends and desires

“Trend are signposts pointing to what is going on in the hearts and minds of consumers”.
The key is to figure out what’s important, not just what’s next. The best example of this philosophy is Philippe Starck’s sippy cup, pictured above. Target executives were skeptical, after all a sippy cup isn’t supposed to have a stem and look like crystal glass. Starck insisted and pushed the design through, convinced that every little girl should feel like a princess. Lo and behold, it was a tremendous success, with the $3 cups now selling for $100 on eBay. Other examples of trend-aware design abound, such as LG’s cellphone with a Qiblah (pointer to Mecca), or this Prada perfume bottle design inspired by the 30s and 40s.

Left brain, right brain, and the creative process

Robyn used the above diagram to explain the creative process to Target executives, which was apparently no easy task. While numbers are useful as a research tool and a success metric, not everything can be measured – you have to leave room for the right brain to operate, the incubation period. It is through a combination of left and right brain thinking that you arrive at illumination.

Various quotes

“The hear has its reason, of which reason knows nothing” – Pascal
“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts” – Einstein
“Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is important, but what they hide is crucial” – W. C. Fields
“When opposites supplement each other, everything is harmonious” – Lao Tzu
“Growth is a creative process, not an accounting process” – Robert Redford
“The art form of our busines is intuition” – James Sinegal, CEO CostCo, on how his company is about more than just penny-savings, it’s about a ‘treasure hunt’.

Design 2.0: Steve Portigal

Design 2.0: Steve Portigal

Our second speaker was Steve Portigal, the founder of Portigal Consulting, “a boutique firm that brings together user research, design and business strategy”. Not only was Steve’s talk full of marvellously dry humor, but it also made a number of interesting points.

Wired for stories

Human crave stories. Stories are essential for our emotional, mental and spirititual health. At a neurological level, our brains are built to imagine stories from the facts we observe. As any creative writing course will tell you, setting influences character and behavior. Transposing this to a product viewpoint, context is the setting, and our goal is to tell a compelling story.
2 books recommendations:
Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud, on comics and the art of storytelling
99 ways to tell a story: Exercises in Style, by Matt Madden, on how one story can be told in many different ways (inspired by Exercises de Style, by Raymond Queneau).

Defining context

Context informs design, design creates context. Even the simple questions who, when, where can lead to surprising insights.
Who A snow-shovel won a number of awards because the designers figured out that women were the principal users and thus needed a smaller handle.
When The words we use reveal the frame of reference: horseless carriage, cordless phone.
Where The ‘third space’ between office and home requires new designs. In doing research for a laptop design, a team found a guy editing videos sitting in a tree in a park. Not a common case for sure, but people are constantly using objects in unusual situations.

Discovering cultural context

The idea is to identify cultural norms – what is normal? For example, handsfree headsets led to a lot of ‘people talking to themselves’ jokes, but this has now become common enough that it isn’t jarring anymore. Another example is the play “A Number” which recently closed in San Francisco, in which one actor has to play three different people. In the UK production, the actor used accents to differentiate the protagonists, but that wasn’t possible in the US because accents have a different connotation here. Once you have identifed the cultural norms, you need to look for overlaps of different cultural contexts that can lead to new and surprising ideas.


As a sidenote, halfway through Steve’s talk the banner on the stage collapsed with much drama. Not only did all speakers escape unharmed, but the powerbook even survived the six foot fall. Way to go, Apple design!

Design 2.0: Diego Rodriguez

Design 2.0: Diego Rodriguez

Introducing our first speaker: Diego Rodriguez. Diego is a professor at the D-School and works at IDEO. He also writes the design blog Metacool. You may remember me writing about his Creating Infectious Action conference a few weeks back.

The Aquarium Analogy

Diego began his talk with a picture of the jellyfish tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. A decade ago, a designer tasked with creating this amazing experience would have thought of what shape to make the glass, how to set up the lighting, and what scenery should go in the tank. Nowadays, a designer would take a much broader perspective. How do people get to the aquarium? Where do they park, where do they stay? Is it enjoyable? The immediate design of the jellyfish tank is but a smaller part of the experience of visiting the aquarium – the point being that a great experience means a great ecosystem fit.

Three approaches to design

The above diagram illustrates the three sets of factors to consider when approaching a design problem. Design thinking traditionally focuses on the human factors, on how to make a product desirable. This is a great way to ensure a product will meet a true user need. However, Diego emphasizes that the other two perspectives must also be considered, in particular the business side which is sometimes overlooked by designers.

4 key characteristics of a successful design thinker

  • * optimism
  • * the mind of a child, the ability to be curious and naive (in a good way)
  • * wisdom, the ability to draw on experience
  • * building to think, prototyping

T-shaped people

T-shaped people is an old concept that IDEO uses to describe its hiring practice. T-shaped people are people with very deep knowledge in one domain (the stem of the T) but some knowledge in a wide variety of other domains (the bar of the T). The idea is that multi-functional teams of T-shaped people form the strongest design teams because each person has some understanding of their teammates’ fields. In Diego’s words, “design thinking is the glue that holds things together”.

Build a fruitfly

For the sake of argument, let us suppose you were tasked with building an elephant. You may think that the best way to do so would be to build a small elephant and let it grow from there. But with a 23 month gestation periods, building even a small elephant takes time. The trick is to instead build a fruitfly, that can evolve and adapt quickly. The same goes for products.

Designing for business to create value

The trick is for the business to make the shift from thinking of itself as the center of the solar system, to seeing itself as a big player in the ecosystem.
Three steps to success:

  • 1 – ensure desirability
  • 2 – balance desirability across stakeholders to create a non-zero-sum game
  • 3 – build fruitflies, not elephants, and iterate quickly

Design 2.0: Introduction

Design 2.0: Introduction

For the last conference I blogged, I posted notes that pretty much followed the flow of the talks. This time, I’m instead going to try to summarize the key points from each speaker. First up, the introductory comments by Core founder Allan Chochinov and moderator Jessie Scanlon from BusinessWeek.

The general theme

The theme of the Core77′s Design 2.0 conference in San Francisco was “Products and their Ecosystems – understanding the power of context in product innovation.” Allan remarked that all products exist in a context, a continuum of products created before and after, and must therefore fit in with these other products. On the other hand, a lot of products challenge and subvert the ecosystem, and it can even be argued that the truly innovative products are those that disrupt existing ecosystems and defines new ones.


Both Jessie and Allan enumerated some of the many ecosystems in which to consider a product:

  • * manufacturing
  • * distribution
  • * daily use
  • * post-use (trash, recycling, re-use)
  • * other products used alongside
  • * product line
  • * brand
  • * cultural context

Sony’s example

Jessie nicely illustrated the topic through some anecdotes about Sony. Sony used to be a very innovative company, but has somewhat lost its image as leader in the marketplace. This is due in part to a lack of attention to ecosystems.
Among other things, Sony engineers used to spend a lot of time with English-speaking researchers to understand a new market. As they grew more proficient in English, the engineers increasingly relied on their own information-seeking skills and thus started to miss the cultural context that only native speakers could give them.
Also, Sony failed to consider the full ecosystem of their product line. While Sony never ceased to produce well-designed products, these products did not play well with each other. So while an individual product might work fine, using several Sony products together was not nearly as painless as it could and should have been.
These are but two examples of how Sony lost its top spot as innovation leader in the portable music market to Apple’s seamlessly integrated experience (oh yes, I did just refer to the iPod. How could I not…)