BROWN: Well, one big problem is feature creep. Companies feel pressured to add features, because they want to put a check mark in every check box in the product review magazines. Home stereos are a perfect example. How many people use one-tenth of the features on their stereo? And, in fact, the most expensive home stereos actually have the fewest features, because those users understand that they actually get in the way of the experience. And so I think what we try and do as designers is use real hard evidence of people in the world to show our clients what things are appropriate and what things aren’t appropriate, and help them have the bravery that they need to be able to resist the temptation. If we didn’t have those check boxes, a lot of features wouldn’t exist. The other classic example is digital watches, where the cost of adding extra features is so low, that you end up with all these features through this incredibly low bandwidth interface that nobody can ever remember. I love my watch, but if it weren’t for the fact that half the instructions are engraved on the back, I would never remember how to change anything on it. And that’s rather sad, really, considering how long we’ve had digital watches.Contrast this to what Jeff Hawkins did with the Palm Pilot. His belief in simplicity was what got Palm edited down to four buttons, and that was ultimately responsible, I think, for its success. It’s not that you can’t do a thousand different things with your Palm Pilot-it’s just that those thousand different things aren’t right at the top level.
TR: How do these examples inform your philosophy of design?
BROWN: The nave view of designing is that it’s purely an additive process, about adding more and more and more. Actually, design is a funnel-shaped thing. It becomes an editing process: What is appropriate? What can be stripped away? So design is a holistic way of thinking. It’s about being able to create the whole of something, and in such a way that somebody who’s using that product, whether for the first time or the tenth time, understands it can interact with it as seamlessly as possible.
TR: What new technologies are influencing design?
BROWN: Materials are affecting design more than they’ve ever done before. There’s just this explosion in materials, whether they’re based on nanotechnology or more conventional technologies. For example, we’re trying to work with people to figure out what we can do with the new, nonwoven versions of aerogel. Now that this stuff is available at last, and it’s no longer something that’s so brittle that it falls to pieces whenever you shake it-what can you do with it? And there are all kinds of things you can imagine doing with the world’s best insulator, which is what this stuff is.
TR: What kind of people do the best design?
BROWN: Well, I can tell you what doesn’t work-and that is to have a whole bunch of people who are deep in their own technical domain but have no interest in engaging with the others. Then you end up with this “siloing” effect, but it’s the joins between different disciplines where all the difficult stuff happens. So you might have a brilliant software engineer, but if he’s not interested in the implications of what he does on the electrical design of a product, then you may end up forcing an electrical design that’s hotter than it needs to be. But if instead, you’ve got software designers who are passionately interested in electrical design and electrical designers who are interested in software design, then they’ve got something to talk about and they’ve got an overlap.
Even more important though, they have to be interested in people and how to serve people. We look for those people. And the good thing is, I think more and more graduating students want to be like that. They actually are not interested in just doing their thing in isolation from everything else. They’re interested in proving their thing has value in the world.