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Master of Design

Q&A: Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, describes the interplay between technology and design-a process that, at its best, yields products that change the way people live and work.

IDEO is the design firm renowned for its work on such products as the original Apple mouse, the Palm V and Handspring Treo handheld computers, the Lilly insulin pen, and interactive dressing rooms for Prada New York. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, spoke with Technology Review Deputy Editor Herb Brody about the process and the philosophy that goes behind fitting technological advances to human needs and habits.

TR: How does technology influence design?

BROWN: The way I think of it, technology travels curves. You can think of the steep part of the curve as the technology push stage, when new technology is changing very fast. And what accelerates that curve are issues of usability and accessibility-that is, having to get people to understand what the technology can do and figure out a way to fit it into their lives. Later on, as the technology change curve starts to flatten out, then users need a different way of differentiating the technologies. A good example is the personal computer: technology does not differentiate PCs these days. The only place you get any differentiation is when somebody recognizes a new need that a PC can address. That’s the role of what we call human factors-the fit of technology to individuals and groups of people.

TR: What’s the most exciting area right now for designers to work on?
BROWN: From a technological standpoint, the places where things seem to be changing most rapidly are anything to do with mobile-whether it’s WiFi or 3G or whatever. What’s really hard is integrating those things together. So from a design perspective, one of the challenges is to try to figure out how to create applications and devices that can move seamlessly through these different technologies.

TR: What would you like to be able to do that you can’t do now?
BROWN: I’d want my tablet or my PDA or maybe even my phone to use the best network available wherever it is. So if I’m in my office, I don’t want to be using the cell network, I want to be using WiFi, because I can get ten times the bandwidth that way. But as soon as I walk out of my building, I don’t want to have to say: OK, I’m flipping from one to another. For this to happen, service providers like Verizon would have to say: we’re going to manage your experience, whatever network that you’re on. And that’s not something they do today.

TR: What are the big obstacles from a product design standpoint?
BROWN: If you want to make something that’s mobile that will fit in your pocket, then it can only be so big, which means that it’s got a screen that can only be so big, or a keyboard that can only get so big. Let’s face it, your handheld probably has more computing power than desktops had five years ago. So the design challenges then end up having to do with the constraints on us as human beings.

TR: Do you think this is well understood by wireless product makers?
BROWN: There are too many examples still of people trying to force content and experiences that were really developed for one type of experience through a different kind of interface. It’s not just about the scale of the screen or the size of it, but it’s even the length of time that we’re willing to interact with things. We did some research three or four years ago in Europe where we followed people around who were using mobile devices. One thing we found that was so very different between the mobile world and the fixed line world was that when people use a fixed line they tend to approach doing things in big chunks of time. For instance, if we know we want to do something on the Web, we know we’re going to spend the next 10 or 20 minutes.

TR: And it’s different with mobile devices?
BROWN: Yes, in the mobile world, what people tend to use the mobile devices for is to fit little chunks of things in between everything else they’re doing. So you could walk out of a meeting room and they’ll be checking their e-mail on their BlackBerry, or they’ll be making a quick call when they’re going from one place to another. That tells you a lot about the kinds of interactions that people want to have with mobile devices. They want to be quick. They want to be able to do something that’s just sort of chunked up into small things. So the applications that you design for that, or the experiences that you design, has to be able to do the same thing.

TR: Do you think today’s products neglect this difference?
BROWN: Yes. The idea that people are going to use their mobile devices to do things like watch movies is just wrong.  I think this is as the reason that the Japanese i-Mode has been so successful-its applications are very small. Not small in memory capacity but small in time-that is, where it takes you a few seconds or a minute to go through the whole experience. It leads you to wonder whether you need some of the technological capability that people are focusing so much on. Do you really need to be able to stream megabits of video, for instance?

TR: Are there historical parallels to this phenomenon?
BROWN: Sure-it’s the whole horseless carriage scenario. Early cars looked like carriages, early TVs looked like radios. Every time somebody brings you something that’s new, it looks like the old thing. It’s only the second or third generation before it finally starts to look like the new thing.

TR: Design must involve study of human behavior.
BROWN: Yes, one of the interesting human factors questions about new technology is, how long does it take for social groups to adjust to new technologies? How long, in other words, does the etiquette of new technologies take to evolve?  We’re seeing, both with e-mail and with mobile, two massively influential and powerful technologies that we’ve yet to develop the etiquette around-the social graces that eradicate most of the technology’s objectionable faux pas.

TR: What’s an example of that?
BROWN: Well, think about e-mail. There’s something about e-mail that demands a reply, demands a response. But when you’re getting thousands of these things, it becomes an impossibility to respond to everything. So we’ve got to shift the etiquette, and maybe make e-mail more like publishing: that is, you send something out and you might get one percent response. I think that the paradigm of e-mail as letters, as objects, is inappropriate. I’m waiting for a shift to the timeline, rather than the object, as the organizing principle.  If you think about a blog for instance, that’s a timeline. And it’s a really good way of organizing huge amounts of information, because we’re quite good at sequencing. We’re quite good at remembering when things happen. That has meaning for us. But imagine creating an individual document around every one of those individual blog entries and just having them there on your desktop or in a folder. It would be completely meaningless to you. And that’s how we treat e-mail now. But imagine keeping e-mail a bit more like a blog. Then suddenly, you’ve got instant messaging qualities and e-mail qualities happening at the same time.  So I’m guessing that we’ll start to see that sort of timeline become more and more important. Because I think it’s the way that we as human beings tend to organize massive amounts of data.

TR: What’s wrong with product design nowadays?

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.

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