Bill Moggridge has been an industrial designer for 40 years. In 1979, he designed what many call the first laptop computer: the GRiD Compass, which was used by businesspeople as well as by NASA and the U.S. military. The Compass established the language of laptop design: hinged closure, flat display, low-profile keyboard, and metal housing. In 1991, Moggridge cofounded Ideo, a design consultancy based in Palo Alto, CA. He is the founder of a movement known as “interaction design,” which aims to do for the virtual world what industrial design does for the physical. In the recently published book Designing Interactions, he interviews 42 influential designers.
Technology Review: You say that at the beginning of any design, two things matter most: people and prototypes. Why?
Bill Moggridge: What we’re looking for is the latent user needs in a situation where, at least at the beginning, you don’t know what you’re going to be making. So you have to have insights about people driven from their psychology, their desires, their interests, and then apply that to the context where you might be inventing or coming up with a solution for a new product or service or space, or whatever the context may be. Once you’ve got to a first prototype, build it quick and try it out. As soon as possible–even a small attribute of it–try it out, because you’re likely to be wrong.
TR: Do companies get this more now than they did 10 or 15 years ago?
BM: Oh, definitely, yes. The whole idea of design and design thinking is becoming much more recognized as an essential element for success. Industrial design was seen as important in the early years of mass-produced consumer products in the U.S.A. In the 1940s and 1950s, everywhere else that was in an advanced stage of development was suffering from the aftereffects of the Second World War and just trying to put bread on their table, whereas in America, it was a stimulus. And the result was that we had a consumer society in the 1950s. At that time, designers like Raymond Loewy [who designed everything from the Lucky Strike logo to the Studebaker Avanti to the inside of the Saturn V] made a big contribution as innovators. And then the business leaders thought, Okay, it’s cheaper if we build an internal industrial-design department instead of using consultants, but they usually buried it in the R&D department, reporting to midlevel engineering. So American design got lost and only came back relatively recently, in the last 15 years.
TR: How can tech companies better understand the needs of customers?
BM: They should always be looking at what people are doing and why they want things. In my book, David Liddle [a Xerox PARC alumnus and user-interface pioneer] explains that there are three phases of adoption for a piece of technology: enthusiast, professional, and consumer. There comes a point where an industry realizes that the enthusiast phase could be applied for work. And then they start designing products which make us more productive. We’re actually quite willing to learn something that’s difficult to use and not very enjoyable if it makes us more productive. Then, finally, that technology becomes less expensive and more obviously applicable to our daily lives, and then people realize, Well, there could be a consumer product. And then suddenly, it’s completely essential for success that the thing is enjoyable to use and easy to learn. It fails unless it is.