Design

Product design quotes

I recently pulled together my favorite product design quotes from this blog over the years. Here they are in one place:

  • Don’t find customers for your products, find products for your customers. – Seth Godin

  • People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. – Simon Sinek

  • Focus means saying no to the hundred other good ideas – Steve Jobs

  • Technology serves humans; Design is not art; The experience belongs to the user; Great design is invisible; Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication – Joshua Porter

  • A new product should be 90% familiar and 10% wildly innovative – Tony Fadell

  • Don’t try to be original; just try to be good – Paul Rand

  • Design is just decision-making with visual aids – me

  • Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey – Werner Herzog

  • Design is about solving problems that humans have, not problems that products have. – Mills Baker

  • The important thing is the people. – Ed Catmull

  • To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan and not quite enough time. – Leonard Bernstein

  • Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question. – e.e. cummings

  • We shall not cease from exploration; And the end of all our exploring; Will be to arrive where we started; And know the place for the first time. – T.S. Eliot

  • Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd. – Voltaire

A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam. – Frederik Pohl

Art knows better

To experience the truth in art reminds us that there is such a thing as truth. Truth lives. It can be found…

All the world’s power over us lies in its ability to persuade us that we are powerless to understand each other, to feel and see and love each other, and that therefore it is pointless for us to try. Art knows better, which is why the world tries so hard to make art impossible, to immiserate artists, to ban their work, silence their voices, and why it’s so important for all of us to, quite simply, make art possible.

  • Michael Chabon, in his last letter as chair of the MacDowell artists colony

Dystopia and its discontents

Kim Stanley Robinson breaks down the various flavors of utopia and dystopia and comes out in favor of writing about, and pursuing, utopias, despite their limitations.

He concisely explains why dystopias are unable to spur real change:

These days I tend to think of dystopias as being fashionable, perhaps lazy, maybe even complacent, because one pleasure of reading them is cozying into the feeling that however bad our present moment is, it’s nowhere near as bad as the ones these poor characters are suffering through…If this is right, dystopia is part of our all-encompassing hopelessness.

And why utopias meet such strong opposition:

It is important to oppose political attacks on the idea of utopia, as these are usually reactionary statements on the behalf of the currently powerful, those who enjoy a poorly-hidden utopia-for-the-few alongside a dystopia-for-the-many.

It’s interesting to read his comments in the context of reactions to politically progressive efforts like the Green New Deal and universal healthcare. Some of the loudest opposition has come from those who already enjoy the desired benefits.

Immediately many people will object that this is too hard, too implausible, contradictory to human nature, politically impossible, uneconomical, and so on. Yeah yeah. Here we see the shift from cruel optimism to stupid pessimism, or call it fashionable pessimism, or simply cynicism. It’s very easy to object to the utopian turn by invoking some poorly-defined but seemingly omnipresent reality principle. Well-off people do this all the time.

Crafting a compelling utopia–or as I sometimes put it, designing a better way to live together–is the defining project of our generation. We have the resources and capability; what we still lack is the right design and pathway.

The Ethical OS

Great toolkit and checklist for designing software that doesn’t “accidentally” turn into a tool for addiction, oppression, inequality, and hate: The Ethical OS

If the technology you’re building right now will some day be used in unexpected ways, how can you hope to be prepared? What new categories of risk should you pay special attention to now? And which design, team or business model choices can actively safeguard users, communities, society, and your company from future risk?

Mapping people

Map

A fascinating map where country size is scaled by the number of residents.

What defines a country’s importance? Its GDP; its military, its resources? More than anything, the most important attribute of a country is its people–who are they, where are they, and how many of them are there? Population density will define not only opportunity, but also our impact on the earth in the next 100 years.

Population can also be a blessing or a curse for a country. I recall (but can’t attribute) one quote about China’s rise…”When the West sees a billion workers threatening their jobs, Chinese leaders see a billion mouths to feed.” Meanwhile their neighbors to the east in Japan increasingly live alone, and find themselves needing to train robots for companionship.

Should you head toward areas of high density, or away from them? Will technology make it easier to spread out, or harder? Answering these questions will be critical to success in the future.

Five principles to design by, by Joshua Porter:

  1. Technology serves humans
  2. Design is not art
  3. The experience belongs to the user
  4. Great design is invisible
  5. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication

I’ve learned most of these the hard way…take the shortcut by following the list!

The sweet spot of innovation

Q: How many designers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Does it really have to be a light bulb?

Designers are (in)famous for always trying to come up with the unexpected; the “next big thing”. Early in my career I even described my goal as delivering “not what was asked for, but something new and better”. It’s a dangerous trait that often puts us at odds with our teammates, who are typically more focused on tangible metrics and engineering milestones.

When I worked on Glass, there was disagreement among team members about whether we were building a research prototype or a mass-market consumer product. A research project would focus on pushing the boundaries and learning as much as possible. A consumer product would need to fit existing use cases and appeal to a wide audience. Unsurprisingly, people on each side of the argument proposed wildly different approaches to product design, engineering, marketing, and sales.

In the end, we built a research prototype and marketed it as a consumer product, which didn’t work out very well. We didn’t achieve success in the market, and because we were distracted by selling, we didn’t learn as much as we should have. Glass was the classic example of a product that was ahead of its time…but of course being too early is the same as being wrong.

This talk by Jon Friedman, a designer who worked on the Kin, the Courier, SPOT watches and other Microsoft hardware misadventures, tells some of the same stories. I admire Jon’s work (and I loved the Kin!), but watching the talk I became increasingly uncomfortable with the repeated similar failures. After all, the point of “failing fast” is not the failing–it’s the learning. Designers of these highly innovative products aren’t learning the lessons of past failures.

Glass and the failed Microsoft products share at least one trait: they all tried to change entire systems, all at once. Glass innovated on form factor, hardware technology, interface design, software architecture, marketing, sales, and support. The Microsoft Kin had new industrial design, stored your phone in the cloud, and changed the way you pay for the phone.

One of the most interesting lessons I learned from working for Tony Fadell (who took over the Glass project) was the idea that a new product should be 90% familiar and 10% wildly innovative. A product that’s too far out, that doesn’t feel connected to anything people recognize, will be too uncomfortable to succeed. But of course if you’re not innovative enough, no one will need what you’ve built. So now I set up an “innovation budget” to track how much change my designs are forcing on people, and I’m careful to keep that amount in check. The goal is to find the “sweet spot” of innovation where a design is both desirable and acceptable.

Friedman goes on to describe his own career shift from working on early-stage speculative new products to making smaller improvements to the Exchange platform, a mature system with lots of customers. He found that it was not only an interesting design challenge, but also fulfulling to make an immediate difference at scale.

He also describes a strategy of combining “something new and something old”–taking new technology into existing markets, or existing technology into new markets. In either case, you only have to invent half of the solution, as the other half has already been figured out.

Paul Rand said “Don’t try to be original; just try to be good.” Innovation is plentiful in design today…it’s important to stay focused on making the “basics” great as well. To evolve my younger self’s goal: the sweet spot of innovation is the place where you fulfill what was asked for, and provide something better.

Harnessing AI to build better UI

A fascinating article (and set of demos) about how generative and improvisational AI techniques could help us invent better interfaces, and better ways of thinking for humans:

At its deepest, interface design means developing the fundamental primitives human beings think and create with…

We’ve described a third view, in which AIs actually change humanity, helping us invent new cognitive technologies, which expand the range of human thought. Perhaps one day those cognitive technologies will, in turn, speed up the development of AI, in a virtuous feedback cycle.

So not just computers quickly generating lots of options based on existing pieces, but helping us think up new ways to frame the questions, and build new tools to explore them. Your next design colleague could be a machine.

The biggest constraint in most product development is not technical capability or design skill–it’s willingness to talk with customers.