Dennis Boyle is a gizmo maniac.
Boyle brings eleven digital organizers to our meeting-all devices he has used himself over the years, beginning with the Apple Newton and ending with the Handspring Visor, a digital organizer complete with a camera add-on that Boyle helped to design himself. He gleefully takes my picture with it, entering my likeness into his digital contact list. “It’s handy,” he says, a bit defensively. “Now I can look you up, see the picture, remember who you are.” He and Rickson Sun, who also takes part in our interview, are 20-year veterans at Ideo, the award-winning design organization in Palo Alto, CA. Talking about the future of gizmos gets them energized.
Sun leaps up from his chair and begins to write words on the whiteboard in one of Ideo’s conference rooms: coins, watch, pen, keys, phone, wallet. Under wallet he writes currency, receipts, photos, credit cards.
“Okay, what do we carry today?” he says. “Things that identify us. Things that give us access. Things that let us communicate.” He begins to draw circles grouping some of the words together. “You can already see how some of these things can be combined or replaced.” The things Sun groups together are logically related: a wallet, for example, could be replaced by a digital organizer, with credit cards and receipts and photos stored digitally on the same device. “Keys could go away with biometrics,” Sun adds, referring to technology that can verify an individual’s identity using physical characteristics such as fingerprints. Coins could be replaced by an electronic barter system that automatically keeps track of your funds and offers on-the-spot discounts. Compared with Sun’s groupings, combinations such as phones with FM radios (a concept currently being touted by Nokia) seem downright silly.
On the communications side, Sun assumes that some number of people will inevitably want to fold voice and data communications into a handy package. “Voice and e-mail and instant messaging all serve related needs,” he says. “Giving people access to all of them while still allowing them to get up and walk around is very empowering.”
Right now, though, it’s hard to find all of these functions in one package. The BlackBerry two-way pager from Waterloo, Ontario-based Research in Motion, for example, offers e-mail and instant-messaging services but no voice communications. Cell phones carry voice signals but very limited data. A gaggle of handheld designers are now racing to provide a convenient way to integrate all three functions.
Whatever the designers come up with, Boyle and Sun (like Nielsen) bring up almost immediately how important it is to give people a consistent, predictable outcome-some reaction to an action that will happen every time, without question. Yet from the advent in 1989 of GRiDPad, the first pen-based tablet computer, to Bill Gates’s keynote speech at Comdex last November, there has been a collective conviction among computer companies that handwriting recognition will replace the keyboard. Ideo itself worked on the GRiDPad and many other pen-based devices that were beautifully designed yet utterly inappropriate for sending e-mail messages. Then came the BlackBerry-no bulkier than a remote control for a garage door opener, yet equipped with a curved qwerty keyboard that allows thumb typing at up to 30 words per minute. “No one had ever gotten around how to make the keyboard small enough,” says Boyle, “until someone figured out, okay, if you’re going to be all thumbs with these things, then so be it.” The BlackBerry’s easy-to-use interface has helped make it into a cult item among gearheads-and the new standard for wireless e-mail and paging.
While Ideo missed the thumb keyboard, it does have a record of ferreting out solutions that resolve equally contradictory goals. Take, for instance, Ideo’s concept design for a future laptop computer. As engineers have learned how to squeeze more computing power and longer-lasting batteries into smaller and smaller spaces, Sun and Rickson observe, designers have been able to make laptops lighter and more portable. But this added convenience has often come at the cost of durability, which is why anyone who drops a state-of-the-art laptop on airport linoleum may discover that it’s damaged beyond repair. Ideo’s futuristic concept of the laptop, by contrast, will be both more portable and more durable: a metal tube from which screen and keyboard roll out like window shades.
What other considerations does Ideo take into account when designing a handheld product? One big one is that people value their acquired skills, no matter how ergonomically dysfunctional. This means they want their phones to look like phones. “Whether it’s a good thing or not, some people are used to holding phones with their neck and walking around changing diapers or typing,” says Sun. “It’s a highly evolved skill. You don’t want to take those kinds of things away from people.”
Again, disingenuously straightforward observations. Make things that always do what people expect them to. Build them to make these things easier rather than more complicated. Make them look and feel familiar.
Three simple ideas, but they rule out so much of what is envisioned for our digital future. Like that typing-in-thin-air keyboard. Gone as well are pen-based tablets, no matter how much Bill Gates tells me I want one. I flash on an image of myself at next year’s Comdex, walking past rows of now empty booths, each company’s innovations done in by their inability to provide an answer to one fundamental question: “What do people want?”