The need for companies to change their ways

XVI.1 January + February 2009
Page: 42
Digital Citation

FEATUREProduct design 2.0 and the genesis of Kicker Studio

Dan Saffer

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It's obvious to anyone paying attention that the devices we own and carry around have changed in a significant way over the past several years. Presaged by mobile phones, the iPod, and Tivo, our devices now contain sophisticated embedded digital technology. They're networked. They are responsive and adaptive to human behavior. They're contextual and meaningful. And the best of them are cohesive: The hardware and software are created if not at the same time, then at least with a deep awareness of each other.

In other words, objects are now more than just objects. Instead, they're enablers of behavior. Which, in some sense, objects always have been (knives enable cutting, for instance). But now the behaviors that our devices can manifest and facilitate boggle the mind. Our devices can be "indistinguishable from magic."

Products are simply getting stranger. The affordances we used to take for granted (handles, buttons, dials, etc.) may or may not be there. Heck, the whole interface might not be visible. There's a new generation of touchscreen and sensor-driven devices that will number in the hundreds of millions over the next few years. Objects that were previously stand-alone are being hooked up to the Internet and can talk to other objects. Rooms can act like objects, and objects like rooms. Robots blend interaction, industrial, and service design into new forms. What was once visible can now be invisible, and what was once invisible can now be seen and manipulated.

With all this in mind, it was obvious to me that most products were being made the wrong way. The industrial design was frequently done before the interaction designer and visual designers ever saw the device, so that the device felt slapped together; what's on the screen had nothing to do with the form. There were (and are) a lot of phones, for instance, that were beautiful to hold but frustrating to use on a daily basis. Or maybe the product strategy caused the device to have too many features until it was overburdened with unnecessary functionality and controls. Or maybe the product seemed lifeless and had little personality aside from a list of options. The list went on.

To state the obvious, it's hard to make beautiful products that work as well as they look. Especially in this new world of smart, behavior-filled objects (Product Design 2.0?).

I also knew from looking around the product-design landscape that most companies weren't addressing the new challenges, for the simple reason that they weren't designed for it. Companies are frequently siloed. Hardware and software designers don't talk, and their work is often done in different departments, sometimes in vastly different locations. And design firms often aren't much better. Most design firms specialize in one design discipline: They are great interaction designers, or beautiful form makers, or branding/identity firms. Then they bolt on one or two of the other disciplines, with varying success. It would be better, I thought, to have a design studio that shared the characteristics of the products we were building: cohesive, networked, smart. Where, from the start, the disciplines were all combined and the process would not have different tracks that may or may not come together at some point in production.

Which is why some friends of mine—Jennifer Bove, Tom Maiorana, Jody Medich, and Mike Scully—and I started Kicker, a new product-design studio. We all come from different design disciplines, but we share the vision that products can be designed better, and more efficiently, by having hardware, software, and interface considered together from the start. "If you are serious about your software," says Alan Kay, "you should design your own hardware too."

The best products of this new era will start with a strong product strategy, then design devices from the inside out, focusing on the behavior first, with all three design disciplines—interaction, industrial, and graphic—working together to create more-holistic products that are driven by the behavior they enable, not just mechanics and engineering. We consider the actions that the product needs to support, then make the functionality (the inside) as pleasing to use as the device's look and feel (the outside).

This is not really new thinking, of course. We were surprised to find out the late, great industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss basically said the same thing in 1955 in his seminal book Designing for People: "An honest job of design should flow from the inside out, not from the outside in." (It would be interesting to see what Dreyfuss could do with SolidWorks and a mobile phone.)

Another surprise in setting up the new studio was how wide the gulf really is between industrial design and interaction design. Even though the two disciplines share much philosophically, in general, the two sets of designers for the most part don't really know what the other does. There's a lot of mystery around the industrial design practice, I've found, and very few books to try to debunk it, unlike interaction design, where tons of books and blogs scour over every bit of minutia in the interaction design process. Industrial and interaction designers speak a different language, attend different conferences, read different magazines, obsess about different topics. It's not much better with the visual designers either, with their arguments about type and color, the emotional palette they work with so foreign from the often logical, reasonable world of interaction design.

As it turns out, the blend of the three disciplines is mostly a good thing. We each bring a perspective to the table and a way of thinking and working. We don't complete each other; we refine each other.

Suddenly, making the product the best it can be is everyone's job. We can't blame the industrial designer or the visual designer, because that is us. We have to work around our discipline-specific constraints and emphasize the strengths and cover the flaws of the other.

This is how the best products are made.

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Dan Saffer is a founder and principal at Kicker Studio. He is an international speaker and author of Designing for Interaction (New Riders) and Designing Gestural Interfaces (O'Reilly). He holds several patents for his innovations and his products are used by millions every day. He has a master's in design from Carnegie Mellon University.

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