I love watching excellence in motion. Watching Fred Astaire dance, reading a poem by Robert Frost, watching Michael Jordan play ball, Tiger Woods play golf or opening new products that have the ability to bring a smile to my face. They all share one thing, these folks make it look so easy. The result of hard work and tireless practice is that the performance appears almost effortless. Of course, that’s never the case.
I’m constantly amazed at the number and the degree of badly designed products out there that come to market. I’m talking bad stuff. I mean stuff that had to go from concept, to design, to prototype and eventually make it to the retail channel. Stuff so bad that it’s impossible to imagine that anyone in their right mind signed off on the process and the steps along the way. The stuff that makes you scream…”what were they thinking?” You don’t need to be a genius to know that some of this stuff just won’t work. It isn’t rocket science, it’s just focusing on the basics and this is why much of the criticism is warranted.
If it takes three days to configure a music phone to get music on it, or if your media player deletes all the content on your hard drive, you don’t need to be an engineer to critique the process that allowed that product to come to market. I understand hitting the mark of super excellence is hard, but it is possible and reasonable to get the basics right. Maybe if more vendors just spent time on the basics, they would do better overall and perhaps other players would shine less by comparison. I’m also tired of mediocre stuff that gets the table stakes stuff wrong that comes from vendors that, in theory, should know better.
There is, however, another side of this discussion and over the last few weeks I’ve had a recurring set of conversations of users critiquing product designs and the suggestion that the user should become the product designer. Think of it as “citizen gadgetry” Sorry, I just don’t agree with the concept of end users as designer. It’s simply not as easy as it appears (as we’ve seen with the difficulty of getting devices like the CrunchPad to market). There’s a complex iteration between features, form and cost that is more than just trivial.
It’s easy to create niche products that are only designed for a few users. You all know my longstanding view that there’s a market for about 50,000 of anything (except perhaps MIDs). Designing something for the mass market of fifty million or more though requires lots of work. It also requires talent, training, thorough understanding of the market and retail channels and more talent. Perhaps not necessarily Jonathon Ive level talent in every case, but real talent nevertheless. As a user and a pretty technical one at that, I can appreciate good design and I can tell you what works and what doesn’t work and why. The idea, however, that people can go from user to creator in one small leap is an entirely different story. The notion that the majority of people in our society enjoy the creative talents of others and don’t create their own work is so prevalent we have a word for it. We call these people consumers and the gadget industry is more formally known as consumer electronics. The democratization of gadgets might sound like a good idea but I highly doubt we’ll see it happen any time soon or any great gadgets that do eventually come from these sources.